Get to Know Tapas and the Wines They Pair With

From the lecture series: The Everyday Gourmet — The Joy of Mediterranean Cooking

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America

Everyone loves the small-dish tradition of Spain known as tapas, but how did they come to be, and why do you pair them with certain wines?

A selection of Spanish tapas

As you go around the Mediterranean, it seems every country has some small dish tradition. Tapas made their way to Spain with the Moors from North Africa. They enjoyed mezze, but when that idea came to Spain, they bumped into a little bit of a disconnect because Spaniards consumed alcohol where the Moors did not. Traditionally, tapas are served with a glass of sherry, which is made in Spain.

There is a fun story about the origin of tapas. A guest was sitting in a bar drinking a glass of sherry and eating a few almonds. For whatever reason, the guest walked away and left the wine behind.

When you have a salty piece of cheese to enjoy with your wine, you might linger longer.

The bartender noticed a few fruit flies buzzing around the glass. He cut a slice of bread and laid it on top of the glass, like a lid. Tapas means lid or top. When the guest came back, he picked the bread up, dipped it in the sherry, and ate it. He then had a sip of the wine. Any bartender worth their salt would notice this set of actions. The next day, the bread was back on top of the sherry glass, but sitting on top of the bread was a salty piece of cheese. When you have a salty piece of cheese to enjoy with your wine, you might linger longer, and the salt will encourage you to drink more. The day after, a piece of salty ham was added to the cheese and the bread. And that was how tapas were born.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: The Joy of Mediterranean Cooking. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Tapas can be composed of grilled food, stewed food, or even raw food, along with olives, cheese, or almonds. All of these ingredients make up a class of small dishes that often is enjoyed separate from a meal.

glasses of sherry


Because sherry is fortified, it is really not appropriate to use as a table wine. That’s the reason we drink them before the meal, with tapas. They’re powerful—too strong to enjoy with a meal. However, as an aperitif, we can give them two enthusiastic thumbs up. There are many sherries to choose from, and many of them are better with certain types of tapas.


Many sherries are made from a grape called palomino. The grape is harvested and it’s vinified. When the grape has been turned into wine, they taste it and they evaluate it, and they look for finer examples, ones that may have a little bit more acidity and a nice structure, and they reserve those for what’s known as Fino or fine sherry. The Fino then is fortified with a grape brandy in order to preserve the wine. That takes the Fino up to about 15% alcohol. The wine is then aged in a very particular way—known as a solera system.

Stacked barrels

The wine is then aged in a very particular way—known as a solera system. It’s a rack that holds a series of barrels, one on top of the other, with the Fino going into the top barrels. As more wine comes into the cellar, the wine from the top barrels is brought down to the next layer, and the new wine goes into the top barrels, and so on, until all the barrels are filled. The number of barrels ranges from three barrels to nine barrels high. The reason for this labor-intensive system is twofold: First, they want to guarantee, over many vintages of wine, a uniformity of products. They want the wines to taste the same year after year after year. By blending wines over ten years, you get a uniformity that is undeniable. The other reason—and this applies to this Fino in particular—is that as the wine ages in the barrel, a film of yeast called flor forms on the top of the wine. This biological film of yeast actually protects the wine below from oxidation. As the yeast eats from the wine, the sugars are used up. Unless you add fresh wine to feed the yeast, the yeast will falter and die. This protects the wine from oxidizing.

Fino is dry. There’s no sweetness in this wine. It’s a little bit sharp. It’s got crisp acidity. It’s a light wine. There’s a little bitterness to it, but not much of the nuttiness that maybe you associate with some of these other wines. This would be a great crisp wine to enjoy with salty ingredients, like olives and salted almonds, or maybe with seafood. Grilled seafood or poached seafood, marinated seafood would taste great with Fino.


Manzanilla is made in almost exactly the same style, but it comes from a different part of Spain, closer to the coast. Manzanilla is also protected by the layer of flor, so it’s fortified to about 15% alcohol. It goes through the same solera system, and it’s protected from oxidation by that film of yeast.The color is a little bit darker, which means it’s going to be a fuller wine. Manzanilla has a citrusy quality—kind of a green apple quality. Many people believe that because it grows close to the coast you can taste sort of a briny, sea salt quality to it. If Fino was good with marinated shrimp, then grilling those shrimp would be more appropriate for a heavier wine like this.


Next is a sherry called Amontillado. Amontillado may begin its life as a Fino or it may begin its life as a Manzanilla, but for some reason, the flor falters and dies off.

Amontillado sherry

As it’s no longer protected by this biological film, it now begins to age oxidatively. This is the reason that it appears browned. To protect this wine, it is fortified to a higher level—it can be up to 22% alcohol. The flor needs lower alcohol if it’s going to survive, but in this wine, because the flor is already gone, they can fortify the wine and preserve it through added alcohol.

