Southwest Spain in a Bottle

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Stop being afraid of sherry and embrace it!

About five or six years ago, it was on the menu of every high-end restaurant in the city. The now defunct Chanterelle actually had a tasting menu that paired seven courses with seven different types. Sherry-Lehmann had an entire section devoted to them exclusively.

People who had always made fun of and ridiculed the stuff were suddenly fair-weather converts, praising its unique qualities and gulping it by the bottle. And now, it is once again difficult to find anyone anywhere who has a serious enthusiasm for it.

I am referring to the often misunderstood star of the southern Spanish wine world: sherry. Once one of the most drunk beverages in the world, this shy little quaffer is now exiled to the back of most liquor stores, often displaying a generous coating of dust. Then, when someone actually buys that ancient bottle of fino and tries it at home (probably at room temperature), they end up throwing it out, declaring, "I'll never understand how anyone can drink this!"

To understand why someone might drink it, it's best to understand how it is made. Unlike port, which many people place in the same category as sherry, this product is not all that sturdy. Port was designed for travel. High alcohol and high sugar make it a durable commodity. Many sherries are very delicate.

All sherry must come from one of three small towns in the southwestern area of Spain: Jeres de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda or El Puerto de Santa María. Back in the day, wine was stored in barrels that were turned on their sides and stacked on top of each other, three or four rows high. Two-thirds of the wine was taken from the bottom barrel and bottled, then the remainder was filled from the row above. This was repeated until the top row of barrels was refilled with the new wine from that year. This was called the solera system and is still used to this day. Because of this, there are no vintages of sherry. It is all multi-vintage.

But the solera system is only half of what made sherry unique. Sherries themselves were radically different depending on what city they were from and even which part of those cities the wine was made in. This was all because of humidity and yeast. In the towns that were more humid and closer to the ocean (Sanlúcar de Barrameda, in particular), the yeasts would "bloom" and form a skin on top of the wine in the barrel. This would keep the wine from being exposed to oxygen and thus make a lighter, crisper, drier wine. It was also a much more fragile wine, because as soon as it was exposed to the elements, it would begin to deteriorate. These dry sherries were given the classification "fino," and the driest of the finos was called manzanilla.

These, like the "La Guita" Manzanilla ($7.99 at 67 Wine, 179 Columbus Ave., at 68th St., 212-724-6767) with sea air and raw almond flavors, must be served cold and fresh. This isn't a bottle you want to age.

With the sherries that did not benefit from the yeast's bloom, the resulting product was richer, nuttier and more complex. Amontillado is the name given to the style of sherry that had oxidized only a little bit. Amontillados like the Valdespino Amontillado "Contrabandista" ($26.99 at PJ Wine, 4898 Broadway, betw. 204th and 207th Sts., 212-567-5500), with flavors of hazelnut, orange peel and butterscotch, still retain a bit of the crisp flavor profile that the finos have, but are definitely in a class by themselves.

There are other sherries, though, that are allowed to completely oxidize and are made from a sweeter, more robust grape. Pedro Ximénez sherries are dark as molasses and extremely sweet-so much so that a traditional dessert in Southern Spain was a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of a PX like the Osborne Pedro Ximenez ($17.99, also at 67 Wine) on top.

Don't be afraid of the bottles in the back of the store! Try a sherry the next time you want an inexpensive trip to the Spanish coast.

Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.

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