Editor’s Note: After five years on the job, Joe Appel will write his last weekly Portland Press Herald wine column on Sept. 7. We’ll miss his lyrical, provocative, funny and challenging column, and we wish him luck with other ventures.

I’m wondering how to bring this column, which I often think of as one contiguous conversation, to a fitting close. My last column will run in two weeks. But there is always something more to talk about.

Let’s spend our remaining time together exploring a couple of wine categories that in one way or another bend our conception of what wine is. They plead with us to develop a more flexible, open appreciation for what it can do. The most important thing wine does is show us it can always do more.

If we let it.

I used to study yoga with a teacher who taught pranayama, the practice of working with the breath to adjust and administer energy. A fellow student asked whether practicing the techniques presented any physical or physiological risks.

“None at all,” came my teacher’s answer, “since you’re not going to do it.” The implication was that the deeper, more central components of yoga practice consistently lose out to the aerobicized physical stretching regimens that have taken the modern middle class by storm.

So it is with fino and manzanilla, the dry fortified wines of Jerez-Sherry-Xérès and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, respectively. These are some of the finest, most intricate, most expressive, most beautiful wines in the world. They make most non-sherry wines seem jokey and insignificant by comparison. But you’re not going to do it. But you should. But you’re not going to. But there’s very little risk. Really.

Let’s do it together, beginning with the first impressions we’re likely to encounter upon taking a sip.

Fino and manzanilla are dry wines that are truly dry. It is rare – very, very rare – to find an unfortified wine, white or red, that inhabits the same universe of dryness as fino and manzanilla.

Conventional wines, even the ones that are fermented completely and are not overtly sweet, usually contain 1-3 grams of sugar per liter. This sweetness is directly related to the pleasure they provide, which depends upon the interplay between fruit and their other components. Dry sherry is made from grapes, usually palomino, but the action rarely has anything to do with fruit. That’s the first shock of it.

For fino and manzanilla, the lightest, freshest and driest of sherries, the next shock is that what substitutes for fruitiness is not the earthiness of other fortified wines such as Madeira or tawny Port, but oceanic salinity. Oyster shell, iodine, sea grass, brine and kelp are some of the most common tasting-note analogies.

Simplistically, pinot grigio is fruit plus acid, Bordeaux is fruit plus earth, Rhône is fruit plus spice. Fino and manzanilla are just the vast, broad sea.

That and yeast. Yeast plays a more crucial role in sherry’s upbringing than in any other wine, and dominates the taste sensations centrally. In the Jerez region of Andalucià, Spain, yeasts are permitted to grow into vast, complex colonies known as flor. Without flor, there is no fino or manzanilla.

Flor develops differently in each particular bodega (sherry winery), forming a thick “velo,” or veil, that protects the aging wine from oxidation as it consumes vast amounts of grape sugar.

The yeasty, sometimes sourdough-like tang in these “biologically aged” sherries is a direct sensory link to the action of the living yeast colonies upon the finished wine. Four distinct races of Saccharomyces yeasts can make up flor, but each bodega’s – and even each barrel’s – particular make-up is unique.

The biological aging to which fino and manzanilla are subjected also strips the wines of glycerol. This is why beyond the unique taste sensation of the wines, the mouthfeel is so shockingly pared down, naked and austere.

Any softness in the wines is merely hinted at, and the pinpoint tang of fortification – a bitter, piercing zip of alcohol – works as a sort of substitute for non-sherry wines’ acidity.

After the aging comes the “solera” system of fractional blending, in which multiple vintages are periodically moved to different barrels and different locations within the bodega.

The barrels are arranged in various groups called “criaderas,” or scales, each of which contains wine of a different age. As wine is removed from one scale – laws stipulate the maximum that can be drawn off each year – new wine is introduced.

Bottles are filled from the barrels closest to the ground in the oldest scale, which is called, somewhat confusingly, the solera.

Through years of moving through the solera system, the wines gain layers of complexity, juxtaposing and integrating the freshness and vibrancy of youth with the maturity and placidity of age.

