Sunday, December 6, 2009

An Homage to Sherry

Sherry is a terribly underestimated, misunderstood, and overlooked wine. Sadly, a lot of folks seem to associate it with something sweet that is to be enjoyed after dinner, or something that only old ladies drink when it's too early to knock back a vodka martini or a scotch on the rocks. However, I would like to convince you that Sherry is a world-class wine that deserves a little more recognition and appreciation than it currently receives.

Most Sherry is made primarily from a grape called Palomino Fino which on it's own doesn't really taste like much. Through centuries of wine-making practice, man has perfected the art of taking a pretty humble base wine and turning it into something really special. One could say the same thing about another wine that is held in much higher esteem, Champagne. The magic, not unlike the "Methode Champenoise," comes in from the native yeast cultures where Sherry is made and from the complicated process of blending across vintages before final bottling takes place. Some Sherries may even be blended back across several decades! Look for a label that says something like "Solera 1876," meaning that the oldest Cask of Sherry blended into the wine comes from that year! When was the last time you had a $10 bottle of wine that was older than even five years?

From a technical standpoint, Sherry is classified as a fortified wine. Alcohol is added to the base wine after a light fermentation has occurred. They can be anywhere in strength from around 13˚ to 20˚+ abv. The idea of fortifying wine is fairly old and was invented as a means of keeping the wine stable for long ship voyages. Initially, it ages under the cover of a protective yeast called Flor. The best wines are unadulterated and bottled immediately as Fino or Manzanilla, but if the Flor dies and the wine is allowed to oxidize, a myriad of other styles can be produced. Maturation takes place in barrel and can be prolonged under oxidative conditions for decades creating complex and deep earthy funky aromas.

We know from centuries of literature that the history of drinking Sherry is rich and that it wasn't intended just for trade to the colonists. Both poet and peasant alike have enjoyed Sherry equally throughout the years. Edgar Allen Poe's famous "Cask of Amontillado" revolves around the humble wine in question, and the term "sacked" comes from the 16th century when British pirates, like Sir Francis Drake, who raided Spanish Armadas to steal, among other things, Sherry or "Sac" intended for trade. The British were mad for "Sac" and it was the drink of choice for many in the Elizabethan Period. In fact, William Shakespeare referred to "Sac" in some of his plays and poems.

So, why do I love Sherry? For one thing, it's an incredible value. I've never seen a 750 ml bottle retail for more than $25, and that's for some mighty fine wine. Most of it goes for around $10. I don't know many other cheap wines that see quite the amount of careful aging and careful wine-making that go into the average bottle. And unlike most $10 wines, if you open it, it will last you for more than a day or two because most Sherry undergoes deliberate oxidization, wine's nemesis. You can enjoy just a glass or two at a time over the course of a couple of weeks without having to be afraid it will go bad. I rarely end up with Sherry on the verge of going bad, but in the event that I do, it's a welcome addition to just about everything I like to cook.

I also like the variety that the numerous styles of Sherry present. I can always think of one type or another that will fit just about any meal or occasion. I like to drink dry crisp Fino Sherry before dinner and with light lunches and cold suppers. Its savory, salty elements go great with seafood and cured meats. Look for Tio Pepe, as an example of Fino, at your local wine shop. Amontillado, usually a dry wine, can be pretty serious and deserves a place at the dinner table. Try it with roasted poultry and with egg dishes, which are often difficult to pair with other dry wines. You can easily substitute it for a full-bodied white or light red. Dry Oloroso, with its signature walnut aroma, is great with fall and winter root vegetable soup and risotto as well as just about any type of grilled meat. The more common sweet Oloroso is fabulous with cheese - especially full-flavored creamy blues and hard salty aged sheep's milk cheeses. Cream Sherry, sweetened with Pedro Ximenez, is spectacular by itself or with rich chocolate desserts. I was once very humbled and humiliated by the rave tasting note I gave on the inexpensive and looked-down-upon Harvey's Bristol Cream in a blind tasting. Fortunately, I'm over all of that now, and I can enjoy cream Sherry with reckless abandon!

So, if you're getting bored with the same old Chardonnay or Shiraz, give Sherry a try. With an open mind, you can learn to appreciate its extraordinary complexity. Drink it on its own or try mixing it with orange juice and citrus vodka for a refreshing cocktail. My promise to you is that if you don't like it, I'll drink it!

Recommended Sherry Resources:
Taberna de Haro, Brookline, MA
Gonzalez Byass, Sherry producer

No comments:

Post a Comment