Whether we’re drinking champagne, vermouth or farmhouse cider, it is considered more sophisticated to profess a preference for all things dry, even if we secretly prefer the sweeter version.
Fino sherry is the essence of dryness, as dry as the chalky white albariza soil on which the grapes grow, and therefore the liquid embodiment of sophistication. Wine writers fawn over fino. Yet, with its trademark salty, yeasty tang and sourdough aromas, fino moves beyond merely dry, becoming that rarest of things, a savoury wine.
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Types of sherry
‘Proper’ sherry ranges from searingly dry, through very dry, to dry. The principal styles are manzanilla and fino (the lightest and driest), amontillado and palo cortado (a bit nuttier) and oloroso (darker and richer, but still dry, obviously).
Even if they smell sweet, they taste dry. You get the picture. ‘Improper’ sherries, as far as the palate police are concerned, include sweetened amontillado and oloroso (dismissed as ‘commercial’), and cream sherries, dry or sweet, made by blending ‘proper’ sherries together.
They are anathema to ‘proper’ sherry aficionados, who would suggest they are best served in trifle – while neglecting to mention that they account for about two-thirds of all sherry sold in the UK.
Generally speaking, sweet cream sherries are the ones that emerge, blinking into the light, from the back of the drinks cupboard at Christmas to be sipped, tepid, from thimble-sized glasses by Hinge and Bracket.
This is a million miles from super-dry fino and manzanilla, quaffed fresh and chilled, straight from the fridge, in proper wine glasses by urban sophisticates in black polo-neck sweaters, tapping their feet to modern jazz, probably. It is no accident that Frasier Crane’s favourite wine is sherry.
The taste of fino
The flavour of fino sherry is described as rancio, which means rancid, but in a nice way. It’s an acquired taste, a ‘Marmite’ wine that, uniquely, has hints of actual Marmite (other yeast-extracts are available).
Fino has a reputation as the thinking-man’s tipple, engaging the tasting faculties and rewarding contemplation. Freemasons have their secret handshake; wine buffs have sherry to sort the initiated from the rest.
Sherry’s secret weapon, the thing that gives it its unique range of floral and rancio flavours, is a fine porridge-like layer of yeast, called flor, that forms on the surface while the wine is in barrel.
It protects the maturing wine from the oxidative effects of air contact, preserving a remarkable freshness.
Fino and manzanilla are covered with flor for the longest period, making them the palest, freshest sherries. Freshness is key to their enjoyment, which is why they should be stored in the fridge and drunk within a week of opening, facilitated by the half-bottle format.
Manzanilla is said to be the lighter, fresher and saltier of the two because it develops a thicker flor, thanks to the cooler, more humid, coastal conditions of Sanlucar de Barrameda where it matures.
Fino, from the baking heat of landlocked Jerez de la Frontera, is generally more robust.
What to serve with sherry
The original sharpeners, fino and manzanilla are vibrant, vivacious and invigorating; perfect as aperitifs, served with salted nuts or stuffed olives, or as summertime brain-rinsers.
Drink them with gazpacho, warm chorizo and garlic prawns (all tapas, really), oily fish like mackerel and sardines, sushi, fish and chips or a nice kipper.
Or do as the Andalusians do at fiestas and mix your fino or manzanilla half-and-half with lemonade and ice. It’s called a rebujito and it’s more about fun than sophistication.
Back in the UK, no other wine offers such complexity for less than a tenner. ‘Proper’ sherry remains a niche interest, yet this is precisely why it is still absurdly good value for money. And this is the wine writer’s dilemma: risking rising prices by spreading the word.
Apparently, in season six, episode nine, Frasier is seen decanting a distinctive blue bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream. Either the show’s producers think all sherries are the same, or Frasier actually likes cream sherry. Both are unthinkable.
Tio Pepe Fino
Tio Pepe (aka Uncle Joe) is the world’s best-selling fino for good reason. Fresh, full-flavoured, dry and quaffable (15% alcohol) £9.99 (75cl), widely available.
La Gitana Manzanilla
La Gitana Manzanilla is the lightest and driest sherry in this selection. Pale, crisp and delicate with a twist of citrus (15%) £7.99 (50cl), Majestic, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose
Lustau Dry Old Amontillado
Sepia brown with a floral, dried-fruit nose. Dry and spicy on the palate (18.5%) £7.49 (37.5cl), Marks and Spencer
Lustau Manzanilla Pasada NV
Pale gold with baked bread aromas and a dry, salty tang on the palate (17%) £7.49 (37.5cl), Marks and Spencer
London sherry bars
Capote y Toros, 157 Old Brompton Road, SW5 0LJ (020 7373 0567)
José, 104 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3UB
Bar Pepito, 3 Varnishers Yard, N1 9DF (020 7841 7331)