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Falstaff, Shakespeare's greatest bon vivant and lovable louse, was always calling for his "sherris sack." According to lore, explorer Ferdinand Magellan spent more on his supply of sherry than on his store of weapons. And even the effete Frasier and Niles Crane were frequent sherry tipplers.

But perhaps such figures don't commend the classic Spanish fortified wine to all parties. Although on the East Coast, in cities like Washington, D.C. and New York, sherry has had a bit of a resurgence, its traditional image problem, explains Sarah Knoefler of San Francisco's Gitane, largely remains. Basically, the stuff can be seen as "stuffy." But Knoefler wants you to know that it isn't all your grandmother's cream sherry, and by hosting a sherry month with flights, punches, and classes, she's staging something of a re-education. In particular, "people are seeing that sherry is a really good pairing wine," she says, encouraging patrons to enjoy it throughout a meal.

Sherry, like Champagne, is a regional and protected wine. It is usually made from white grapes grown near the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain — "Jerez" having been anglicized to become "sherry." Legally, for the wine to be sherry, it's got to from the Sherry Triangle, between Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.

90 percent of sherry is made from the Palomino grape, whose flavor Knoefler qualifies as big and "overzealous." It's carefully fortified with destilado — literally distilled wine — usually from La Mancha. The carefully bit: the destilado is first mixed with sherry to make a 50/50 blend known as mitad y mitad (or half and half), and that blend is in turn mixed with younger sherry. The slow addition of the destilado ensures that the batch isn't "shocked" and spoiled. As far as aging, sherry production employs a solera or "on the ground" system of barrels. Liquid is transferred from barrel to barrel, top to bottom, with the bottom eventually housing the oldest and final mixtures.


From dry and yeasty to sweet and slightly syrupy, there's a broad range of sherries to be tasted, all made from differing processes. "The styles have specific rules and regulations that pertain to how they're actually made, not just how they taste," Knoefler explains.

Fino and manzanilla are the lightest of the bunch, aged in barrels under a cap of flor — yeast — to prevent oxidation. Manzanilla is just a single-village, light variety of Fino Sherry made around the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Comparing a fino and a manzanilla, Knoefler employs a useful metaphor. "I give people an element of a particular nut. In this case, the Fino is a green almond, it's underripe, its un-toasted." By contrast, the manzanilla is brinier and roastier, almost like a toasted, salted almond.

Next up: a drink captured in Edgar Allen Poe's tale of wine tasting and murder, "The Cask of Amontillado." Says Knoefler, "When you're looking at amontillado, you're getting into more richness, more complexity, because they're aged longer and exposed to more oxygen." Amantillado is aged with flor, but then exposed to oxygen, producing a darker sherry than a fino.

Palo Cortado is sort of like amontillado, though kind of — and probably originally — by accident. "They're the one rogue barrel of fino where the flor has died off for whatever reason. It's then gotten oxidation in the barrel, and it's a color of a tawny port or a Madeira because of the oxidation. You don't have the yeasty flor — you have a little bit of it — but now you're getting into, say, candied walnut territory."

Though there are more — and we're going to leave out cream sherry completely, despite the sweet variety of East India spiced sherry that's a favorite of Knoefler's — last on our list is oloroso. Oloroso never has flor, instead going directly into oxidation and fortification. Spanish for "scented," it's a long-aged sherry that achieves an alcohol content higher than most others. This one's for the hoarders out there: oloroso can keep for way, way longer than fino.

Sadly, sherry is in part a story of decline. Once ubiquitous, an infestation in the late 1800s devastated production in the Jerez region, forcing most small producers to abandon their vineyards. Also, Knoefler notes the advent of refrigeration: sherry, which was easy to store and export, was soon supplanted by other wines.

It would be impossible to discuss sherry without mentioning its recognizable glassware. In addition to portioning the stuff properly — sherry starts, after all, at around 15.5% — Knoefler explains that the shape of a sherry glass points where acidity hits your palate. "It's also about focusing the nose, because a lot of what you get with sherry is the saltiness, the brininess, and the aromatics," she adds.

Previously: Learning To Drink Vol. 14: Take A Sidecar

All installments of Learning to Drink.

Andrew Wilkinson via Flickr