For better or for worse, the Feria de Jerez is a feast for the senses. Southern Spain’s beloved weeklong festival in mid-May looks like a colorful fashion show, sounds like a cacophonous symphony, and smells like fresh horse poop. Such a spectacle engages all walks of life, appealing to a mix of well-groomed businessmen, ragged ruffians, decked-out sweethearts, and carefree families dancing to music seemingly coming from every direction simultaneously.
But perhaps most apparent of all is the weather at the Feria: It’s hot. Damned hot. And participants need a refreshing alcoholic drink that will quench their thirst without putting a damper on the party. No, it’s not beer that most are imbibing. The beverage of choice at the Feria – and in the entire Andalusian region, for that matter — is sherry.
By its most simple definition, sherry is a wine fortified by brandy (grape spirit) that comes from Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain. Beyond that, the many different subcategories of sherry can be divided into two main types: oxidized (such as Oloroso, which is exposed to the air for a deeper, nuttier profile), and those protected by flor, a strain of yeast that protects the wine from oxidation and preserves its own bready flavors.
The most ubiquitous sherry at the Feria — and the best-selling in the world — is Tio Pepe, a fino sherry. Though made from low-acid Palomino grapes, it has a pungent, green apple-like faux acidity from acetaldehyde generated by the flor. It possesses a minerality and salinity from grapes grown in calcium carbonate-rich soil and mineral salts. The fino is fresh, light, and clean; it’s slightly bitter, and crazy dry.
No matter how I may describe it with words, the key to actually understanding the liquid is to simply pair it with food. I discovered this for myself at a small Jerez joint called Méson Don Paco, where I crushed cold Tio Pepe alongside a dish of green olives (I was there on a trip sponsored by Gonzalez Byass, Tio Pepe’s parent company). When a server, noting my excitement, brought over some salty, rich, fatty Iberico ham, I thought I had died and gone to Spanish heaven.
Andy Myers, Master Sommelier and wine director for Spanish-born José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup (which includes the two Michelin-starred D.C. restaurant minibar), has witnessed such an epiphany many times before. Myers often uses food to help guests understand fino sherry’s unusual profile.
“It’s bone dry, devoid of the richness and mouthfeel that all other wines possess, and driven by flavors of salt, almonds, seaweed, and dry, desiccated fruits,” he explains. “That said, when you introduce salt, fried foods, complex fish oils, and other strong flavors into the conversation, you begin to see the magic.”
It makes perfect sense that this white wonder wine — readily capable of cutting through spice, fat, or umami — would hail from Andalusia. After all, Spain’s most populated comunidad autónoma (autonomous community) is the birthplace of tapas (small dishes), which require a beverage versatile enough to match with a wide range of flavors. And fino sherry might just be the most versatile food wine in the world.
As Myers puts it: “There’s a bunch of big science-y words about acetoins, lactones, and terpenes that explain how fino complements a diverse range of foods on a molecular level — but for me it comes down to the lack of glycerin, and the salty, nutty notes of the wine. That lightness of body helps finos ‘float’ over a lot of flavors that mire other wines down.”
While many Spanish foods work especially well with dry fino sherry, most of them aren’t easy to come by in the United States. So with Myers’ guidance, I’ve selected five common American foods that will help you understand the beverage, too.
American Counterpart: Peanuts
Why It Works: “Salt on salt,” explains Myers. “Brilliant. Also, peanuts leave a pretty funky and lingering taste in your mouth. As with fishy fish, the acid and glycerin-free cleanliness of fino will refresh and cleanse your palate as you dig your way through a ginormous bag of nuts while watching the game.”
American Counterpart: Sour Pickles
Why It Works: “What’s your basic pickling brine? Salt, sugar, vinegar,” explains Myers. “During production, fino sherry consumes volatile acidity (vinegar acid), so it is quite comfy mingling with that acidic side of pickles. We’ve already established that the salty nature of fino makes it a brilliant complement for salty foods.”
American Counterpart: Tomatoes
Why It Works: “This one is fun,” says Myers. “The sweet fruit of ripe tomatoes will add a bit of sweetness to this insanely dry wine, and the salty fino will reinforce the natural flavor of the tomato.”
American Counterpart: Fried Chicken
Why It Works: “Fried chicken has a pretty intense flavor that can dominate,” says Myers. “It’s hard for most anything to cut through. You really need high-toned, bright acid to make a dent (it’s why lemonade is so damn good with it). And we have plenty of acid in fino to cut through the mouth-coating quality of great fried chicken. Also, the more tart green apple flavors in good fino will add a little impression of sweetness to the dish.”
American Counterpart: Country Ham
Why It Works: “Country ham is salt-cured and then smoked as opposed to deli ham, which is slimy and gross,” says Myers. “The country ham has much more intense flavor and gives fino a lot more to play with.”