Why You Should Be Drinking More Sherry, and 10 Bottles to Start With

There's a sherry for every kind of drinker.

A bottle of sherry and glasses of sherry

Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

It might have been after tasting the 40th barrel, or the 50th, or possibly the 60th, when I began to say to myself, “Good god, this is a lot of sherry.” I was in Jerez, Spain, with Antonio Flores, the longtime winemaker and master blender at González Byass, itself one of the great names in sherry. Along with us was his daughter (and associate winemaker) Silvia Flores, as well as Pedro Rebuelta, the fifth-generation vice chairman of the company. We were deep among the towering stacks of barrels in one of the bodega’s many vast, silent cellars. Flores plunged his venencia — essentially a small, tubular metal cup on the end of a whiplike, flexible handle — deep into the next barrel, pulled it out, and, with a flourish, poured me another taste, spilling not one drop. “What do you think?” he asked.

What I thought was, ouch, do we really have another 40 barrels to go? But of the wine itself, what I thought was that it was terrific: savory, salty, complex, a masterful fino sherry. “Very, very good. Wow.” Flores tasted, then nodded, agreeing. “This one, definitely yes,” I said. Silvia Flores made a note in the record she was keeping, and we moved on down the row.

We were making the preliminary selection for González Byass’ annual release of its four Las Palmas sherries. The name is a nod to the historic way of marking exceptional sherry butts (130- gallon barrels): a chalk mark on the head of the barrel, one stroke down, and then either one, two, three, or four strokes to the right, suggesting the leaves of a palm tree. The town of Jerez is filled with palms—palmas sherries, not so much; very few make the cut.

A sherry tasting

Barmalini / Getty Images

We were tasting through 100 barrels of sherry to make our initial selection. Later in the day, we would sit down in a quiet, well-lit tasting room and reduce that number even further. From 10 six-year-old possibilities, three barrels would go into the Una Palma bottling; from a mere three barrels of 50-plus-year-old sherry, only one would go into the ultra-rare Cuatro Palmas. But for the moment, we were in one of the dimly lit, cathedral-like cellars at Byass, the dirt floor under our feet damp to keep the aging sherries at optimal humidity.

Sherry is one of the great wines of the world, but for many people, it’s an afterthought. Partly, that’s an image issue. Queen Elizabeth II honestly did a service to sherry by preferring to drink Dubonnet and gin (an odd choice if ever there was one) because the idea of the elderly English lady tippling her sherry needs to be retired, stat. It’s a cliché. The other problem with sherry is more intrinsic to the drink itself: The stuff is pretty complicated.

Sherry can be dry or sweet, super-fresh or aged for decades, salty as a sea breeze or rich and nutty; the variations go on and on. But, very generally, there are two primary kinds: biologically aged sherries and oxidatively aged ones. Biologically aged sherries — finos and manzanillas — develop a layer of yeast called flor on the surface of the wine in the barrel. It looks sort of like ivory-colored cotton batting, anywhere from a thin film to a half-inch layer, and it’s what gives those sherries their distinctive, savory, pungent, briny, refreshing character. Antonio Flores says, “Because of the flor, every cask is its own ecosystem — every child is different.” The yeast changes to fit the environment, he says. “Like a human being, it breathes, it eats, and it reproduces. But it’s a single-cell being.” Typical finos and manzanillas, like González Byass’ ubiquitous (but quite good) Tío Pepe, are aged for about four years under flor. The wines we were tasting were older, more complex, deeper, and stronger in all those savory characteristics the yeast brings. (For the best finos and manzanillas to try, see below.)

Eventually, though, like all living things, the yeast dies out. After that, a sherry ages oxidatively—the more familiar kind of aging that brings nut and leather and caramel notes, turning them a burnished copper hue. Amontillados are made this way; the darker and richer olorosos are typically made by fortifying the wine early (which kills the yeast layer), giving them much more time to age by way of oxygen contact. Then there are PXs, made from the Pedro Ximénez grape. I’ve tried now for two decades to like them, but they’re just too damn sweet for me. (I admit to my failings. I don’t like candied dates, either.)

There’s also a category of fino and manzanilla sherries known as en rama. These are unfiltered and unstabilized — true expressions of sherry straight from the barrel. Byass releases a Tío Pepe En Rama sherry every year, which is like a wilder, East Village version of its uptown uncle; the Las Palmas sherries we were selecting would be the very best from barrels normally used for the En Rama release (though for the Tres Palmas and Cuatro Palmas, the wines would be much, much older). In a way, these wines are a glimpse into the unguarded soul of sherry.

We tasted and moved on, tasted and moved on. At one point, I noticed a very tiny ladder on the ground, placed next to a single small glass of sherry. “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh, that was for the mouse,” Silvia Flores said nonchalantly. “He liked sherry. He was quite famous, actually — you can find a video on YouTube of him.” Of course. But since no one else seemed to find this the least bit strange, we tasted, and moved on.

5 Great Fino Sherries to Try

Bottles of sherry

Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Valdespino Inocente ($24)

This always-reliable fino offers light, bready flor aromas and tangy, crisp flavors. It’s a great introduction to fino sherry, ideal with a plate of jamón Ibérico and some marcona almonds.

El Maestro Sierra ($20 for 375 ml.)

El Maestro Sierra started as an almacenista (a small sherry producer that would age wines and then sell them to the major bodegas). Today, they market their own wines, like this gold-hued fino. It’s powerful and austere (in a good way), with distinct notes of blanched nuts.

Lustau Almacenista José Luis González Obregón Fino del Puerto ($24)

Bodegas Lustau makes exceptional sherries, both its own and in its line of almacenista bottlings; this nutty fino is from a micro-bodega in El Puerto de Santa María that serves as the family’s excellent old-school wine bar.

Hidalgo la Panesa Especial ($80)

This 14-karat-gold-hued fino comes from a very small selection of the top barrels located in the Hidalgo bodega and is aged for 15 years under flor, far longer than usual. It’s full-bodied, rich, and impressively complex, with a lasting salty-umami note.

González Byass Tío Pepe Una Palma ($65)

The 2022 release of this aged, limited fino sherry is salty and vividly fresh. If you’re interested in the heights of complexity that fino can reach, seek it out. But you can’t go wrong with Tío Pepe ($20), either, the bodega’s classic, widely available fino bottling.

5 Great Manzanilla Sherries to Try

Manzanillas, which usually have a saltier, more coastal tang than finos, traditionally come from the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Bottles of sherry

Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

La Guita ($15)

This creamy manzanilla is a go-to bottling, with its modest astringency, distinct saltiness, and faint, appealing hint of bitterness.

La Cigarrera ($16 for 375 ml.)

Super fresh, with a kind of straw-over-stones character (OK, but taste it—it’s true), this is manzanilla in a dry, light style that’s very refreshing.

Barbadillo Solear ($17)

This old-school manzanilla sherry from a family-owned bodega has a savory yeast-flor character, with hints of citrus rind. One taste will transport you right to the seaside in Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Fernando de Castilla ($13 for 375 ml.)

Boutique producer Fernando de Castilla specializes in top-quality, unblended, unmodified sherries, among them this beautiful, almond-and-fresh-bread-scented, brightly tart bottling.

Bodegas Barón Xixarito Manzanilla Pasada en Rama ($28)

Super savory and salty, with a note of fresh leather, yet gentle on the palate, this is a thrillingly distinctive sherry. Manzanilla pasadas are aged for an extended period of time, around a decade for this wine.

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