Our eating and drinking correspondent, Don Merlot, has been way -- doing what he does best: eating and drinking. El Don is back with this, the latest installment in his lifelong saga as an itinerant trencherman.
Move Over Old Darlings, Sherry Has New Cachet
By Don Merlot
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Encountering sherry wine re-enforced for me the differences of our American gastronomic culture and how our eating habits have been set for centuries in the Modern West. I like to use the metaphor of a mosaic versus a tapestry. Those terms were used as I either added it to my skills and or I brought the new skills into my persona. I did not have a tradition of sherry wine except to say that my parents always had a bottle of sherry with the Christmas turkey. I remember the taste and I liked it. So on one of my first business trip to do business in New York in the first year of my career, one of the art directors at our advertising agency started a dinner for me with an aperitif. He chose a “copita”(a Spanish sherry goblet) of Tio Pepe, a Fino sherry that was served chilled. The usual American business aperitif was a Martini or a whiskey and water. But my friend Lucci insisted I have his favorite aperitif that he loved since living in Madrid. Starting that night I weaved it into my tapestry of wine culture. The Fino sherry is a magnificent white wine that is perfect with almonds and stuffed Spanish olives, Manchego Cheese and Jamon Serrano (air cured ham from Spain) I became enamored with Fino sherry.
I was able to expand my knowledge as I started visiting England, Spain and Holland. In Spain I learned a Spanish option when going out in Madrid for the Spanish tapas is to drink sherry. It is a matter of national taste. In my case, when doing tapas I would go to various offerings of tapas but the drink was always a Jerez Fino. The tapas ritual was very unique to the European dinner process. After traveling and after a day’s work I would go back to the hotel and at 7 PM I would meet my colleagues and go to do tapas – “chupar los dedos”: which translates as suck you fingers – or as my generation’s cliché saying goes -– “finger lickin' good. ”In three hours we could do three or for tapas places. Usually by 10:30 P.M. we would go off to a formal dinner.In London I found great sherry bars and pubs that would still have these gigantic barrels of sherry –- decoration and storage? The English custom after work is another type of routine. We would go to a pub: some English do like and have sherry, but as an aperitif they prefer a pint of bitter beer or a whiskey with “American dry ginger.” But the sherry was good and I learned to appreciate dry Sherry Fino and or Manzanilla, another light white wine which is part of the Sherry culture and the same process of as a Fino. People who wanted to share their knowledge with me, taught me about other types of Sherry. With aging the color will become more amber and it can taste like walnuts and or Hazelnuts. In Amsterdam I found Sherry bars were also very popular. As in the case of England, the culture liked fuller and a broader taste. I also enjoyed learning about Amontillados and Oloroso in London and Amsterdam.
So sherry is a wine and it differs from the still wines that developed in the east and Western Europe -- France, Switzerland, and Germany; sherry’s roots came from the East too. Archaeologists can trace the sherry wines back to the Phoenicians in 1100 B.C. (BCE). Gades, the ancient name for Cadiz, was founded in the province of Andalucía. The Phoenicians came over from what is now known as Lebanon and settled in the region they called Xena.The wine culture that developed under the Roman period was Vintum Ceretensis –- and the wines became popular in Rome and today are known as the wines from Cadiz.After the Roman Empire and the Christianization of the Iberian Isthmus, Spain was invaded by the Moors who were extending and spreading the Islamic faith -– submission to Allah. Ethnically Spain is a tapestry of Celtic, Moorish, Germanic tribes, Roman, and Jewish cultures. The period up to 1492 was a period known as the “Conveniencia.” (Convenient cultural and religious accord of Christians, Jews and Muslims). Southern Iberia was controlled and dominated by the Moors, from the northern African region who crossed the Straits between the Isthmus and Africa – the straits of Gibraltar. The Koran, the writings of Mohammed, declaring Allah’s word had social laws that alcohol in Moorish Spain should be banned. The vineyards were not however shut down. The Muslim Armies needed Raisins and alcohol for medicinal reasons and the Umayyad dynasty of the Al-Andalus continued to provide these necessities and continued the trade. The region that was protected was called in Arabic –Seris-,pronounced as Sherish and became in English Sherry. In Spain it became Xerez or Jerez. Original Moorish maps show this area is original and in modern days when sherry went to protect its name they could show that the Sherry region is indeed the original root of this type of wine.
