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10 best sherries: From dry to sweet, these drinks are so much more than a Christmas tipple

The Spanish booze is making a comeback

Terry Kirby
Monday 13 December 2021 15:13
<p>Not sure on the difference between manzanilla and oloroso?</p>

Not sure on the difference between manzanilla and oloroso?

Sherry, one of our nation’s favourite festive tipples, is one of the most fascinating of all wine styles. It can truly be deemed unique in that it can only be labelled as such if it is made in a certain place – in this case in the Jerez region of southern Spain, close to the port of Cadiz.

But that’s not the only quality that makes it so distinctive. While versions of champagne and port are made all over the world – although they cannot call themselves that – sherry isn’t really made anywhere else.

Sherry wines also run the gamut from very dry to very sweet, but are made almost entirely from two grapes – palomino for the drier style (which runs from fino to palo cotardo) and pedro ximenez or PX for sweeter wines.

Another unique aspect of sherry is that the grape juice is mostly aged under a type of yeast, called “flor”, to give it the distinctive, oxidised flavour. Like port, it is fortified with clear grape spirit after fermentation, but then most are aged using the “solera” barrel system, whereby younger wines are used to top up older ones; the finished wine can therefore be a complex fractional mixture of ages, which can stretch back decades.

Despite these highly distinctive qualities, sherry is also a remarkably well-priced wine for everyday drinking, and if you pay around £20 or above, you will get a variety of considerable sophistication and complexity.

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Brits have been drinking sherry – or sack, as it was sometimes known  – since Elizabethan times, when London was awash with it after Sir Francis Drake looted Cadiz.

And sherry became, of course, indelibly associated with Christmas, whether it is an affection for a glass of sweet “cream sherry” – very much a British version of the real thing – or the classic sherry trifle.

But new aficionados know to drink bone-dry sherries, such as a fino or manzanilla, as you might drink a white wine. Richer, dry sherries, meanwhile, are perfect after-dinner sippers, and can also be great with charcuterie and game as well as hard cheeses.

One more unique thing: the ultra-sweet PX version is the only wine you can pour over vanilla ice cream as a sauce. Try it – and explore other sherries – and you might find yourself hooked.

How we tested

Sherry is an incredibly food-friendly wine, suitable as an aperitif with canapés or throughout a meal, whether it’s a festive one or not. These wines were therefore tasted with appropriate foods – from salty canapés and shellfish starters with dry varieties, to puddings and ice creams with the sweeter kinds.

The best sherries for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Gonzalez Byass del duque amontillado VORS, 37.5cl: £22.95, Thewhiskyexchange.com
  • Best bargain buy – M&S manzanilla sherry, 75cl: £6.80, Ocado.com
  • Best manzanilla – Bodegas Hidalgo la gitana manzanilla, 75cl: £9.69, Waitrose.com
  • Best fino – Tio Pepe palomino fino, 75cl: £9, Sainsburys.co.uk
  • Best ‘cream’ sherry – Lustau east India solera sherry, 50cl: £11.99, Waitrose.com
  • Best for tapas – Barbadillo fino, 75cl: £8.49, Ocado.com
  • Best ‘en rama’ – Tio Pepe fino 'en rama', 75cl: £14.95, Thewinesociety.com
  • Best oloroso – Bodegas Gutiérrez colosia oloroso, 75cl: £20, Hometipple.com
  • Best pedro ximenez – Valdespino el candado 75cl: £19.24, Thedrinkshop.com
  • Best palo cortado – Bodegas Hidalgo palo cortado wellington VOS, 50cl: £25.75, Farehamwinecellar.co.uk

Gonzalez Byass del duque amontillado VORS, 37.5cl

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

An aged amontillado made with wines up to 30 years old. It’s amazingly complex and very dry, with intense layers of flavours of spices and dried fruits and a finish to savour that goes on forever; think of it as a very dry tawny port. It’s fantastic with hard cheeses like aged cheddar or manchego or with fruit puddings and Christmassy desserts.

M&S manzanilla sherry, 75cl

Best: Bargain buy

Rating: 9/10

This very mundane label disguises the fact this is one of the best wine bargains on supermarket shelves and is made for M&S by one of the best names in sherry, Williams and Humbert. Light, fragrant, lemony, slightly salty and a perfect aperitif, serve it well chilled, with nuts, olives or some anchovies and crusty bread. While its in-store shelf price is a bargain at M&S, it is also currently discounted at Ocado, which makes for an absolute steal.

