Three major reasons to fall in love with sherry in 2011

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Next Monday is Valentine's Day, and while most adore this heart-riddled holiday, plenty of peeps loathe everything about it. With all the pressure to be coupled up, there's only one thing to do to avoid the drama: fall in love with a sexy, enticing stranger with a past. Be warned: This won't be your typical dalliance. Are you ready to push aside your preconceived notions about romance and explore some exciting possibilities? Well, get ready to meet sherry, your newest flame.

Okay, so by now you've probably figured out that sherry's not some random girl, but a fortified wine from the southernmost tip of Spain. What is it about sherry that strikes fear in the hearts of even the most adventurous wine drinkers? Maybe it's the image of your grandma's house, with its crystal sherry decanter perched on a dusty bureau next to the armchair (the one with the knitted cozies on the armrest). Time to get over that first impression, because sherry's enjoying quite a comeback, and is currently popping up on the trendiest of wine lists. Since 2011 is all about drinking better wine, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than sherry to continue all the good work you've started. Here's what you need to know to make this romance last a lifetime:

What the F?: F is for fortified, which is the wine category that sherry fits into, right alongside port and Madeira. Fortified wines are those wines to which neutral grape spirits are added during or after the fermentation process, which results in higher alcohol levels and, depending on other steps taken during fermentation, an increased level of sweetness. Contrary to what the name might imply, fortified wines will not make you stronger, so beware of excessive consumption. On the flip side, fortification means that most sherries last a good bit longer than standard table wines, so you'll have more time than usual to fall in love these bottles.

Style matters: Sherries come in a variety of styles. On the lighter side is fino sherry, which is barrel-aged under a cap of flor yeast (don't gag -- it's a natural by-product of the winemaking process). Fino sherries are pale golden in color and typically quite dry. Next up are amontillado sherries, which get their toasty, nutty flavor from oxidation and/or a bit more fortification. Rich, caramel-y oloroso (Spanish for "scented") sherries are aged longer than both fino and amontillado sherries and pack quite the boozy punch, which make them superb for heartier fare. Pedro Ximenez (lovingly referred to as PX in the wine biz), along with cream sherries, round out the pack with their raisin-y aromas and dessert-worthy flavors. The point of all this book learnin' is that you've gotta play the field in order to find the perfect sherry for you. If you typically gravitate toward crisp, refreshing white wines, you'll likely find yourself attracted to the lighter varieties. Are you more a fan of bold, new world reds or dessert wines that pack a serious fruity punch? Cozy up to the latter group.

Your ideal match: Hands down, the number one reason to fall in love with sherry this year is for its incredible ability to mesh with a wide range of culinary partners. Sherry is a huge part of Spanish tapas service, where lean, almost salty-tasting fino or manzanilla sherries are paired up with traditional bites like Manchego cheese, chorizo and Serrano ham. Don't feel like you have to keep it as simple as that, though. Drier sherries pair stunningly well with dishes of virtually all styles and cuisines, but if there was one surefire way to go, I'd say to start with anything salty, crispy, seafood-y or meaty. Prime examples: shrimp ceviche. Anything with bacon. Hot, buttered popcorn. Mussels and frites. Prosciutto-wrapped melon.

Ready to take the plunge and fall in love with sherry? Plan a delicious first date with any one of these three bottles:

Lustau Solera Reserva Puerto Fino Sherry ($18): A classic fino that's far from boring, this wine just might inspire love at first sip. You'll be inspired by intense aromas of dried fruit and impassioned by its palate of toasted almond. Make it a real love match by drinking it with classic tapas, or maybe even a platter of fried chicken.

Dios Baco Amontillado Sherry ($22): Oh, lover! Here we have a supple, smoky sherry that's incredibly complex, yet easy to drink. With its salted toffee flavors finished off with a slightly bitter undertone, you'll be lusting after this wine, especially when you pair it with a dish like paella.

Hidalgo NV Morenita Cream Sherry ($14): Although cream sherries tend to catch a rash of shit for being overly sweet, this wine recently paired just as well with a dish of striped bass escabeche (a technique that involves pickling the fish with sherry vinegar) as it did with a dessert of thyme-scented flan and caramelized pears.

Here's to finding new love this Valentine's Day.

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Just buy one bottle each of:

LUSTAU MANZANILLA Aged under a veil of yeast (“flor”) in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the wine has a pale colour, hints of the sea breeze on the nose, and a delicate acidity. Serve well chilled (7-9ºC). A good match for fish and seafood.

LUSTAU FINO Pale in colour, crisp, yet soft on the palate, with light acidity and a yeasty tang. Aged under “flor”. Serve well chilled (7-9ºC) as an aperitif or to accompany fish and seafood. Also a good match for sushi or sashimi.

LUSTAU AMONTILLADOA dark golden colour. Full bodied, with penetrating nutty aromas. Serve at 14ºC with nuts and dried fruits, consommé, white meats, artichokes and spicy Asian dishes.

LUSTAU PALO CORTADO This wine combines the richness on the palate of the Oloroso with the delicacy on nose of the Amontillado. It is perfect to accompany nuts, matured cheeses, dried fruits and red meats. Serve at 16ºC. LUSTAU OLOROSOOld gold in colour. Full- bodied and with great intensity on the nose due to the long ageing. This wine combines softness and great complexity, giving enormous length on the palate. Rich stews and red meats would be a very good food pairing for this wine. It is also an excellent digestif.

LUSTAU CREAM This style is a blend of Oloroso and a touch of Pedro Ximénez. Sweet and soft with excellent depth and delicate aromas. Serve at 13º with light desserts or as a digestif with ice.

LUSTAU MOSCATEL This Moscatel must be catalogued as one of the best dessert wines of the world. It shows the distinct characteristics of the grape of the same name, with citrus notes on the nose and a warm softness on the palate. It is perfect served at 13ºC with fruit based desserts.

LUSTAU PEDRO XIMÉNEZProduced exclusively with Pedro Ximénez grapes, which are sun-dried until they become raisins. This is a dense, soft, sweet and velvety wine of a dark mahogany colour with rich aromas of figs and raisins. Serve at 13ºC with chocolate desserts, crème brûlée, or poured over vanilla ice-cream.

And taste and experiment.

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