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  • Emily Percival
Written by
  • Emily Percival
7 Dec 2018

From £10.90 (Gibraltar), US$13, £11.95, €13.53, CA$24.99, 2,100 yen, AU$42, NZ$69 

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Almost everybody I know outside the wine trade (or these pages) hates (or thinks they hate) sherry. Never mind that it's one of the most interesting and delicious drinks in the world, is exceptionally good value compared with 'regular' wine, and in almost all cases lasts a lot longer in an open bottle. Perception and expectation prevent people from enjoying it. Despite sherry's recent arrival on the hipster scene, it's still presumed by most people to be their vicar's or granny's drink of choice. Those who do brave a dry sherry often expect it to be sweet, or to taste like wine. It isn't, and it doesn't.

Sherry doesn't help itself by being thoroughly confusing; there are so many different styles, mostly determined by the method and location of maturation. Was it matured under a layer of yeast (salty Fino and Manzanilla), deliberately oxidised (the more caramelly Oloroso and Palo Cortado), or both (Amontillado)? Is the bodega in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda (Manzanilla) or elsewhere in the region (Fino)? Made from Palomino Fino grapes (most sherry) or Pedro Ximénez (the sweet black treacly stuff, great poured over ice-cream)? On the plus side, there are no good or bad vintages to learn, as virtually all sherry is NV.

My love affair with sherry began at Bodega Hidalgo (my sister and I are pictured above right, poking our heads out from the flowers by the La Gitana barrels) in 2002. An afternoon spent in the bodega, tasting through the complex spectrum of sherry styles and bombarding our host with questions, was a flavour revelation unparalleled by any other since. If you haven't been to Jerez, go.

Today's wine of the week is Hidalgo's Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada NV. Unusually for sherry, which is typically a blend of both vintages and vineyards, this is a single-vineyard Manzanilla, from the prized albariza soils of Hidalgo's Pastrana vineyard in the Miraflores region of Sanlúcar, about 30 minutes' drive north west of the town of Jerez.

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Manzanilla is the lightest, most elegant style of sherry, matured in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Here it lies under a layer of film-forming yeast called flor, which grows thicker and more flavoursome in humid, coastal Sanlúcar than in other parts of the Jerez region. It sounds thoroughly unappetising (another nail in the popularity coffin) but flor is to Manzanilla what the gunk at the bottom of the roasting pan is to gravy.

Manzanilla is typically aged for around five years, bottled well before the protective flor dies off, keeping it super-fresh. A Manzanilla Pasada is matured for longer, in this case for 12 years. General manager Fermín Hidalgo described it to me recently as the 'Gran Reserva of Manzanilla'. It's still maturing as the flor starts to fade and the merest hint of oxidation sets in.

The result is Manzanilla-plus-plus. It's slightly deeper in colour than regular Manzanilla, but still pale, fresh and elegant, a perfect apertif. The further years of development and tiny hint of oxidation add a cavernous depth of flavour; salty, savoury, nutty, complex and umami-ish – perfect for both summer and winter moods. The flavours take an age to fade from the palate too.

As a rule of thumb, the longer it's matured in barrel, the longer the Manzanilla will last, both on the shelf and in the open bottle. While regular Manzanilla is best opened within a year of bottling and finished within a few days of opening, Pastrana will last up to two years from bottling, says Fermín, and, once half-drunk, the remainder will stay fresh in an opened bottle for two weeks in the fridge. Smaller-sized bottles have a shorter life span, so you'll need to finish a 37.5-cl bottle sooner. (Conversely, sherries such as Oloroso, that are already oxidised during the ageing process, will literally last forever unopened.)

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How do you know when your sherry was bottled, when there's no vintage to guide you? Look for the tiny lot number on the back label. The back label pictured here shows lot number L-80203. The first digit is the last digit of the year it was bottled (so 2018), the following 2 digits denote the week of the year (week 2) and the last digit refers to the day of the week (1 to 5 being Monday to Friday, so this was bottled on a Wednesday). My Manzanilla Pasada was bottled on Wednesday 10 January 2018 – well within the drinking window.

Lastly, although it doesn't taste like wine, you should serve it like wine: chilled (to about 8 ºC/45 ºF) and in a normal wine glass [preferably mine – JR]. Being bone dry yet full-flavoured, it would go with a range of salty canapés or starters. Our resident food-and-wine matcher Tam suggests being more adventurous than the standard Manzanilla match of olives and salted almonds: try charcuterie, anchovies, garlic prawns, smoked chicken – anything salty and full-flavoured. A good Christmas-starter wine perhaps?

Hildalgo Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada NV is widely available in the UK, at The Wine Society for £11.95, at Waitrose for £12.99 and at Majestic for £13.99 (£11.99 as part of a mixed six). Wine-Searcher also lists it in the US, Canada and New Zealand, and in Europe in Spain, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Russia. Wine-Searcher doesn't say so, but it's also widely available at the Spanish department-store chain El Corte Ingles.

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