Sherry 101: An Introduction to the Hippest Old-Person Drink Around

Six wineglasses of sherry, ranging from light to dark

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

Spain boasts some of the world’s most renowned drinking traditions. Depending on where you are, you may be enjoying a gin and tonic, tomando un vermút ("taking a vermouth"), or sipping the country’s other beloved fortified wine, sherry. And if you’ve been to an American cocktail bar in the past five years, you may have noticed that sherry is all the rage this side of the pond as well.

What Is Sherry?

The word sherry is the English name for the Spanish Jerez, which refers to Marco de Jerez, the viniculture area in the westernmost region of Andalucía, in southern Spain, where grapes for sherry are grown. Sherry production is regulated by Spain’s Denomination of Origin (DO) system—equivalent to the protocols that exist in France for Champagne, or in Italy for Chianti—to ensure that only fortified wines made within a specific region, following specific procedures, are labeled as sherry. In addition to specifying the region in which the grapes must be grown, the DO ensures that the wines have been aged using a solera system (we’ll get to that later) within the famed "sherry triangle," the vertices of which are the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Sherry vineyard in Albariza soil

A vineyard in highly desirable chalky albariza soil. [Photograph: Courtesy of the Consejo Regulador de las Denominaciones de Origen]

Before we get into the specifics of sherry production, though, let’s start by clearing up a major misconception: Not all sherry is sweet. Though you may be most familiar with cream sherry, the syrupy, old-school post-dinner drink is just one of many sherry styles, the majority of which are actually dry, sometimes verging on savory. Drier varieties, like Fino and Amontillado, have more in common with wines than with digestifs, while sweet sherries, like the delightfully raisin-y Pedro Ximénez (PX), are complex sippers (I also enjoy mine splashed over some ice cream). I’m hard-pressed to think of a sherry style that doesn’t make an excellent addition to cocktails.

"What's fascinating about sherry is that there's so much range," says Chantal Tseng, a Consejo Regulador–certified sherry educator and bartender at The Reading Room in Washington, DC. "You can't think about sherry without thinking of 3,000 years of history, time, place. You can go from town to town and see that each town has so much of its own personality [bound up] in sherry."

Tseng explains that all sherry is made using only white grapes, with the dry styles coming from palomino fino grapes and the sweet styles using moscatel and Pedro Ximénez grapes. Sherry wineries, called bodegas, age wine in one of two ways, depending on the characteristics of the grape and the intended result. Fino and Manzanilla sherries are subjected to biological aging, in which flor, a layer of naturally occurring yeast, creates an anaerobic environment that reduces glycerol content and boosts savory notes of almonds and herbs. Meanwhile, Amontillado and Oloroso sherries—which often employ heavier, fuller-bodied musts—undergo oxidative aging, in which the wine comes in contact with the air, allowing for a subtle sweetness and generally darker color.

Solera system for aging sherry in Spain

[Photograph: Courtesy of the Consejo Regulador de las Denominaciones de Origen]

Once the intended type of sherry is chosen, the producer uses a strict aging structure known as the criaderas-and-soleras system, which involves a pyramid-like stacking arrangement of the aging casks based on vintage: The oldest tier of wines is on the bottom, and the newer ones are on top. Some wine is periodically removed from each of the various casks and replaced with new wine in a fractional blending process of "taking and adding," thereby blending various vintages at different points in the aging process to create consistent bottlings.

But the allure of sherry isn't just its quality, or the intricacies of its production; it's the drinking traditions associated with it. "Sherry hour is a way of life," says Tseng. "You walk in and you have your Fino, your hams, and your olives. You’ll snack and talk for a wonderful amount of time. It’s something places in the US often try to re-create."

Ready to dive in? We asked Tseng to break down the major styles and share her picks for each category.

Sherry Varieties

Fino

A wineglass of light-colored Fino sherry, with a bottle in the background

The driest of the styles, Fino is biologically aged under flor (the yeast that forms a layer to prevent oxidation) and matured for at least two years in barrels, usually oak. The best Finos, bottled at between four and seven years, are pale in color and typically offer strong notes of minerality, with hints of almond, oak, and sometimes even vanilla.

