One of my favorite stories that my mom (aka Special Kaye) tells is when she and her friends, back in the early 70s, would get together for Sherry. Sounds so sophisticated, for a bunch of suburban moms back then, right – sipping tiny glasses of Sherry, exchanging opinions about the news of the day? Except she would explain that instead of drinking small wine glasses of Sherry, her friend Sandy would fill huge tumblers with sweet Sherry like Dubonnet or Dry Sack – over ice, as if it were iced tea or lemonade! And they would dish about the neighbors.
Sherry is kind of mesmerizing and confusing at once. Most people are not even sure what it is: Is it a wine? A spirit? Is it sweet? Is it like Port? Or is it dry? When do you drink it? How do you drink it? Do you have food with it? What kind of food? The confusion goes on and on!
So when I was offered samples from the Gonzalez Byass portfolio, I got excited. And you know what else I got excited about? The challenge of pairing Sherry with Halloween candy! Now, I’ve been around the block with the whole wine-and-candy thing (see the infamous Easter Peeps and Wine episode of “Name That Wine”), but I had never done it with Sherry.
First off, I knew I could not do this alone. I needed a Sherry expert. I mean, yes, I passed the Certified Specialist of Wine exam with an 87, but that does make me a Sherry expert. There was one person I had to go make friends with: Jess Killmer, aka The Sherry Slinger, or as I call her, the Sherry Siren of Chicago. We got together at Birch Road Cellar one chilly afternoon with four bottles of Sherry, a big bag of Halloween candy (thank you, Gonzalez Byass and Donna White) and our Sherry books and we dug into this punishingly rigorous tasting exercise of tasting Sherry and eating candy. Jess became obsessed with Sherry in 2014, while working at Bom bolla, a Spanish Sherry bar in Chicago (sadly, now closed). She studied, she traveled, she tasted and she is an absolute Sherry encyclopedia – and a whole lot of fun!
First: Seven Sherry Basics
- Sherry is wine. Fortified wine, to be exact. All Sherry starts out as a dry wine and can be sweetened during the production process.
- Sherry is fortified by adding grape spirit (brandy). Alcohol levels for Sherry range between 15 and 18 percent ABV.
- Sherry is made exclusively in Spain, specifically in the “Sherry Triangle,” defined by three towns: Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María – in the far south/southwest corner of Spain
- There are three grapes allowed in Sherry: Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximénez ((known as “PX” amongst the cool kids) and Moscatel.
- Sherry comes in many different styles, from bone-dry fino and manzanilla Sherry to dry and bold oloroso Sherry to the sweeter styles of pedro ximenez and muscatel – and of course, pale cream sherry. To add to the confusion – but also the delight – there also are “hybrid” Sherries like Amontillado and Palo Cortado.
- Sherry is matured in a complex series of barrels called a Solera. Imagine a tower of barrels stacked horizontally on top of one another. The barrels on the bottom level contain the oldest wine and the higher up you go, barrels contain younger wine. In the Solera system, young wine is progressively mixed with a series of older – and more complex wines, so most Sherry is non-vintage, i.e. a careful concoction of Sherries of many different ages.
- Sherry should always be served well-chilled in a white wine glass, or stemless wine glass.
And this, my friends, is where you can really go off the rails and down a deep rabbit hole, getting into things like flor (a layer of yeast that covers the surface of the wine while it is aging or maturing), blending preferences, and more. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, just read the book Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret by Talia Baiocchi – it’s brilliant, fun to read and has lots of cool cocktail recipes.
To the tasting!
Tio Pepe Palomino Fino Sherry ($20) While this is most definitely not a candy-friendly Sherry, I’m telling you about it because it is a delicious starter wine for your Sherry savoring! It is bone-dry – like – freaking Sahara Desert-dry – and at first I didn’t like it, but you know what? It grew on me and I really, really like it. Because you know what? It’s a food wine – think salty ham, Manchego cheese, olives – hell, cheap Kraft cheddar if that’s all you’ve got, would work. It is reminiscent of a Vermouth in its character, with a bright and briny kick. Would go exceedingly well with shellfish or other seafood (like those little shrimp you get in Spain that are sautéed in garlic and butter … mmmm). It is 100 percent Palomino Fino and aged an average of four to five years. (We had it with Afghan food of all things and it was fantastic.)
Gonzalez Byass Alfonso Oloroso Sherry ($25) Holy Sherry Triangle, this is deeeelicious! It is 100 percent Palomino Fino, aged an average of eight years. There’s really only one candy that you want with this: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Come ON! The Sherry is on the dry side – – not nearly as arid as the Tio Pepe but with a little round sweetness. It is super nutty with some subtle spices and faint vanilla. Jess and I kept going back for second and thirds on this one with the Reese’s. And Nick Africano, Sherry expert and founder of En Rama, thinks so, too, according to info I received.
Harvey’s Bristol Cream ($20) Yep – it’s baaa-ack! Remember this brand? From, like, the 70s, or something? It’s got a modern new look and it’s delicious. It is sweet, and it is delicious with Peanut Butter M&Ms. The wine is made from 80 percent Palomino and 20 percent Pedro Ximenez grapes and it’s kind of bright and fruity, fresh and rich at the same time. You’re totally going to get some raisiny action on this wine, backed up with a little river of caramel.
And to save you any disappointment, here are some candy pairings that just didn’t work: 100 Grand Bar – not even another 100 grand would make it work. Whoppers – nope. Milk Duds – a total “dud.” Kit Kat – gimme a break – not good. It was the nuttiness that made the magic – and yes, Reese’s totally works with Harvey’s Bristol Cream, too.
Gonzalez Byass Nectar Pedro Ximenez Sherry ($25) Whoa, whoa, whoa …hang on to your cavities, this one is SWEET! It’s 100 percent Pedro Ximenez and aged an average of eight years. It is dripping with sweet raisins and dates and the pairing ideas are almost endless: chocolate cake, sticky toffee pudding, maybe even pecan pie. What didn’t work: Butterfinger (a little clumsy), Baby Ruth was ok. It was the Hershey’s plain chocolate bar that was the best. The whole time we were tasting, we were like, “Where are the fucking Raisinettes? This wine wants Raisinettes!” But alas, we could not find any.
You know what also worked? PANCAKES! Yep, I did it – I poured it on buttered pancakes (you gotta have the butter, to cut through the sweetness) and it was freaking amazing! Brings a new meaning to Sunday Funday – a short stack with Pedro Ximenez Sherry! Try it! (This idea was inspired when Jess explained that this wine is twice as sweet at Aunt Jemima pancake syrup.) We also agreed it would be good with really rich, ripe, strong cheeses – like maybe a decadent, ripe Camembert.
And there you have it! Pick up some Sherry this weekend, because you know you’re going to have left-over Halloween candy … or pancakes! Thank you, Jess, for riding the Sherry train with me – you are an awesome teacher and tasting partner! And thank you Gonzalez-Byass for the delicious samples and the inspiration!