What Is Sherry Wine?

Dry French Sherry Dessert Wine
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Sherry is a fortified wine with a long history from Southern Spain. It's a high-alcohol wine made using the historic solera system and is produced in a variety of styles, from dry to sweet, light to intense. Most sherry exhibits nutty, dried fruit, and saline flavors. Often stereotyped as a cooking wine or a sweet dessert wine, the world of sherry is far more nuanced and varied, and many bottles pair extremely well with food.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: Andalucía
  • Origin: Andalucía, Spain
  • Sweetness: very sweet to very dry
  • Color: Light cold to brown
  • ABV: 15-22% 

Sherry vs Port

Sherry is often miscast as a sticky sweet wine and lumped together with dessert wines like port. While there are sweet varieties of sherry, the majority are made in a dry style. Both wines are fortified, making them higher in alcohol, and they play well with food. A relatively dry, aged tawny port and an amontillado or sweet oloroso sherry have the most in common, although sherry will always have a drier, more savory flavor profile.

Taste and Flavor Profile

Sherry is made in a wide range of styles, affecting the flavor profile, alcohol content, and more. Since all sherry is made using white wine grapes, it is typically low in tannins.

  • Fino: Very dry, light-bodied sherry with a straw-like in color. The characteristic aroma associated with Finos is almond, and the wine has a crisp, saline quality. They are meant to be consumed right away and are about 15-16 percent alcohol.
  • Manzanilla: Similar to Fino, Manzanilla is also dry and the lightest style of sherry. It has a fresh flavor with a touch of salinity and is not made for aging.
  • Amontillado: This off-dry sherry has a deeper brown color and a lovely nutty flavor. Amontillados have a hazelnut aroma with a wash of umami on the palate. It typically hovers at 18 percent alcohol.
  • Oloroso: Dark in color and rich in flavor, Oloroso can be sweet or dry. Olorosos typically have a remarkable walnut aroma and a swirled caramel flavor with 18 to 19 percent alcohol.
  • Palo Cortado: A rare sherry that begins life as a Fino and progresses to an Amontillado but ends up with the richer style of an Oloroso. It can contain up to 22 percent alcohol. This sherry has a dry palate and an enchanting reddish-brown color and dramatic aromas and rich, full flavor.
  • Cream Sherry: With a mahogany color and velvety smooth texture, cream sherry is a full-bodied sweet sherry made from Amontillado or Oloroso and sweetened with PX. It can vary greatly in quality.
  • Pedro Ximénez (PX): An ultra sweet almost syrup-like dessert sherry made from sun-dried grapes of the same name. Its flavor profile leans towards toffee, fig, date, and molasses. Pedro Ximénez is also used to sweeten other types of sweet sherry.

Grapes and Wine Regions

Sherry is a fortified wine produced in southwest Spain's "Sherry Triangle." The white wine grapes Palomino, Pedro Ximénez (PX), and Moscatel are the primary grapes used to make sherry. The soil in this region is chalky, limestone-based, and provides the perfect conditions for growing grapes that are harvested in the early fall.

The wine is fortified with alcohol (how much depends on the style) before it is casked. Air contact is permitted in the top portion of the cask, and a layer of yeast called "flor" forms a coating on the surface of the sherry, keeping the wine from over-oxidizing. The amount of flor and oxidation depends on the style of sherry, with higher-alcohol, darker sherries spending less time covered in flor and more time oxidizing.

Sherry wines go through a historic solera system for adequate aging. This system is essentially a blending system of casks that hold wines of different ages. The blending off of younger sherry into older sherry results in very consistent, high-quality wines.

Food Pairings

Sherry pairs surprisingly well with foods. Fino sherry tastes amazing with almonds, olives, salty ham, and potato chips and dips. Manzanilla's light body and crisp flavor make it an especially good partner for fresh and raw seafood like ceviche. Amontillado sherry's nuttiness plays well with white meats and rich sauces like turkey with mushroom sauce. Dry or medium-dry oloroso is a top pick for rich meats and flavorful cheeses like manchego.

Good-quality dessert sherries like cream sherry are delicious as an after-dinner sipper or drizzled on top of vanilla ice cream or rice pudding.

Serve sherry as three-ounce pours in a sherry glass or small wine glass or tumbler. Serve light sherries chilled and darker, aged sherries at cellar temperature.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Sherry can frequently be found in well-stocked grocery stores, liquor stores, and wine shops, with varying quality. Look for sherry that is made in Southern Spain and steer clear of imitators that use shortcuts and sweeteners. A tawny port can be substituted for a sweet sherry in a pinch.

All Sherry should be stored upright in a cool, dark place. Once opened, store light sherries in the refrigerator to prolong their life up to around two weeks. Unopened Amontillados can keep for two to three years while Olorosos, sweet, and cream sherries can all be stored for many years.

Look for these quality brands when shopping for sherry:

  • Bodegas Dios Baco
  • Gutiérrez-Colosía
  • Valdespino
  • Hidalgo
  • Alvear
  • Emilio Lustau
  • Gonzalez Byass
  • Osborne