  • Valdespino "Inocente": Tseng calls this unique sherry her go-to for its "overall luscious, savory, and bright mouthfeel." Valdespino, one of the oldest bodegas in Spain, does things the old-school way: The palomino grapes are sourced from one high-altitude vineyard, and the wine is fermented using indigenous yeasts in 600-liter wooden casks of American oak. The minerality and salinity are higher than in other Finos, while the acidity is lower.
  • González Byass "Tio Pepe" Fino en Rama: Tio Pepe is one of the most popular sherries in Spain, and the world. This limited release of the flagship is meant to highlight the wilder, direct-from-cask expression of Fino sherry: crisp, dry, and bursting with bready aromas. "The term en rama refers to minimal fining or filtration and cold stabilization before bottling so that the wine is as direct from the cask as possible," says Tseng. "Typically released in the spring, when the flor is at its strongest, this sherry has a very bright, floral nose, with a much fuller body of herbs, bread, and apples." Because of its minimal filtration, this sherry has a cloudy quality.

Manzanilla

A hand pouring from a bottle of pale Manzanilla sherry into a wineglass

A close cousin of Fino, Manzanilla is produced in roughly the same manner, with one exception: It must be matured in the seaside city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. This proximity to the ocean and its saltwater winds often gives it coastal qualities, including higher salinity and a lighter body. "The way the winds come off of the ocean affects the breakdown of yeast in the wine," explains Tseng. "There’s stronger growth of flor in the barrel-aging of the wine. It eats out the sugar, oxygen, and glycerol, so you can get a very light-bodied wine."

  • La Cigarrera: A standard-bearer for the Manzanilla category, this fine sherry is aged between four and five years and offers lots of salinity, with notes of citrus fruit and apple, accented by a smoky edge. Given the small size of the family-owned bodega, only 11,000 cases of La Cigarrera Manzanilla are produced each year. Pro tip: If you're ever in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Tseng suggests paying the bodega a visit for excellent tapas to go with your sherry.
  • Hidalgo La Gitana "Pastrana" Pasada: One quirk of sherry is the range of intermediary styles. This one, a Manzanilla Pasada, is a Manzanilla that’s aged a bit longer, about 12 years, breaching oxidation—the point at which flor can no longer survive—to start becoming an Amontillado. The result is a Manzanilla with more yeasty, bready notes and a bit more body and structure. It’s also unique in that the grapes used are sourced for a single, acclaimed vineyard, called Pastrana, located between Jerez and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Amontillado

A bottle of Amontillado next to a wineglass of reddish-gold sherry on a wooden table

Amontillado is what happens to a Fino or Manzanilla when it continues to age after the flor dies off, at which point it can interact with oxygen. As the sherry base oxidizes, it takes on a nuttier character and a fun savory element—notes of peanuts and hazelnuts are good indicators—along with a dry, salty-caramel quality.

  • Lustau "Los Arcos": "This is the first sherry that made me fall in love with Jerez," says Tseng. "This is on the fuller side of the category, with an almost Christmas spice and brown, nut-bread character." Lustau is one of the most recognizable sherry brands stateside, and its Amontillado is an excellent exemplar of the style. You’ll find a copper color with notes of almond and dates. Serve it chilled with roasted nuts, cheese, and cured meats for a picture-perfect tapas hour.
  • Hidalgo La Gitana "Napoleon": Fragrant and evocative of its seaside aging, this pale-amber-colored sherry offers Fino dryness with coffee notes and a briny quality that stands up beautifully when paired with heavier meats and, of course, aged Manchego cheese.
  • Valdespino "Tio Diego": Tio Diego is a standard in the Amontillado family, made with grapes grown in chalky soil from the Macharnudo vineyard. Fuller in body, with a long-lasting finish, it spends almost 10 years under flor and another five to six years aging oxidatively. "I find this wine so adaptable with so many cuisines, with its bolder nutty and savory notes," says Tseng.

Oloroso

An amber-colored Oloroso sherry being poured into a wineglass

Oloroso sherries are aged primarily without flor. They go directly into the solera system with a higher alcohol content—a level at which flor does not grow—and are sweeter and fuller-bodied. Oloroso means "fragrant," and, true to their name, these sherries are bursting with aromas and flavors that range from dried fruit to leather, tobacco, and wood. Though less dry than the Fino and Amontillado varieties, Olorosos are still dry overall, but with a rounder mouthfeel and light sweetness.

