If sherry strikes you as antiquated, something left at the back of the drinks cabinet, then it’s time for a re-think. The world of sherry has changed and it is enjoying a revival. You might be tempted to put its popularity down to the high alcohol content— between 15 and 21 per cent—but the roots of its recent adoption lie deeper.
The quality of sherry has improved dramatically in the last decade: the flavours and the freshness far outstrip what you found in those dauntingly large schooners of pale but austere wines of old. The excellent Spanish habit of serving small plates of tapas with drinks has also led to the rise of high-end tapas bars where a wine-savvy public look for ideal food and wine parings, and sherry is extremely food friendly.
It has always been difficult to place sherry in the world of fine wines. It is fortified, but, more importantly, until very recently the wines lacked an age statement. There is no vintage in sherry as there is in port and yet some can be very old indeed. Perhaps the best analogy is with non-vintage Champagnes that are blends of wines from different vintages. The blending in sherry, though, is less of an art and more of an accident, depending on the time-honoured “solera” system in many bodegas. This is a process of barrel refilling where a small quantity of wine is drawn from the oldest barrel, which is then topped up by the next oldest barrel, which in turn is topped up by the barrel before it, leading all the way back to the newly made and recently fortified wine. The barrels or butts contain wines with a film of flowering yeasts on the surface. This forms naturally and consumes nutrients and bacteria in the wines, protecting them from further oxidation.
But it’s not just the unique oxidising process that is responsibile for the distinctive flavour of a fino sherry. It is popularly believed that the wines used as a base for sherry are neutral, that they do not have a strong impact on the flavour; but I was recently surprised to discover that this is a myth. Navazos Niepoort 2011, Palomino Fino, bottled as a white wine but mainly used as the base wine for sherry, has the same noble, grassy character as fino sherry itself. You should look for and appreciate the quality of the wine beneath the fortification, just as you can discover the base wine beneath the bubbles in Champagne. Seek out some of the small but precious quanities of the Navazo Niepoort 2011 to try this for yourselves.
The company responsible for this wine, Equipo Navazos, is the brain child of Jesus Barquin, a professor of criminal law at the University of Granada, who has had a transformative effect on the world of sherry. He started out by buying and bottling single barrels for friends, until people asked him if they could buy more of these extraordinary wines.
Now, he and his partners, including Dirk Niepoort, select individual barrels whose wines are bottled as La Bota: an individually numbered series of wines exemplifying the diversity of sherry, from pale dry La Bota No 35 Fino, to the mahogany coloured and raisin sweet La Bota de Pedro Ximénez 36. Along the way you will find the complex and compelling La Bota No 39 Manzanilla Pasada: nutty and pure, savoury almost, with high notes in the finish. Then, the seductively restrained and delicate La Bota No 34, Palo Cortado, with its gentle sweetness, depth of flavour and long finish. This is a wine that strikes the ideal balance between the dry, iodine character of the finos and the dense cream sherries. But whichever you choose, you will find wines that are astonishingly lively and fresh. It is the search for these characteristics that have led great producers to keep raising their game, and the rest of us to keep raising our glasses.