You wanna party? I mean, hit a real six-day blowout rave, an around-the-clock thump riot that makes Mardi Gras look like the Jasper County Husking Bee?
Try April in Andalusia.
Overshadowed by impossibly romantic mountaintop villas, cresting expansive snow-white beaches, the annual Feria de Sevilla sandwiches sleepless tourists between noble scions, frantic gypsies and thousands of bohemian rurals for a week’s worth of food, flamenco and unbridled fun. Insomnia is the rule of thumb; immoderation the shibboleth. It is by far the best fest in the Euro west. In Iberia, James Michener congratulates these reeling ravers like this: “They’ve discovered… noise incarnate.” The most popular drink at the fair is sherry.
Sherry is made almost exclusively from palomino grapes around the Andalusian town of Jerez, a tiny triangle of heat and chalk bordered by mountains, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Noted authority Julian Jeffs explains, “Everything in Andalusia is exactly right: soil, climate, ferments and fruit.”
The true wonder of sherry is its stylistic versatility. What’s arguably the world’s most sophisticated aperitif can be blended, refined, and otherwise metamorphosed by a producer’s sleight-of-hand into a round, full-bodied dinner companion or a full-bodied, hedonistically sweet dessert wine. Sherries are as colorful as their personalities, ranging from the pale topaz tint of bone-dry Fino Sherry to the velvety chocolate-brown of dulcet Olorosos. More on these in a minute.
Riesling you may quaff, zinfandel you may gulp, but sherry—particularly in its lightest incarnation, the racy, stimulating Fino—you sip. Unlike most wine that originates in hot climates, sherry does not require food to be truly appreciated, though paradoxically, many strongly-flavored first-course items (notably olives, smoked fish and cream soups) howl for a natural, dry Manzanilla… and nothing else. One of the world’s most perfect food/wine match-ups is well-chilled Fino and steamed prawns, though in a pinch, nearly any shrimp dish will show the same synergy. Nutty, ripe-tasting Amontillado sets off delicate pâté to a turn, yet houses enough horsepower to weather the most aggressive spices. On a meal’s posterior end, luscious sweetened sherry is an ideal comrade to cheese, pastry and anything containing walnuts.
Sherry is best served cold (not icy) in a narrow bud-shaped glass known as a copita which should never be filled more than halfway to preserve the bouquet, and, when swirled, the shirtsleeves. Though purists shun the practice, dry sherries are occasionally poured over ice with a splash of soda. A classic cocktail on every barkeep’s back burner is the Cream Sherry Flip, a once-popular blend of whole egg, cream, sherry, sugar and nutmeg.
The ebb and flow of sherry’s popularity has tracked public tastes for as long as it’s been produced. A generation ago, the industry itself nearly self-destructed when over-production led to plummeting prices and quality fluctuations. Another culprit was the newwave of chardonnay/cabernet fanatics who associated sherry with stodgy merchant bankers and stuffy British drawing rooms. Today, an increased sophistication among tipplers (especially here in the States), a surge of innovation from enterprising producers and perhaps, amid the laser-paced cyber jungle, a gentle reminder that sherry is, in fact, a link to civility, tranquility and order, has fueled a sherry rediscovery.
According to sherry-pro John Marasco: “We’ve seen a remarkable upswing in sherry consumption among young people, especially with the drier wines like La Ina and the rarities like Palo Cortado. Where Bordeaux and Burgundy is about complexity and depth, sherry is all about finesse.”
Much of sherry’s nomenclature (including the name—an anglicized version of Jerez) pays homage to its immense popularity among the British, who import far more than they leave to the Spanish. Despite the often-confusing labels, there are actually only two types of sherry, Fino and Oloroso. Outrageously, it’s the wine, not the winemaker, that decides what it will become. Fino is born when an airborne yeast called flor forms spontaneously
on the surface of lightly fermented palomino juice and converts residual sugar to alcohol, resulting in a potent but extraordinarily elegant wine that’s frequently ready to drink without further aging. Less-than-perfect Finos are set aside in casks within a criandera, or nursery, where they gradually mellow and darken. When, due to climate or vineyard conditions, the flor fails to develop, the wine is fortified with brandy and becomes a full-bodied Oloroso. Matured in wooden casks, Oloroso adopts authority and breeding over a period of years with the addition of concentrated wine made from the Pedro Ximenez grape—the basis of all sweet sherries.
Among the numerous sherry sub-species are Manzanilla (an oddly salty-tasting Fino made in a distinct region fifteen miles north ofJerez), Amontillado (a medium-bodied Fino that’s been oak-aged), and Cream (an amber-colored, sweetened, well-aged Oloroso). Many popular sherries, including Harvey’s Bristol Cream and Dry Sack, are brand names with flavors so well known that no further descriptors are needed on the label.
What makes sherry so unique? The solera aging system is probably the single most dominant factor: it involves a series of casks arranged in tiers throughout the cellar, each filled with sherry of a different age. Several times each year, a small amount of the oldest wine will be drawn from the first tier’s barrels and bottled. The empty space within the casks are filled with slightly younger sherry from the second tier. This void is likewise replaced with wine from the third tier, and so on until the final row is reached, whereupon new, unaged sherry is introduced. This style of fractional blending produces the uniformity and consistency that is the hallmark of sherry (which, as a result, rarely carry a specific date of vintage).
Andalusians began making wine a thousand years before the birth of Christ; Falstaff called it ‘sack’ and drank ‘an intolerable deal’ of the stuff somewhere back in the gullet of the sixteenth century. The colossal white-walled bodegas of Jerez wine barons still house soleras begun over a hundred years ago. Among the oldest and most classic of beverages, it’s ironic that sherry has only recently begun to come of age.
TASTING NOTES, LOW TO MID-END SHERRY:
RENASANS PALE MEDIUM DRY, KWV, around $9:The exception to prove the rule, this South African sleeper has all the grace and depth of a topflight Jerez Amontillado at about half the cost. A full-blown dinner companion, Renasans has the muscle to meet highly spiced entrees, the richness to compliment foie gras and the breeding to be taken alone as an aperitif.
AMONTILLADO, SAVORY & JAMES, around $10: A plump, viscous, middleweight sherry, this Amontillado has a remarkably pronounced nose reminiscent of polished oak cabinetry and a deep, almost tarry mouth feel. Serve with grilled fish, proscuitto and lobster. Drink a cask and you’ll be ready for the crypt in Edgar Allen Poe’s story.
LA INA VERY DRY, PEDRO DOMEQ, around $13: Fresh, vibrant, filled with light almond notes and a bracingly piquant finish; an ideal wine to serve with fresh shellfish and clear soups.
TIO PEPE FINO, GONZALEZ BYASS, around $15: Tio Pepe exemplifies the strong yet delicate profile of a truly world-class dry sherry: pale golden in color, pungent in taste with a complex and lingering finish. A perfect companion to strongly flavored hors d’oeuvres, especially Spanish tapas and smoked salmon.
DRY SACK, WILLIAMS AND HUMBERT, around $16: ‘Dry Sack’ is an appropriate name, since ‘sack’ is what the English have traditionally called sweet sherry and this is a medium-dry Amontillado. It tastes of hazelnuts and figs and finishes with a pleasant bitterness; it pairs well with blue and hard cheeses, fruit salads and all types of bisques and chowders.
HARVEY’S BRISTOL CREAM, around $15: This world-famous sherry is a rich, soft, nutty, pleasantly sweet wine that pairs wonderfully with nearly any dessert containing grapefruit or melon, and most ideally, with crème brulee.