Any gourmets looking for exciting new wine and food experiences this autumn should be adventurous and treat themselves to some sherry.
Please banish any thoughts of the sticky old bottle of creamy liquid that lurks in Grandma's cupboard at Christmas - sherry is no longer just a polite apéritif for vicars' tea parties. The great secret of this famous Spanish tipple is that it is made in a superb range of versatile, food-friendly styles. In other words, as any Spaniard will tell you, sherry is a natural at the table.
Millions of Brits holidaying in southern Spain have already discovered that the authentic way to drink sherry is with the robust Mediterranean flavours of tapas. Thanks to the growing numbers of high-class Spanish restaurants opening in Britain, it's a way of eating and drinking that is fast catching on. Less well known is the fact that the locals in the wine region around Jerez will drink sherry throughout a meal.
So which style of sherry should you go for? The choice runs from bone-dry fino and manzanilla through rich, nutty amontillados and olorosos to unctuously sweet dessert styles.
As an apéritif, the yeasty tang of fino and its sea-air scented cousin, manzanilla, are unbeatable. Do as the Spanish do: chill a bottle and serve with small dishes of olives, salted almonds, preserved peppers and anchovies for a perfect start to a meal. Waitrose's own-label bottles are an excellent choice, as are the elegant dry Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla and Tio Pepe Fino. The latter comes in a handy half-bottle, which is the perfect size for modest consumption.
Remember, all sherry is best drunk fresh, which means within a week or two of being opened.
As well as making great apéritifs, these perky wines also have a cosy affinity with rich seafood dishes. Sardines, grilled squid, salt cod fritters, plump, garlicky prawns and anchovy-laden salads all go well with them. Sherry is also one of the few wines that stands up to fresh-flavoured soups, as in fino with Spain's famous chilled gazpacho.
Talking of soup, another offbeat idea to try is pairing these sherries with classic Thai dishes like tom yum soup or green and red curries. This unusual fusion of food cultures may raise a few Spanish eyebrows, but fino and manzanilla have the oomph to tackle these aromatic eastern flavours, and make a perfect foil to the spiciness and heat of Asian food.
Other favourite sherry styles include the incredible nutty, raisiny-rich, dry and off-dry wines labelled amontillado and oloroso. The Spanish also drink these as apéritifs with salted almonds, and amontillado is especially good at bringing out the unbeatable melting sweetness of wafer-thin slices of Pata Negra ham (available in limited branches of Waitrose).
These intense, mahogany-hued wines go well with many main-course foods, too, and are a good bet with meaty or rich bean soups - especially when a dash of sherry is part of the recipe. Try one of Waitrose's selection of dry or medium amontillados or olorosos alongside kidneys and meatballs, or dishes such as a rich pork stew, garlic-infused chicken or tuna steak cooked with sherry in the pan. Hard cheeses such as manchego and mature Cheddar are also superb partners for these sherries.
Finally on to pudding, where sherry also delivers the goods. Sweeter olorosos, like Lustau's warming East India Rich Oloroso (in limited branches only), or the incredible, almost tar-thick raisin and dried fruit concentration of Pedro Ximenez sherry, will tackle chocolate desserts, fudge cake, treacle tart and Christmas pudding. The extraordinary sweet wines from the Pedro Ximenez grape are often used to sweeten other sherries. Poured over vanilla ice cream, a Pedro Ximenez sherry helps to make a sublime and memorable pudding. Alternatively, dispense with dessert and indulge in a glass or two of either oloroso or ‘PX' (as Pedro Ximenez is often known) for a sensational finish to a meal.
And what of that old Christmas favourite, the cream sherry, which has given these great Spanish wines such a fogeyish reputation? This sweet, uncomplicated style is made as a winter warmer for us British and is fine as a fireside reviver. But cream sherry doesn't have the age or complexity of the great amontillados or olorosos, nor the sensational palate-coating depth of a PX, and so is best on its own or with the Christmas mince pies.
So be bold the next time you are shopping for sherry. Try something a little different and discover why this is one of the world's all-time great wines.
Waitrose Fino, £5.29
Just thinking about the bone-dry tang and yeasty zip of this perky fino is enough to evoke powerful memories of sultry evenings spent eating tapas and downing half bottles of sherry in southern Spain. A great all-rounder.
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Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla, £8.65
Manzanilla is essentially a fino that comes from the seaside town of Sanlucar a few kilometres from its cousins in Jerez. This excellent wine has a dry yeasty tang along with a whiff of almost salty freshness.
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Waitrose Pale Amontillado, £8.19
There is a dry, nutty intensity to this well-priced amontillado that ought to tempt any wine drinker to look beyond the crisp pleasures of fino. It's a mellow testimony to the slow solera barrel-ageing system of Jerez.
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This article was first published on Waitrose.com in September 2004.