Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Sherry Please

Going back nearly forty years to the 1970s, fortified wines were very popular in the UK market.  We consumed copious quantities of Port and Madeira (from Portugal), Sherry (from Spain) and a bit of Marsala (from Italy).

Unfortunately these wines fell into a sorry state of popularity from the 1980s onwards, some of it their own doing.  The inexorable march of clean, modern, New World wines was completely at odds with the old school fusty image of Port and Sherry.  Who wanted to drink something sweet and sickly that was normally seen in your Auntie’s house served in cut glass?  Not many people was the answer.  Sherry did itself a huge disservice by allowing a cheap, sweet and nasty impostor of this great drink to masquerade as the real thing.  Things like Cream Sherry and Medium Sweet Sherry were (and are) an inferior base product that is simply coloured and sweetened.  Yuck.  Real sherry however -  completely dry, nutty, tangy, almost salty - is wonderful.

So, what are the true styles of Sherry, coming from the splendid city of Jerez?  Well, the basis of all the styles is the solera system.  Every year the Palomino grapes are harvested and vinified into base wine which is added to barrels at the top of the solera tree.  One third of the wine from these barrels moves down to the next level and so on, continuing down through half a dozen or so levels.  It is the wine at the very bottom layer that is drawn off and bottled each year.  This means every bottle has some wine in it from each year since the solera began, some well over 100 years old.  History in a glass!

The first style of wine from the solera system is Fino (or Manzanilla depending on the town it’s from).  This is crisp, dry, very lightly coloured and tastes of the sea.  The unique flavour comes from a yeast covering that grows over the surface of the wine in the barrels, called flor, protecting it from the air and keeping it fresh.  As an aperitif or with some tapas it is absolutely perfect.  Drink chilled with a few almonds and olives before dinner and you will surely be delighted.

Next is Amontillado.  This is fino that has lost its covering of flor and ages further in contact with air, becoming richer, darker and nuttier.  This is a great wine to be savoured.  Finally there is Oloroso.  These are wines that have never had a flor covering and are very concentrated.  They are delicious dry, but can also be sweetened, making a fine pudding wine.

Whilst Sherry tries to regain its former glory in the marketplace it is ludicrously undervalued, leaving consumers in the know laughing.  Stick a bottle in your basket.

Appendix: Widely available sherries in three classic styles made by the benchmark producer Gonzalez Byass

Tio Pepe Fino - around £8.50
Del Duque Amontillado Muy Viejo Aged 30 years - around £20
Alfonso Oloroso Seco - around £8.50

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