  • Emilio Hidalgo "Villapanés": According to Tseng, nearly 20 years of age on average gives Villapanés "more octane and dense structure, with a very dry and long finish." Produced with grapes sourced from a historic family estate, Villapanés is aged briefly under flor before its oxidative-aging period. The resulting sherry has a rich mahogany hue and notes of almonds, figs, and caramel.
  • Gutiérrez Colosía "Sangre y Trabajadero": From the Atlantic Ocean–facing El Puerto de Santa María, this sherry is aged around 12 years on average. "In many ways, this is my ideal for an Oloroso," says Tseng. "The body has structure and warm, nutty layers. The flavors are rich and nuanced and assertive." The sherry comes from the town of Jerez; the name, "Sangre y Trabajadero," nods to the butchers and working-class folks who drank it in the 19th century. You’ll find dried apple and hazelnut within its fragrant dryness.

Palo Cortado

A wineglass of amber Palo Cortado sherry, with a bottle in the background

Another in-between category of sherry, Palo Cortado is the least defined and trickiest to nail down. Often described as having the nose of Amontillado with the body of an Oloroso, Palo Cortados typically have aromatic nuttiness, a honeyed quality, and a thicker texture than an Amontillado. But they’re still dry, with less than five grams of sugar per liter.

  • Hidalgo La Gitana "Wellington" VOS: Sourced from wine once intended for use as Manzanilla sherry, this sherry offers a nectar-like quality with a creamy texture and a delightful palate of sea-salt caramel, toffee, dried apricot, orange blossom, and honey. The average age is 30 years.
  • González Byass "Apostoles" VORS: Apostoles is a richer, older, and sweeter blend of Palo Cortado and PX sherries. "If the Wellington is nectar, the Apostoles is ambrosia," says Tseng. Expect a full, nutty, honeyed complexity laced with notes of dried dates, figs, and cocoa in this dark-amber pour.

Sweet Sherries

A dark Pedro Ximénez sherry being poured into a wineglass

Sweet sherries are known by their grape varietal rather than a specific style. Pedro Ximénez sherries make up the lion’s share of this category, with a few Moscatels here and there, as moscatel grapes prefer a different, chalkier type of soil. Pedro Ximénez sherries have a higher natural acidity and sugar content due to their fuller, plumper, and thinner-skinned grape. After harvest, the grapes are left to dry out and become raisins. These concentrated sugars are then fermented, which converts them to alcohol, and the resulting wine is blended and aged oxidatively using the solera system.

  • Cesar Florido "Dorado": "Cesar is the Moscatel king," says Tseng. "He maintains one of only two producers in the beach town of Chipiona, where the sandy soils are ideal for moscatel." Enjoy Dorado after a meal, and you’ll encounter flavors of golden raisins, lemongrass, apricots, honey, and white flowers.
  • Equipo Navazos "Casa del Inca": Sourced from the Montilla bodega of Pérez Barquero, this bottle is full of burnt sugar, dates, and sultanas, with a rich marriage of spices and hints of saffron.

Blends and Creams

A diagonal line of wineglasses containing a range of sherries, from light to dark, on a marble countertop

Typically pairing Oloroso with one of the sweet varieties, blends come in a wide range of profiles and combinations. It’s worth noting that cream sherries were once the most popular category of them all. To produce cream sherries, the blended wine is moved into its own separate solera system for further aging.

  • Williams & Humbert 15 Year Old Oloroso Especial "Dry Sack": "This house boasts the largest warehouse for wine aging in all of Spain, and they are king when it comes to oxidatively aging sweeter blends," says Tseng. For this "Dry Sack" recipe, the bodega blends Amontillado with Oloroso and PX—all aged for an average of 15 years. Expect Christmas spices and rich, dark-bread character. "It's hard not to love," Tseng adds.
  • Lustau "Capataz Andrés" Deluxe Cream: Moscatel meets an Oloroso/PX blend for an intriguing green-golden wine that brings together caramel, apricot, and peach aromas with flavors of spiced apple and coffee. It’s sweet for sure, but it’s rounded out with a balanced profile.