GRAPEVINE with Liz Sagues: The trouble with sherry

Try, try and try again, but still sherry fails to shed its elderly aunt/vicar s tea-party image. Even the light, dry, fresh styles – think fino with tapas, or manzanilla with seafood – don t sell nearly as well as they deserve. But there are fabulous s

Try, try and try again, but still sherry fails to shed its "elderly aunt/vicar's tea-party" image. Even the light, dry, fresh styles - think fino with tapas, or manzanilla with seafood - don't sell nearly as well as they deserve.

But there are fabulous sherries all through the sweetness spectrum. They are wines made with great expertise, over a long period, and rarely reflect in their price the effort required to create them. They can, too, be friendly to a much wider range of food than you might imagine.

Ideally, though, you need to be guided in your choice of less-familiar styles by someone expert enough to explain what you might expect - I remember, to my enduring embarrassment, declaring a very fine dry oloroso "undrinkable" in my early days of judging in the International Wine Challenge. Those who understood it justly awarded a gold medal...

There isn't room here for that proper guidance, but let's at least start with a run-down of styles.

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Fino and its seaside, salty-tinged cousin manzanilla are pale, dry and tangy, hardly more alcoholic than most modern white wines and excellent through the savoury courses of many menus. Serve them well chilled, and finish the bottle quickly.

Their particular character comes from a yeasty layer, known as flor, which forms naturally over the top of the fortified palomino fino base wine as it matures in casks in the cellars of Jerez (fino) and Sanlucar de Barrameda (manzanilla).

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Amontillado begins life as fino, but spends much longer in the solera - the pyramid of barrels in which proper sherry matures. The wine for bottling is drawn from the bottom barrels, which are topped up with younger wine from the row above, and so on up the pyramid.

With that extra age, the wine deepens in colour and flavour. The best amontillados aren't those sweetish, tired brown liquids which lurk in dusty sideboards, but are dry, complex drinks which can complement meaty main dishes.

Yet darker and more alcoholic are the olorosos, which develop without flor. Again the finest are dry, and can mature for decades, but many are sweetened, usually with juice from dried ultra-sticky pedro ximenez grapes. There are pure PX sherries, too, the ultimate in alcoholic treacliness.

Palo cortado is a fascinating oddity. It begins life as a fino, but the flor dies off so it develops more like an oloroso, though with hints of its original crisp savouriness.

But whatever their level of sweetness, all these are quite different from the mass of blended sherries made for the export market.

What to try, to learn and to enjoy? Look for classic wines from such names as Hidalgo, Lustau, Gonzalez-Byass, Valdespino. You'll even find them in small print on some supermarket premium own-label sherries - Lustau, for example, makes the excellent Waitrose Solera Jerezana range (Fino del Puerto, £6.50, is especially good) and Sainsbury's fine Manzanilla Pale Dry (£5), a real bargain.

Hidalgo's La Gitana manzanilla (£7.50, widely available) is justly famous, and there are delicious Hidalgo wines through most of the styles (prices around £9-£13, Majestic has the wonderful Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana, plus Amontillado Seco Napoleon and PX Triana). Gonzalez Byass is responsible for some very special aged wines, including Apostoles palo cortado, Matusalem sweet oloroso and Noe PX (all £12.60 a half-bottle at top Sainsbury's).

And the best independent specialist locally is Moreno in Maida Vale (, 020-7286 0678), where one of my favourites from an impressive list is Contrabandista amontillado (£14). The action-filled label just hints at its dramatic history...

Liz Sagues

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