Everything you need to know about sherry

A beginner's guide to pairing sherry with food

by Great British Chefs 07 May 2021

Sherry is having a renaissance - the vast flavours in the many different varieties range from mineral and briny to raisin-sweet. Get to know more about this very special wine that's a favourite with chefs and pairs perfectly with both sweet and savoury dishes.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Sherry is in the midst of a revival. Sales jumped by 20% during 2020’s lockdown and Waitrose’s latest food and drink report singled it out as one of 2021’s most important drinks trends. Top chefs, from Heston Blumenthal (who wrote a whole book on pairing sherry with food) and Jason Atherton to Anna Haugh (who is a judge at the famous Copa Jerez competition) have been a huge factor in this, showing how sherry can be the perfect partner to a good meal. Today, the UK now actually consumes more sherry than Spain itself, cementing its status as a drink that's most definitely on the rise.

There are a few different reasons why sherry has enjoyed a sudden spike in popularity. With pubs and bars closed for the majority of 2020, we’ve all started to get more adventurous at home when it comes to what we drink. We’re also much more discerning; more of us know that a bottle of cheap sherry that’s been kept in the back of the cupboard for a few years isn’t going to taste good. But it’s the versatility of sherry and how the different varieties pair with food that really gets people hooked – styles range from deeply sweet and syrupy to bright, light and almost savoury. This naturally opens up countless food pairing opportunities, which is why you’ll see sherry popping up more and more on restaurant menus once they reopen – the fortified wine can often do a better job than a bottle of regular red or white.

Pairing sherry with food goes well beyond the classic tapas dishes and Spanish cuisine it's often associated with, too – a syrupy sweet Pedro Ximenez goes perfectly with equally rich desserts, while a crisp, fresh Fino works wonders alongside fish and chips. It's the versatility of sherry that makes it such a fantastic thing to serve alongside a meal, with eight major categories ensuring there's a sherry for every dish.

If you're completely new to the world of sherry, it's categorised as a fortified wine made with white grapes (usually Palomino, but also Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez varieties for sweeter styles) in the province of Cádiz, found in Andalusia in southern Spain. Cádiz’s largest city, Jerez de la Frontera (or simply Jerez), has been the epicentre of sherry production for centuries, and sherry from this region now has its own DOP protection (DOP Jerez-Xérès-Sherry).

However, to lump all sherries under this pretty generic description does a disservice to just how versatile the different styles can be. Over the generations, different ways of producing, ageing, oxidising and blending the wine have created vastly different end products, each of which are poised to partner with different flavours on the plate. Read on for an introduction to the different varieties and what makes them special, then see how these unique styles match up with food in their own special ways.

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Dry sherries

  • Fino: Literally translating as ‘fine’, Fino is the driest of the sherries and has a fragrance reminiscent of almonds. It’s aged under a layer of ‘flor’ – a naturally occurring yeast – that essentially stops the sherry from oxidising, maintaining its pale straw colour and fresh, bone-dry flavour. Usually around 15-17% ABV.

  • Manzanilla: An especially light style of PDO-protected Fino sherry that comes specifically from the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, Manzanilla produces a distinctive flor that gives the sherry a slightly saline quality. There’s also Manzanilla Pasada, which is made in the same way but aged for longer and lightly oxidised, giving it a nuttier flavour, darker colour and slightly higher ABV – though it is still not as dark as an Amontillado sherry.

  • Amontillado: Like Fino, Amontillado starts life under a layer of flor but the yeast is killed off during the ageing process, allowing the sherry to oxidise. Contact with oxygen gives Amontillado sherry delicate nutty flavours of hazelnut and almond, with an amber colour to match. It’s aged slightly longer than Fino, coming in around the 16–17% ABV mark.

  • Oloroso: Oloroso sherry doesn’t spend any time under flor and is in contact with the air throughout the ageing process, giving it a rich, nutty flavour with hints of dried fruit and spice. It’s aged for longer than Amontillado, making it the most potent of the sherries with an ABV anywhere between 17–22%.

  • Palo Cortado: Historically Palo Cortado was aged like an Amontillado, but ended up developing Oloroso qualities by accident – often when the flor died early in the ageing process. These days Palo Cortado can be made on purpose, but it still tends to be a rare find. The final result is a sherry that has the heavy alcohol and rich fruit and spice of an Oloroso, but is nuttier on the nose, like an Amontillado.

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Sweet sherries

  • Pedro Ximénez: Often abbreviated to ‘PX’, Pedro Ximénez sherry is made with at least 85% Pedro Ximénez grapes which are dried to intensify the flavour and natural sugars. The result is a dark, viscous, intensely sweet wine with strong flavours of dried fruit and molasses. Can be anywhere between 15–22% ABV.

  • Moscatel: Moscatel sherry isn’t as common as PX, but it’s made in exactly the same way, only with (you guessed it) Moscatel grapes instead of Pedro Ximenez.

  • Cream: Cream sherries are a general term for blended, sweetened sherries. They come in different sub-categories (pale cream, medium, cream) and usually refer to either Fino, Amontillado or Oloroso being blended with PX or Moscatel. Cream sherries are the ones that gained huge popularity in the 1950s onwards, and is perhaps what created the idea that sherry was a drink for older generations – a dusty, forgotten bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream in your grandmother’s cupboard was once a common sight. However, don’t write them off – while lower-quality Cream sherries will be blended with concentrated grape must to bump up the sugar content, those that are sweetened before bottling with a little PX thrown into the mix can be wonderfully balanced and complex.

Pairing sherry and food

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Both dry and sweet sherries can be enjoyed on their own, as aperitifs and digestifs respectively or as a base in cocktails, but where they really shine is when they’re paired with food. Sweet sherries are a natural choice for desserts – the raisin-like flavours of PX sherry are stunning with bitter chocolate cakes and rich ice cream, while Cream sherries can stand up to the acidity in citrus and fruit-based desserts with ease. But while they complement sweet dishes, sweet sherries can also create a pleasing contrast with savoury flavours too – the creamy tang of blue cheese against the syrupy flavours of PX is a match made in heaven, along the same lines as why port and Stilton is such a popular pairing.

The nutty, dry, fresh flavours of Fino and Manzanilla sherries make them perfect as an aperitif, enjoyed alongside nuts, olives and charcuterie, and they’re light and subtle enough to work in perfect harmony alongside light fish and seafood dishes. Move onto the darker, more oxidised sherries of Amontillado, Oloroso and Palo Cortado and you can enjoy a glass of them alongside dishes with a fiery chilli kick, robust stews and mature, sharp cheeses.

Each style has its own defining qualities and within those styles, each sherry producer teases out certain characteristics or flavours that make their sherry unique. Just like the world of non-fortified wines, the number of food and sherry pairings out there are endless, and it’s our continued awareness and discovery of this that is making us fall in love with sherry all over again. If you’re still not convinced, just try a glass of chilled Fino or Manzanilla with a bowl of salted almonds – you’ll instantly realise the potential sherry has to make food taste better than ever.

To learn more about how sherry pairs with food and the incredible Copa Jerez cooking competition, head to the Sherry Wines website.