Saving Sherry

I love opera – more accurately, I love the sound of the human voice in song; what a wonderful instrument it is. My own singing voice is sadly creaky, simply because I haven’t used it enough since leaving the choir I sang with for many years. I still love listening to others, especially all the young talent that comes out of South Africa.

By the masses, opera is seen as elitist and ‘difficult’, mainly because it’s usually sung in a foreign language (sur-titles have eased that problem) and the characters spend an age repeating what they’ve already sung; ‘it’s all so silly’! Yet who doesn’t know, even if only the tune, Nessun Dorma; that’s from an opera, as are many other tunes hummed along by many who profess not to like the genre.

Sherry – the real wine, from the southern Spanish town of Jerez – suffers a similar fate. It’s all too complicated/old-fashioned; what on earth do Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso or PX mean and what’s the difference between criadera and solera?

As for old-fashioned, many still think of Sherry as granny’s Cream Sherry brought out from the drinks cupboard on Sundays. As many of our local versions include ‘Cream’ in the name, little wonder the genuine thing seems complicated and off-putting.

But it was a local wine, Monis 2012 barrel sample from the criadera (nursery) under flor yeast, followed by the current bottling of Monis Pale Dry that opened the recent and most excellent Sherry tasting organised by the Sommeliers Association of South Africa.

I was surprised that they managed to find so many different styles and producers; some available in South Africa, others carried back from his travels by the most informative and excellent presenter, Jean-Baptiste Cristini. Jean-Baptiste is currently marketing Spice Route wines but he once worked for well-known Sherry house, Gonzales-Byass.

Sherry butt with layer of flor protecting the wine.
Sherry butt with layer of flor protecting the wine.

To anyone who knows Sherry, both local wines seem unduly sweet, but then the Lustau en rama Manzanilla Fino and Valdespino Manzanilla Deliciosa would probably shock first-time Fino drinkers in their unrelenting driness. Both are imported by Wine Cellar and Vinovation respectively.

Sherry is defined by where it’s aged rather than were it’s grown or made, so Manzanilla Finos, aged in Sanlucar di Barrameda, tend to have a keener, more salty/iodine character, due to the town’s proximity to the ocean (it lies at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river). Finos from the other main towns, Jerez and Puerto are slightly fuller, less piercing, though still bone dry.

Yet nothing can be more mouthwateringly appetising than a chilled Fino, it just begs any number of Tapas, or small dishes. Even at 16% alcohol, these wines seem light and refreshing, a benefit of the flor yeast, which rests on top of the wine. Half or 500ml bottles are fairly common, so can be finished within a day or two – essential for Finos, which would hate to suffer granny’s Cream Sherry treatment.

If Finos are summer Sherries, Olorosos, which are matured in contact with air and fortified to a higher degree to prevent the flor developing, enjoy a richer, nutty character complementing cooler weather.

PedroXiminezJerezLike all Sherries, an Oloroso starts life dry but may be slightly sweetened with Pedro Ximinez, a variety whose juice is fortified, leaving it a full-sweet jerepigo type. Some old ones are so concentrated, you can stand up a spoon in them. I bought the PX in the photo in Jerez when I attended the fantastic international dessert and fortified wine show, Vinoble held in the beautiful old Alcazar.

Even with its powerful 20.5% alcohol and roast nut richness, Equipo Navazos La Bota 46 Oloroso has delicacy thanks to its poise and balance. The addition of PX has merely enhanced the flavours rather than obviously sweetening.

Equipo Navazos is a negociant headed by law professor (and co-author of a recent book on Sherry) , Jesus Barquin and Valdespino cellarmaster, Eduardo Ojeda. The wines, limited in quantity, command impressively high prices, so we’re unlikely to see them in South Africa (this was one of Jean-Baptiste’s offerings). But thanks to this negociant and some newish, quality and marketing oriented Bodegas, new life is being breathed into Sherry. In the UK the opening of Tapas bars is driving renewed interest.

Similar bars, serving Sherry with small dishes, could stimulate interest here, encourage our brave importers to widen the range and brave sommeliers to introduce them on their wine list.

As Nessun Dorma is opera, so Sherry is wine; both have something for every taste. Well done to SASA, an increasingly important group, for organising this tasting and opening at least a few eyes to the great wine that is Sherry.

Well-known Sherry house, Gonzalez-Byass, Jerez
Well-known Sherry house, Gonzalez-Byass, Jerez
Alcazar, Jerez where Vinoble is held
Alcazar, Jerez where Vinoble is held
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