I'm going to simplify Sherry for you.
Or at least, I'm going to explain how simple it now seems to me. I was seeing it all wrong.
You see, I was worrying about the classifications and the ages and which ones had flor on them and when the flor died and how many different barrels the wine had been in and…blah blah blah.
Here's how they drink Sherry in Jerez, where it's from:
"A glass of Manzanilla. Por favor."
It's how they drink northern Rhône wines in the northern Rhône: "A glass of St. Joseph, s'il vous plait." It's also true about bistros in Burgundy and all over Italy.
Granted, Burgundy fans get very specific about their favorite wines. But they become Burgundy fans because somebody pours them a glass they like. Most people's first Burgundy is just "Burgundy."
Sherry is the New York wine writers’ darling, but ordinary people don't drink it, despite dozens of fawning columns written about it over the last few years. You couldn't ask for better press exposure, and yet bartenders will tell you that the only people who actually order and pay for Sherry are people in the wine business in one way or another: Sommeliers, writers, importers.
Before writing this, I went back to read a few columns on Sherry. Imagine trying to explain all the complexities of Burgundy in 700 words.
Now, imagine that the only Burgundy you ever tried had been open for a week at room temperature.
This is part of Sherry's problem. People think it's fortified, so it will last indefinitely, like Madeira. Simply not true, and for the most likable Sherries, not even close to being true.
If you want to learn what all the wine-geek fuss is about, without spending a fortune, do the following:
1. Buy a bottle of Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, as fresh off the boat as you can find it. A half-bottle is best. This shouldn't cost a lot of money, and in fact you're better off with a cheaper one for which the stock rotates faster. Tio Pepe Fino Sherry is great, about as good a Fino as you're going to find, widely available, and a 375 ml costs less than $10.
2. Put that bottle in the refrigerator and get it good and cold. Not cellar temperature -- really cold, like on-ice cold.
3. Crack that sucker open and pour yourself a glass.
4. Have any kind of salty snack you like with it. The Spanish like toasted almonds. Fried foods are outstanding with Fino Sherry. Shellfish. Potato chips. Pretzels. Ham. Hard cheese, particularly dry sheep's milk cheese. But don't over-think it.
5. Have another glass. Give your spouse and/or friends a glass.
6. Finish that bottle. Tonight.
This method fixes several of the principal problems for people who don't drink Sherry every day.
First, you don't have to worry about the difference between Oloroso and Amontillado and Palo Cortado. If you later decide you care about that stuff, you can look it up.
I spent a week in Jerez drinking Sherry in Sherry bars and never saw anyone drink anything but Fino or Manzanilla. Those are the light, lively, refreshing Sherries; the Sherries that you have with tapas; the Sherries that you don't have to learn to like because they’re so naturally enjoyable. They're also the cheapest Sherries.
I know this is heresy for a wine geek, but I just don't like Oloroso Sherry. It's heavy, smells like furniture polish, doesn't go with many foods, and is the end of an evening of drinking, not the beginning. It's also the most expensive Sherry and generally the highest-rated. And because of that, if you order it in a restaurant, it's the most likely to have been open the longest.
Next unrecognized problem with Sherry: It doesn't last anywhere near as long as people think. You should really drink a bottle of Manzanilla the night you open it. Fino might last 2-3 days, but don't let people tell you it will last a week. It will last a week like Chardonnay will last a week: You can still drink it, but it's not the same experience.
The darker, heavier styles of Sherry will last longer opened, several weeks, assuming they're refrigerated, which they often aren't. They won't last several months.
Even unopened, Sherry has a shorter shelf life than you think. Similar to sake, Finos and Manzanillas really won't be at their best for more than about a year from release. When you consider how long they spend getting to your local wine shop, this is why I recommend buying the most popular brands, unless you see the Sherry freshly arriving.
And you really can't drink Fino and Manzanilla too cold. Sherry is high in alcohol and has a snap of bitterness on the finish. Cold suppresses both of those qualities. The bitterness is part of why it's food-friendly, but a little goes a long way. I've never had a glass of Sherry in the US served as cold as they serve it in Jerez.
So that's it. If you think you don't like Sherry, follow this simple program and try it again. If you don't like it, you're only out $8. But if you do ... well, then you can start reading those more complicated stories.
My work here is done.