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Sherry: Wine's Best-Kept Secret?

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"Sherry is a bargain," says Linda Lawry, director of the International Wine Center in New York. "It's one of the benefits of being ludicrously unfashionable."

I recently attended a class on sherry called, "Wine's Best Kept Secret," led by Lawry, an official sherry educator certified by the Consejo Regulador in Jerez, Spain.

Before this lecture I really never gave sherry a second thought. It was the preferred tipple of the effete brothers on Frasier. And I've had a bottle of "cooking sherry" in my cabinet for years, guaranteed to ruin any dish I add it to.

But I think I've been converted. In between honeyed sips of amber liquid, Lawry explained at length about the history of sherry, which grapes are used, and how sherry is made.

Four Things To Know About Sherry

1. Wine made from sherry grapes, but not fortified, is worth seeking out. We sampled Barbadillo Palomino Fina (2008), an Andalusian white wine made from Palomino Fino grapes, which are also used in making sherry. However, unlike sherry, the wine was not fortified with brandy. It clocked in at about 12% alcohol, compared to sherry's usual 15% to 20%. And it was lovely and refreshing paired with Spanish cheeses and handfuls of glossy Marcona almonds.

2. Not all sherry is sticky-sweet. Apparently, we heathen Americans prefer sweet Oloroso sherry, while the rest of the world drinks dry Fino, the more sophisticated choice. (And sigh, now that I've tried both, apparently I fall into the heathen category. My favorite of the evening was a Williams & Humbert "Don Guido" 20-year-old, which was luscious and very sweet, made from raisin-ated grapes). However, those with a more sophisticated palate might prefer Sandeman's "Royal Esmeralda" Amontillado. Despite the aromas of caramel and candied orange peel, the flavor was not a bit sweet, and in fact was rather dry, even tart, with a long, intense finish.

3. Sherry doesn't improve with age. It's usually aged for a minimum of three years, and once bottled it's ready to drink right away. So if you see a dusty bottle on a low shelf in the liquor store, lonely and unloved, Lawry recommends passing it by: "It has to be fresh," she instructs. "Buy it in a store that sells a lot of it, and drink it right away. Treat it like orange juice." This also explains why my opened, years-old "cooking sherry" is such a train wreck. Excuse me while I go pour that out.

4. Cocktails may revive the sherry industry. The following evening, I went out to Louis 649, and lo and behold, there was a sherry cocktail on the menu! The "Sherry Pie" is made with sherry, (oloroso, natch) rum, maraschino liqueur, honey syrup, cream and cinnamon. And for years, I've been ignoring the annual "Vinos de Jerez Cocktail Competition" sponsored by the Sherry Council, but now may have to pay closer attention. The 2009 winning cocktail can be viewed here. The grand prize for the win? A trip to Jerez, claro.

About the author: Kara Newman has written about wine and spirits for such publications as Wine Enthusiast and Sommelier Journal magazines, and is the author of Spice & Ice, which explores 60 tongue-tingling cocktails.

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