Oh, sherry! 

It's gotta be fresh and young

Chances are you've got a bottle of sherry stashed somewhere in your kitchen. You know the one: You bought it two years ago, used some in a recipe and left the rest to rot in the back of the cupboard. Perhaps you've been wondering what to do with it. Here's a hint: Take it out of the cupboard, pour the contents down the sink and recycle the bottle.

I'm not saying your sherry sucks, I'm saying it's too old. Sherry doesn't improve with age; it tastes best while it's fresh and young. If this surprises you, you're not alone. To most Americans, sherry is a mysterious sweet beverage sipped only by stuffy ascot-wearing Brits. If you share this tragic opinion, it's time for a sherry primer.

To put it simply, sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes (usually Palomino Fino). The wine gets its name from the historical English pronunciation of "Jerez," the town in Southern Spain where sherry originates. The region is known for its chalky soil, scorching weather and lack of rainfall, which help give sherry its special characteristics.

There are three main styles of sherry, ranging from bone dry to super sweet. Pale fino sherry is the lightest and driest type. Amontillado sherries are more full-bodied, and may have a touch of sweetness. The richest sherries are the olorosos, which can be blended with sweet grapes to make cream sherry.

Sherries are made the same way as regular table wines, until their fermentation process is complete.

After fermentation, sherry wines are fortified with grape-based spirits such as brandy and left in casks. While they're maturing, a yeast called "flor" develops on the wines' surface, which helps prevent oxidation. The thickness of the flor determines the style of sherry each cask will produce. The thicker the flor, the drier the sherry will be.

Next the sherry is added to a solera for blending. In a traditional solera system, several rows of small oak barrels are stacked on top of each other, with the oldest wines on the bottom. When it's time to bottle, about a third of each barrel on the bottom row is removed. The winemaker then replaces the missing wine with sherry from the row immediately above it. This process continues until a complete transfer is made from top to bottom. In this way, consistent character and quality can be achieved from year to year.

Now that you know how sherry is made, it's important to know how to drink it. Here's how to get the most out of your sherry:

  • Drink it as soon as possible after opening (within a week for finos; four to eight weeks for everything else).

  • Serve finos cold. Serve amontillados and olorosos at just below room temperature.

  • Sherry is OK by itself, but it's even better with food. Fino is great with tapas, seafood and soups. Amontillado goes well with spicy foods, nuts and desserts. Serve sweet sherries with rich desserts.

  • Recork the bottle immediately after serving to preserve the wine's freshness, and store it upright in the refrigerator.

    To showcase sherry's style differences, I tasted three varieties from the same producer (priced $12-$15).

    Sandeman Don Fino : This pale sherry has a pleasant, sweet smell but tastes bone dry. Sip it with almonds and salty cheeses like Manchego.

    Sandeman Character Sherry (Amontillado) : Richer than the fino, this has a nutty smell with yummy caramel and orange accents. It's smooth, slightly sweet and refreshing.

    Sandeman Armada Rich Cream Sherry : The sweetest of the trio, like an intensified version of the Character sherry. If you like port, you'll dig this.

    Tina Caputo is a San Francisco-based wino who supports her nasty habit by writing for wine publications. Comments? E-mail corkscrew@creativeloafing.com.

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