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Beginner's guide to sherry [Chicago Tribune :: BC-WBS-SHERRY:TB]

Don't be afraid of sherry. Don't look down on it, either, because it is one of the world's great wine styles.

Sherry comes from the area around the town of Jerez de la Frontera - you can just call it Jerez - in the autonomous region of southern Spain known as Andalusia. The country has many faces and many moods, but this is the region that includes the Iberian peninsula's closest point to Africa and is home to some of the most classic symbols of Spain: sultry flamenco guitar and dancing, buildings awash in white, gilded matadors, bulls and swirling red capes.

Like the country of its origin, sherry also has many faces and expressions. Andalusia does not represent Spain as a whole, and in the same regard, no general description of sherry can do the legendary fortified wine style justice across the board. It's not all sweet, contrary to what a lot of people believe, and anyone who avoids it, thinking of it as either frumpy or tweedy, is only depriving himself of one of the world's great wine styles.

There are seven styles of sherry: fino, manzanilla, amontillado, palo cortado, oloroso, cream and Pedro Ximenez. Sherry is made from white wine grapes only (and only three grape varieties at that), and the most popular of those is palamino fino, which can be used in all styles of sherry. Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grape varieties are also used, particularly for fuller, sweeter styles of sherry. But here, let's focus on the fino and manzanilla styles, both of which land on the driest end of the sherry spectrum.

These are not the overtly nutty or decadently sweet dessert styles of sherry. These are the lighter styles, the crisp apertifs that start your evening off right or the wines you can continue to drink with a wide variety of foods as your meal progresses. These sherries match well with anything from oysters, shellfish and other seafoods, including fried calamari and smoked salmon; to nuts, olives, salty cheeses and cured meats; all the way to more substantial white meats and heartier dishes. Keep in mind that this is the wine that goes with the food style believed to have originated in this part of Spain in the 1800s: tapas.

So, sherry is versatile. It is also difficult to make. The painstaking process involves a gradual aging and blending process that sees the wine traveling through a traditionally stacked configuration of oak barrels (called a solera) throughout its development. When the wine reaches the bottom row of barrels, it's ready for bottling. The rows of barrels, from top to bottom, are constantly being replenished with new wine, and the process continues. It is a beautiful tradition that produces a unique product worthy of your attention, despite what you may have heard.

Remember to serve these wines well chilled, and don't ball-and-chain them into one of those tiny glasses that you can barely hover a single nostril over. Serve them in proper white wine glasses (smaller Bordeaux-style glasses with straight sides). Sherry is not standard table wine, but it can still offer aromas you can enjoy, and obviously it goes well with food, despite its reputation among some people who possibly haven't had enough proper exposure to it.

When people tell me they don't like Champagne, I usually tell them that they probably haven't had the right Champagne. The same holds true for sherry. Get started with the super-dry stuff - fino and manzanilla - and work your way all the way up to Pedro Ximenez (aka "PX") at the other end of the spectrum. Somewhere on that continuum, you will probably become a sherry believer.

If for some reason you still don't like sherry after you try a variety of them, you will know why, firsthand, instead of relying on all of the (perhaps unreliable, perhaps unsubstantiated) opinions of others who have crossed your path through the years. Try sherry the way it was intended - as a palate awakener or an accompaniment to foods from the beginning of a meal all the way to the end (in the case of dessert styles) - and I think you will make pleasant discoveries along the way.

One more thing. Go easy on your pours. At 15- to 22-percent alcohol, sherry can sneak up on you and give you that special feeling sooner than you expected if you are not careful.

Below are notes from a recent tasting of fino and manzanilla sherry. Unless otherwise noted, bottle sizes are 750 milliliters.

Lustau Jarana Fino Sherry. This fresh wine is nutty, floral, yeasty and crisp, and would be nice as an aperitif or with salty snacks. $16

Bodega Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Palamino Fino Sherry. Yeasty with minerality and wood notes, this one has a lingering almond finish. $20

Bodegas Williams & Humbert Pando Fino Sherry. Floral and nutty, this wine has a touch of bitterness in its slowly developing finish. $22

Bodegas Dios Baco Buleria Fino Sherry. Brown pine needles and dried brush mix with ripe almonds in this mouth-filling wine. $25

Bodegas Los Infantes de Orleans Borbon Manzanilla Sherry. Citrus, salinity, orange zest, yeast and nuttiness are all present in this beauty. $11 (375 milliliters)

Bodega La Guita en Rama Manzanilla Sherry. This wine is full of salinity, minerality, incense, citrus, hay and nuts. $15 (375 ml)

Bodegas Juan Pinero Maruja Manzanilla Sherry. Toasted nuts, almond paste and minerality all mingle with a briny character in this one. $16 (375 milliliters)

Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla Sherry. This wine is floral and fresh, with bright citrus and a cleansing crispness. $19 (500 milliliters)

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