Andalucía under the Moors was Al-Andalus and previous to the occupation it had been invaded by the German Vandals. In addition to Sherry its reputation is now synonymous for its cuisine, Flamenco Music, and its historical port cities. In 1264 the Castilian border of Castilla and Andalucía became the border and the words Jerez de la Frontera were popularized. Today Jerez de la Frontera is synonymous with sherry’s principal depot.
So sherry survived the Koranic restrictions. The Reconquista regenerated the sherry vineyards. In 1492 the Moors were expelled from Spain and the country which had become unified under the Catholic Kings – Ferdinand (house of Aragon) and Isabel (the house of Castile) who started its expansion path to become the most powerful country in Europe. 1492 is also the year that the Jews & the Islam were expelled from Spain and Christopher Columbus was enabled to leave from the Andalucian town of Puerto Palos on his first voyage west, where he was credited in finding the New World - Although he thought he had found China (Cathay) but that is another story. In addition to Cristobal Colon (the Spanish for Christopher Columbus), the Spanish Crown funded the round the world trip for Ferdinand Magellan in 1519. He took 417 wine skins of Sherry and 253 Kegs of Sherry with him on his voyage. In 1483 wine guilds codified the Sherry wines.
Spain became very wealthy from the new world’s gold and silver treasures taken from the Aztecs and Incas pre-Columbian empires. The wines of Andalucía were exported to England as fortified - (alcohol is added at fermentation and stops the aging process) -wines and they became known as Sherish (Sherry). England’s Henry I traded wool for Sherry wine. The wine was sold in barrels and botas (butts). In 1587 Francis Drake invaded Cadiz and his captured booty was 2,900 pipes (110 –gallon barrels which got Sherry in volume popularized in England. The Sephardim Jews of Cadiz were the wine brokers that sold the wine, raisins & alcohol to the English and the expanding Muslim army to keep within the Koranic laws and after they were expelled, British families settled in Andalucía to control the flow of wine to England. Once the New World was colonized the Sherry wine culture expanded to the Americas. Holland was politically controlled under Carlos V (the Holy Roman Emperor) – known as the Spanish Netherlands. The Dutch liked the taste of sherry which was bolder than the still wines from France.
The definition of sherry that is available at the wine store can be explained as follows. There are two types: Fino and Oloroso. These are process definitions:
The Fino uses yeast, the flor, which is added to the wine making process to prevent the wine from being oxidized and preserves the light dry taste and clear light color. The Oloroso adds alcohol after the vinification at the ageing process that controls the growth of the Flor and allows oxidation and the wine becomes nutty and the color turns amber. The labels will read as follows.
Manzanilla –- which is a form of Fino that is matured by the sea at Sanlucar de Barrameda, the Flor becomes quite thick and when served you close your eyes and whiff the smell of the sea salt. There is a Manzanilla Pasada occasionally offered that is superior to a Fino.
The prime varietal of the Fino is the “Palomino” and is not aged and served chilled pale and dry. Finos are like white still wines and should be consumed early after release, and they do not age well. The taste sensation is almonds. Once opened they do not have a long life. As the Fino process matures it becomes an Amontillado. The last stage is called the “Fino Viejo” or “Viejisimo” which is an Amontillado stage and significantly becomes the ultimate fine wine with finesse and remains dry, austere, and straw pale.
Amontillado –- is packaged with this label and once the Fino reaches this threshold, it can be sold as a medium Sherry. It has a taste sensation of hazelnuts. It gets its name from the town of Montilla. It is not as fine as a Fino.
Oloroso –- is the dark, full flavored sherry that is usually dry but some are sweet and can be blended with the varietals Pedro Ximenez or the Moscatel. There is a walnut flavor here.
For special English markets there are blended Sherries that are labeled Cream, Milk and are quite (Sweetened Amontillados blended with the Pedro Ximenez)
Sherries differ from the still wine process also because of the “Solera process” which works as follows: If we think of Three barrels that are connected to each other and are part of the sherry wine process.
