The production of Sherry is filled with mysteries. Consider flor, the thick layer of yeast that forms on top of crushed and fermented Palomino grapes as the juice rests in barrels. No one knows exactly where it comes from, but it helps insulate the wine from oxidation and create the unique freshness for which fino Sherry is known.
One of the first producers to realize this was Gonzalez Byass. The firm was founded in 1835 by Manuel María Gonzalez Angel and his English agent, Robert Blake Byass. The Gonzalez family was instrumental in creating the modern style of Sherry, and still controls the bodega today. To the average consumer, the wine they are best known for is Tío Pepe.
Tio Pepe ($16) is a 100% Palomino Fino with a venerable history: the first barrels were exported to England in 1844. It has a brilliant straw yellow color with aromas of sea foam and roasted hazelnuts on the nose. In the mouth, it is classic fino: taut, angular and a bit salty on entry, expanding in the mid palate with interesting flavors of stewed fruits and bitter lemon. Served chilled, it makes a wonderful apéritif, but also cries out for a wide range of savory tapas.
When it comes to mysteries, few are more baffling than a Palo Cortado. This is a Sherry that ages under flor to become a fino, then inexplicably loses its layer of flor and begins to oxidize. Fortified to 17.5% alcohol, it has been described as having the richness of an oloroso along with the crispness of an amontillado. The Leonor Palo Cortado from Gonzalez Byass ($25) offers whiffs of caramel, molasses and spun sugar on the nose. The medium-bodied texture reveals flavors of anise, fresh herbs and sour orange, and the complexity and depth of the wine makes it a good match for poultry or game dishes.
In the mood for something sweet? Open a bottle of Nectar ($25), made from 100% Pedro Ximenez grapes, fortified at 15% alcohol and containing a whopping 37% sugar. For all its richness and sweetness, the wine escapes being cloying: flavors of molasses and raisins are gracefully balanced by pepper notes and good acidity. This is an outstanding match with chocolate desserts—and it wouldn’t be bad poured over vanilla ice cream, either.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); for more information, go to amazon.com