Given its color, this sherry is going to have a nuttiness. This flavor is what a lot of people associate with sherry. It’s not quite as dry. It has this perception of sweetness and a wonderful nuttiness that might be the perfect thing to go along with these Marcona almonds. As noted, it’s higher in alcohol and it tends to be a rounder, softer wine, not quite so sharp as the Fino and the Manzanilla. It can be enjoyed with heavier foods, such as a bartender’s chorizo.


The next step along this continuum is what I think of as “the big boy” of aperitif sherries. Oloroso is aged for even longer than the other wines. It is also allowed to oxidize more. Oftentimes, Oloroso will have a little bit of residual sweetness to it. Because it is aged for extra time, you can expect more of that deep, full, nutty flavor. Oloroso can be enjoyed with something rich, like pate. It has a little bit of sweetness to it that pate just loves.

Palo Cortado

Glasses of Sherry

Now we come to an anomaly—an interesting wine. This wine is called Palo Cortado. Now, Palo Cortado began its life as a Fino, with the flor over the top. It was only 15% alcohol. But the flor, in the first year or so, faltered, so you could no longer make a Fino out of this wine. When this happens, they age it for the rest of its life oxidatively. They add a little bit of extra alcohol to preserve it. The result is that you get the bright acidity of a Fino and the crispness of a Fino, but with the nuttiness an Amontillado. Palo Cortado is a rare sherry. It’s really delicious.

Dessert Sherries

Dessert sherries are made to be consumed after the meal.
The first on you should consider is cream sherry. A common version is called Oloroso, which has had a sweet wine added to it. Based on that, you can guess this sherry is sweet on your palate. And so if you enjoy sherry and you enjoy that nuttiness, but you like your wine sweet, this might be a good choice.

This last wine is called PX, short for Pedro Ximenez—the grape that the wine is made from. These grapes are harvested before they’re vinified. They are then allowed to dry for a week or more, so they begin to raisin just a little bit. This means they are much sweeter and a little bit raisiny. Then they’re vinified into wine and aged for a long period. When you smell PX, you can smell the raisins. It’s a very complex wine.

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Quick Guide to Sherries

  • Aperitif sherries are consumed before a meal, with tapas, because they are too strong to enjoy with a meal.
  • Dessert sherries are consumed after a meal. Aperitif Sherries Fino is a dry sherry that is a great crisp wine to enjoy with salty ingredients like olives and salted almonds, or maybe with grilled, poached, or marinated seafood.
  • Manzanilla is a fuller, heavier dry wine that pairs well with grilled seafood.
  • Amontillado is not quite as dry or sharp as fino and Manzanilla. Its sweetness and nuttiness go well with Marcona almonds, for example. This type of rounder, softer sherry is enjoyed with heavier foods, such as bartender’s chorizo.
  • Oloroso is aged for extra time, so it is sweeter and nuttier in flavor. This wine can be enjoyed with something rich like pâté.
  • Palo cortado is a rare sherry that tastes like a mixture between a fino and an amontillado. It has the bright acidity and crispness of a fino with the nuttiness of an amontillado. It’s a light, refreshing wine.

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Dessert Sherries

  • Cream sherry is a very sweet and nutty wine that is a delightful way to end a meal.
  • Pedro Ximénez is a very sweet and syrupy dessert wine.
Stuffed Olives

Make a Stuffed Olives Tapa to Pair with a Dessert Sherry

You can decide what you want to stuff the olives with. Common ingredients include garlic, jalapeños, blue cheese, or pimento cheese.

Ingredients: Olives and Anchovies

  • 12 large green olives pitted
  • 2 piquillo pepper canned
  • 12 white anchovies (boquerones)


  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 3/4 tsp orange zest
  • sherry vinegar splash
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Cooking Instructions

To make this simple tapa, start with some pitted green olives. Cut them open— but not all the way through—at the top. Insert a white anchovy that has been cured and then soaked in olive oil and white wine vinegar. On top of the white anchovy, put some roasted pepper.

Next, make a simple dressing to go on top of the stuffed olives. Put some garlic in a bowl with some orange zest, sherry vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. The olives, anchovies, and roasted peppers all taste great on their own, so you don’t need to add too much dressing to the stuffed olives. Taste the dressing to make sure you’re happy with the flavor, and then spoon it on top of the stuffed olives

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Common Questions About Tapas

Q: What exactly are tapas?

Tapas are small dishes, sent to the table as soon as they are ready, and meant to be shared casually among a group of people, usually while drinking paired wines.

Q: How many tapas should I order?

Three tapas plates per person is usually considered very adequate when dining in a group.

Q: Is there a difference between appetizers and tapas?

The difference between appetizers and tapas is that appetizers are considered a compliment to the forthcoming meal and are usually larger than tapas, while tapas are small plates that comprise the meal in a manner similar to snacking while drinking with friends.

Q: Where do tapas come from?

Tapas are considered to be from Spain originally, with an origin legend claiming that a King Alfonso the 10th, The Wise King of Spain, was ill and could only eat small portions with wine.

This article was updated on 1/13/2020

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