All sherry begins its life as white wine (usually, but not always, made from the palomino fino grape) that is fortified with grape spirit and aged in oak after fermentation. The process gets a bit more complicated after that. The easiest way to make sense of things is to divide sherries into three categories: the pale, dry ones aged entirely or partially under a white crust of yeast, called flor, which prevents oxidation (these include finos and manzanillas, as well as amontillados); the darker, richer ones aged completely or mostly without flor (such as deep amber olorosos and the rarer palo cortados); and the intensely sweet dessert sherries classified as PX, for pedro ximénez, the type of grape used to make it (these sherries are generally used for blending, but every once in a while an exceptional old PX is bottled). Here are seven bottles that I found to be excellent expressions of each of sherry's principal styles.
González Byass Noé Muy Viejo VORS ($45/375 ml). Grape stems, raisins, molasses, caramel, road tar, fig newton: this 30-year-old PX envelops the nose with all things dark and rich and sweet.
González Byass Tio Pepe Fino ($18). The benchmark fino. The very essence of dryness, with an intriguing, umami note of soy sauce and mushrooms.
Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla ($14/500 ml). Just as dry as the Tio Pepe, but with a touch less umami and the presence of the green apple notes characteristic of a manzanilla.
Lustau Solera Reserva Dry Oloroso "Don Nuño" ($28). A classic old oloroso from the 112-year-old Lustau winery: juicier than the Península (below), with heady hints of truffle.
Lustau Solera Reserva Palo Cortado Península ($28). Palo cortados are said to straddle the median between crisp amonti llado and dark, rich oloroso; that is precisely what this one does: nuts and brine mingle with a lively acidity, balanced by a little richness in the mouth.
Sandeman Character Medium Dry Amontillado ($15). Perfectly balanced: nutty and raisiny, with a hint of brininess and a good acidity. A great sherry for mixing.
Williams & Humbert Dry Sack 15 Year Sweet Old Oloroso ($25). Dry Sack is a proprietary blend and not dry at all. When old, like this one, Dry Sack sherries become intense, dark, fruity, and redolent of blackberries. A perfect dessert wine.