Wine of the week: Sherry, sherry baby

Poor sherry. It is one of the most misunderstood and unappreciated wines in the land. And for no good reason that I can tell other than the savvy, if not misleading, decades-old marketing campaign promoting inexpensive “cream sherry” that can border on cloying. But not all sherries are created equal, and some are definitely more equal than others.

Such is the case of González Byass, a quality premium sherry house dedicated to the art of making world-class fortified wines. González Byass was founded in 1835 in Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain, in the heart of sherry country, by Manuel Maria González. Still in family hands, the quality sherry house is now in the sixth generation of family members.

Sherry is a fine wine that hails from the famed sherry triangle, made up of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. The regions have a unique microclimate influenced by the surrounding Atlantic Ocean and Guadalquivir and Guadalete rivers.

Production of sherry is dominated by the white Palomino grape, but the Pedro Ximénez grape plays an important role in the region as well. The vines are planted in the white Albariza soil, which contains up to 60% chalk and is excellent for retaining moisture — an important feature given the arid climate and lack of irrigation. These soil conditions, combined with over 3,000 hours of annual sunshine, fresh, humid breezes from the west and warm, dry breezes from the east have formed the perfect marriage to produce an array of sherry styles.

All sherries are aged following the traditional Solera system, a process for aging the wine by fractional blending of prior vintages. The finished product is a mixture of vintages, with the average age gradually increasing as the process continues over many years. This labor-intensive process ensures that both the style and quality of the sherry is maintained over time. Many styles are produced with distinctive characters depending on whether they have been aged under the influence of the flor (a layer of natural yeast) or as an oloroso (in contact with oxygen).

One of the best things about fine sherry is its versatility. Depending on the style of the wine, sherry can be enjoyed as an aperitif, with a main course or dessert. I like my sherries served slightly chilled and in a traditional white wineglass that will allow the wine to breathe and evolve over the course of a meal.

The Apostoles pairs well with Easter ham. (Courtesy Scott Greenberg)

If you’re looking to kick off an evening with friends in a unique and delicious way, open up a bottle of Nonvintage González Byass Leonor Palo Cortado. Due to its aging process, it is aged for 12 years before bottling, Leonor is often described as the “wild child” of Jerez. It has a lightly sweet and nutty fragrance on the nose. Flavors of orange rind, toasted hazelnuts and vanilla are beautifully integrated on the palate. Serve it slightly chilled as an aperitif or with mature cheeses. $25

With Easter just around the corner, I believe that the González Byass 30-Year Old Apostoles is appropriate in both name and flavor. This is one of the unique sherry wines in the world since it is a blend of two very different styles of sherry: Palo Cortado and Pedro Ximénez. Both the Palo Cortado and Pedro Ximénez wines are aged separately for about 12 years, and then they are blended together and enter the Apostoles solera for another 18 years or more. The result is something unique and delicious. The bouquet features scents of orange peel, dark molasses and caramel. In the mouth, spicy notes support the roasted nuts, cocoa and toffee flavors. Just a hint of salinity and strong coffee brings the finish in to focus. This wine, served slightly chilled, would be perfect with Easter ham. $50

If you truly want to have a remarkable sherry experience, consider splurging on a bottle of vintage sherry, such as the 1987 González Byass Anada. After fermentation, the wine is fortified to about 18% and then transferred to American oak casks, where a large, empty space is left so that the wine can come into contact with air and undergo oxidation. This wine is only made in the very best years. The nose is full of roasted hazelnuts, dried apricots and figs. It caresses the palate with lovely, mellow flavors of orange marmalade, roasted almonds, dark caramel and a touch of fig compote. The finish is exceptionally persistent. While the wine is a bit pricey, a little goes a long way and can be stored in the refrigerator for up to six months. $150

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