A well-known wine importer has chosen as his motto, “Place over process,” a sentiment followed or at least appreciated by just about everyone professing to be serious about wine. Yet with sherry, it is the unique winemaking process that sets the wines apart.

Sherry is a blended wine, but the blend is of time rather than geographic location. Its motto may as well be, “Process in place.”

The Jerez region’s blindingly white chalky soil, the hot, arid home to very old and often pre-phylloxera vines of palomino grapes, brings the wines a certain sort of character. But it is the way a particular flor develops, the varying temperatures of different locations in each bodega, the nature of the barrels and the way a given producer blends together different wines through the solera system that determines the ultimate distinctive thumbprint of each wine.

In this way, sherry is the whiskey, rye or bourbon of wines.

All of this is a bare, summative gloss on how special sherry is. I haven’t even distinguished between fino and manzanilla, which are made similarly but in different locations that express slightly different categorical personalities. (Generally, manzanilla is somewhat lighter, more saline, less nutty, more delicate.)

Anyone interested in more practical information is directed to sherrynotes.com, and the extraordinary book “Sherry, Manzanilla and Montilla” by Peter Liem and Jesús Barquín. My approach today is a Hail Mary to just get you to try these wines, by evoking the different-ness of its world. One last way I’ll attempt to increase my odds is to talk about sherry with food.

Fino and manzanilla are not the world’s most versatile wines with food, but the matings that are successful have no equal, indeed are some of the greatest food/wine pairings that exist. They are so sophisticated, yet their sophistication is rooted in a celebration of snacking.

Fino or manzanilla with lightly brined green olives, hard sheep cheeses, some fresh goat cheeses, cured ham, oysters, boquerones (marinated anchovies), Marcona almonds pan-roasted in olive oil and salt, tomato salads (especially the peerless Spanish tapa pan con tomate), marinated vegetables – these are all Hall of Fame matches.

Foods that present insurmountable challenges to most wines – dishes with strong vinegar components, artichokes, asparagus – are set at ease by these sherries’ lack of glycerin and volatile acidity. Sushi and fried fish are brilliant as well.

Treat these fresh, delicate wines with care. Once they are opened, consume bottles within two or three days, unlike oxidatively aged sherries (olorosos, creams) which are stable for months. (That open bottle of Tio Pepe fino in your bar set-up was initially excellent, but by now has nothing of value to offer.)

Moreover, finos and manzanillas are at their best within 12 to 18 months of bottling, and degrade relatively quickly thereafter. Some sherries now list bottling date, which is helpful; otherwise, you should gently ask your shopkeeper or bartender how long the bottle has been on the premises. (Unfortunately, it’s harder to find out how long the distributor was sitting on it before it got there.) I’ve found the wines to remain more-than-decent after that year-plus, but you won’t be getting their best.

Luckily for us, very little mediocre fino and manzanilla is even produced these days, much less exported to the United States. I am especially taken with the Bodegas Yuste “Aurora” Manzanilla ($17, 500ml), a silky balance of fresh apple, seawater and toasted almond.

The well-known “La Guita” Manzanilla ($16, 750ml; $9, 375ml) is lovely as well, with greener notes (apple, olive) and a slightly creamier texture.

For finos, I keep returning to the Emilio Hidalgo ($16, 750ml), which almost is Serrano ham, at once salty, robust, subtly smoky, lightly fatted, with the hint of a sweetness that departed long ago.

The Lustau Jarana Fino ($18, 750ml) is balanced and nut-flecked, with surprising length.

Dios Baco produces a range of sherries that lean toward the rich, aromatic and full-figured, and even their Fino ($25, 750ml ) and Manzanilla ($14, 500ml) fit that mold, their salty and floral aspects rather bold and satiny.

These are important wines. They are not oddities or gimmicks, though they might seem somewhat strange to a palate trained toward a limited set of expectations.

Their strangeness, actually, is a big part of why they are important. And yet their power is how natural and common their strangeness starts to seem, once you make them a regular part of your life. You won’t do it – unless you will.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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