Bodegas Hidalgo la gitana manzanilla, 75cl

Best: Manzanilla

Rating: 9/10

If sherry is a unique wine, then manzanilla is a unique type of sherry. Manzanilla is a very dry style of fino that comes only from the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda and derives its distinctive lemony, saline tang from the sea air that invades the barrels in which the grapes ferment under the layer of flor. Crisp and fresh, it is a brilliant aperitif and perfect with any fishy tapas.

Tio Pepe palomino fino, 75cl

Best: Fino

Rating: 8/10

Widely available in most good supermarkets, this drink’s very ubiquity makes it an overlooked gem that delivers considerable value for money. It is the perfect refreshing aperitif with nibbles or canapés and can happily be drunk with shellfish, such as a plate of clams or oysters. Bone dry, with flavours of lemons and nuts, treat it like a strong white wine and drink well chilled.

Lustau east India solera sherry, 50cl

Best: “Cream” sherry

Rating: 8/10

Created by British sherry importers Harvey’s in the late 19th century by blending dry sherries with much sweeter PX; “cream” sherry became massively popular and is still the biggest selling sherry in the United States. This version is named after the tradition of maturing wines in the holds of ships, and is made from 80pc oloroso, an off dry sherry, and 20pc PX, aged in the warmest part of the bodega. Sweetly nutty, warming, luscious and definitely the one to drink with your Christmas trifle.

Barbadillo fino, 75cl

Best: For tapas

Rating: 9/10

While all finos and manzanillas are great aperitifs and perfect with nibbles like olives and nuts, to match up to a variety of tapas, a wine needs to have a little more body and heft, such as this excellent aged fino from a legendary producer. Serve in a large wine glass, well chilled, and it’ll be a fabulous partner to chilli prawns, serrano ham or meatballs.

Tio Pepe fino ‘en rama’, 75cl

Best: “En rama”

Rating: 8/10

While sherry has been around for many centuries, the “en rama” style only came into being about 10 years ago  – it is a young fino bottled only in April when the “flor” is at its thickest, and is released very quickly afterwards. It is therefore often cloudy and unfiltered, and meant to be drunk as soon as possible – certainly within a year of release – to be best enjoy the intense, yeasty flavours (for this bottle, that’ll be before March 2022).

Bodegas Gutiérrez colosia oloroso, 75cl

Best: Oloroso

Rating: 8/10

Oloroso is a deeper and richer version of amontillado – from a riverside bodega in the town of Puerto de Santa Maria that provides just the right level of humidity for ageing. This has amazing flavours of marzipan, dried fruits, hazelnuts and some dried orange peel. It’s also very dry, but rich on the finish, with just a hint of lusciousness. This is an incredibly versatile bottle and it will work well with plenty of foods, from salty fish to blue or hard cheeses, as well as Christmas pudding or Christmas cake. 

Valdespino el candado, 75cl

Best: Pedro ximenez

Rating: 7/10

From one of the oldest sherry producers, pedro ximenez or PX grapes are sun dried to produce the most astonishing, viscous, intense, almost black wines with very sweet flavours of dried figs, apricots and raisins. Aged for around 10 years, PX is one of the very few wines compatible with chocolate-based desserts – try it with your yule log – while also being unmatchable just poured over good vanilla ice cream.

Bodegas Hidalgo palo cortado wellington VOS, 50cl

Best: Palo cortado

Rating: 8/10

Palo cortado is the rarest style of sherry – somewhere between an oloroso and an amontillado – and is made from wines that lose their flor in the early stages of maturing. Aged for a minimum of 20 years and from one of the best producers, a complex, full-bodied, nutty and dried fruit richness prevails here, undercut with a citrus freshness and a firm dry finish. Wonderfully distinctive.

The verdict: Sherries

Because of the season, it’s the more concentrated style of sherry that we have chosen our best buy. The fabulous Gonzalez Byass del duque amontillado VORS delivers unforgettable flavours in the glass and will grace anyone’s Christmas table, or fireside, perfectly.

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