The last barrel has the oldest wines of the process and the first barrel gets the newest vinefied wine. The middle barrel gets the first barrel liquid release which is the equal amount of the new wine, and the last barrel releases for bottling the equal amount that has moved along the process to make room for the middle barrel release. Sherry takes a long time (5 years) to go from vineyard to bottling and picks up wonderful flavors and subtleties from the different rich batches. This long process is a good value as Sherry wines have a high labor intensive cost but are very competitively priced in the UK, Holland and the USA.
In modern parlance the sherries that are marketed in the 21st Century and are popular in London and New York are:
Manzanilla, which is from Sanlucar de Barrameda, is 15°- 19° alcohol. Also prized is the Manzanilla Pasada.
Fino, 15 -19, dry and a hint flavor of Almonds.
Amontillado, 16 – 22 has a hint of flavor of hazelnuts
Oloroso, 17 - 22, has the hint of hint of a flavor of walnuts.
Palo Cortado, 18 – 20, has the hint of a flavor of hazelnuts.
The varietal of Fino is Palomino and these wines are pale, light in color and are served chilled
The varietal of Oloroso when sweet is blended with Pedro Ximenez, whose color is a dark mahogany, or Moscatel which is wine made from sun dried raisins.
Sherry is more popular in England than in Spain. Holland ranks third. These traditions run over 500 years. Since World War II the consumption of sherry has waned, but the current decade has seen a turnaround.
Sherry can be matched with food and as in Spain with the ritual of the Tapas and Americans have initiated this custom as part of the gourmet food culture that includes the fine dining activities. First and foremost Finos and Amontillados are aperitif beverages. Olives and almonds are ideal snacks. The pale dry wine goes well with Spanish – Gambas al Ajillo (Prawns or shrimp with garlic, olive oil, and red pepper flakes) – a popular tapas dish. There is enough alcohol to cut through spicy food so any type of fish, fowl, or vegetables is matched with a Fino. Rice dishes such Paella goes well with a Fino. Oven roasted Lamb, Pork, and or Beef dishes go well with an Amontillado. One thing to keep in mind is that white wines do not have the tannins that red wines have to cut through the red meat fat, but stews and lean cuts will do well.
For desserts the Oloroso is perfect for chocolate dishes. English specialties like the English Trifle are made with Sherry and are a sheer joy. The Italians perfected it: Zuppa Inglesa – and add Sherry (Oloroso) or Rum (dark oak aged).
If you are new to Sherry wine and the Solera process and your favorite watering hole is offering a Sherry by the glass, it is worth exploring. Think of using a Fino or Manzanilla over a white dry wine. Think of an Amontillado when accompanying a Roasted meat, stew, a hearty soup. Think of using an Oloroso over a Sauternes or Moscato dessert wine; a chocolate pudding or cake.
Jerez, the region, should not be confused with another Solera wine system in Spain in the province of Andalucía near the town of Cordoba. Deep in Spain this area is a warm climate and developed a Solera system that until the mid-1940 supplied wine to Sherry vintners. The varietal is not the Palomino and it uses primarily the Pedro Ximenez. It specializes in the Oloroso, the dessert wines. However the same names and styles as in Jerez and are used here. The name of the wine area is Montilla –Moriles. The major difference is in the fermentation process. Montilla uses the pear shaped “Tinajas;” during the second fermentation the wines and are transferred to the Solera system. The demarcation Montilla gives note to the word Amontillado -- which means Montilla style. Keep the wines separated. Competition is keen so judge each other’s strength.
Spanish oenology evolved the path of Western Europe and had individual development following the Roman Empire period. The Sherry tradition although fairly unique to Andalucía has also developed in Australia, California and South Africa. The name “Sherry”can only be used in Andalucía – from Jerez de la Frontera. Raisins and alcohol are necessary bi-products. A note about Spanish Brandy which evolved out of the Sherry process. Alcohol was used to fortify the Sherries and in the case of Oloroso it impeded the growth of the flor to let it turn amber and have higher Alcohol when sweetened, which gave it its characteristics. There is an exclusive brandy consumer which buys some of the extremely fine brandies. These brandies in Spain are for special occasions, but I want to mention that if you encounter them they are worth trying.