Friday 8 October 2010

Sherry with food?

The remains of my oysters, with a pale manzanilla

Every few years someone optimistically announces a sherry revival. It's true the drink does have a big and seemingly immutable image problem—but then they used to say that about gin, and look how trendy that appears to have become. I quite like sherry and of course I'm not bothered about the image (in fact it rather appeals) but the bods whose job it is to market the stuff are keen to wrest our national mental picture of it away from aged aunts gripping a glass of QC at Christmas, and also from the assumption that its rightful place is as an aperitif and nothing else. The holy grail with any drink seems to be to get us to the point where we see it as a universal fluid—as an aperitif, digestif, party fuel, status symbol, pick-me-up, nightcap, sharpener, loosener, foodstuff and industrial solvent.

While I think we're still a way off from talking about "a good session sherry", one plausible paradigm shift is to get us to think of sherry as something drunk with food, and in July I enjoyed a delightfully decadent Wednesday tasting the stuff in this context in the company of some members of the New Sheridan Club at Gordon’s Wine Bar by Charing Cross station in London. Hosted by Bodegas Barbadillo, the event kicked off at 10am and exposed us to seven sherries, each with an accompanying tapas course. I think the early start was because the management hoped we'd be gone (or at least passed out) by 1pm so as not to scare off his lunchtime trade, but we didn't finally stagger away till 4.30pm. (Well, I did—some of my fellow tasters felt the need to cleanse their palates with some refreshing beer, or simply slunk into the shadows with one of the unfinished bottles of Jerez's finest…)

We moved from the lightest styles to the heaviest, kicking off with a breezy manzanilla served with oysters and pickled anchovies. "Manzanilla" means "chamomile" in Spanish and the same term can refer to a chamomile tea, so be careful when ordering. It is so called because the wine is felt to be reminiscent of the tea. But I always feel that Manzanilla smells like the sea: it doesn't really and it can't actually be salty (in fact it's very acidic), but it is traditional to say that it gets this brininess from its manufacture in the port town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Natural yeasts are allowed to grow on these lighter sherry styles, forming a "flor", a cap of yeast on the surface of the wine in the barrel that seals it from the air, preventing the oxidation that characterises the flavour of darker sherry styles. This, and the practice of topping up the barrel with virgin wine as it evaporates, creates a pale, light, fresh end product. The cool temperatures and high humidity in Sanlúcar de Barrameda promote a thicker flor, keeping the wine better from the air and leading to its clean, delicate flavour. I've long been a fan of manzanilla but the combination with the food was an eye-opener for me, particularly with the oysters.

Next up was a Pale Dry Fino, similar in style but made further inland where the hotter climate means the flor dies back earlier allowing some oxidation to take place. To me it seemed fuller and fruitier than the Manzanilla and balanced well with an apple, celery and walnut salad. It stood up to salted almonds and to an extent with a platter of toothsome cured meats and salamis—though in fact I felt the next wine, an amontillado went better. This was darker, with a caramel nose, and a salty, oily palate that was easily equal to the smoked salmon and mackerel with which it was served, though there was also fresh fruit on our plates and I felt the sherry was missing the fresh high notes to make sense of that.

In time the protective flor naturally breaks down and with darker styles this is allowed to happen, the resulting oxidation yielding a flavour that is both aromatic and astringent, reminiscent of varnished wood (something you would recognise if you are a fan of sherry-cask-aged malt whisky). I'm sure a lot of this is actually coming from the oak of the barrels, plus the fact that these wines are not topped up as they evaporate, allowing them to concentrate into a brooding intensity. They are also fortified up to about 17.5 per cent alcohol to preserve them and control the rate of oxidation.

Palo cortado (fuller glasses) and dry oloroso
While an amontillado starts life in the same way as a fino, the Full Dry Oloroso we had next has had its flor killed off at an early stage and is raised from birth as a dark, smooth, nutty drink without the yeasty freshness of the lighter wines. The food that accompanied it was a medley of spicy sausages and black pudding, in tangy tomato-based sauces, pungent, sharp and fatty. The wine stood up, but you began to feel you were caught in the crossfire between two culinary heavyweights.

Our final savoury course was a rabbit casserole and a pork casserole, served with the Palo Cortado Obispo Gascon. Palo cortado is not so much made as humbly received from God. It starts life as a fino or amontillado but for some reason loses its flor and starts to oxidise as an oloroso, giving it characteristics of both styles. When this happens the barrel is marked (the name means "cut with a stick", indicating that the initial stroke to designate a fino or amontillado is now crossed with another stroke) and left for the magic to happen. Additional alcohol will be added to preserve the wine in this process. Only about 1-2 per cent of sherry ends up as palo cortado. It's an intriguing wine, but I did find it overpowered the casseroles with its rasping woodiness.

We were then revived with fresh fruit salad, served with the Oloroso Dulce San Rafael. This was indeed relatively fruity, juicy and fresh, but still sherried and I found that rather disconcerting with fruit. Our final treat was the terrifying Pedro Ximenez La Cilla. The lighter sherries are made entirely with Palomino grapes, but increasingly Pedro Ximenez is added to the weightier styles. The La Cilla is all Pedro, and it looks like tar. It is very sweet, and very raisiny. Some people love it—I know some for whom it is the only sherry they'll drink. I once had a bottle that thought so highly of itself that it came with a tiny padlock on the cap, presumably to stop the servants necking it. But I find it a bit too much on its own—as if its sweetness is so intense it is going to suck all the moisture out of your body by osmosis, and you can feel the headache coming on even before you've tasted it. It was served to us with manchego cheese and chocolate-dipped loops of deep-fried dough, which worked to an extent though even in the storm of sugar that woodiness came through and sat awkwardly with the dessert.

This feast was exquisite and very enlightening, though my head felt like it was full of antique wood for days afterwards. In truth the idea of sherry with food is not new—amontillado used to be a classic accompaniment to beef consommé. But I have to say that I feel most of the food at our tasting might have been better served by other wines. The only exception was the partnering of oysters with manzanilla, which was a revelation. I like an oyster. At the recent Thames Festival there was a stall where I allowed a gnarled artisan to shuck me an oyster by the riverside, and the taste of it stayed with me all day. It's an intense, marine flavour, a rush of ozone, and the fresh, acidic tang of the manzanilla, like a stiff sea breeze in your face, works perfectly. A more traditional accompaniment like Champagne, despite also being acidic, seems too effete and urbane by comparison. (Another tradition is Guinness, which I confess I have not tried.) No, from now on it is oysters and manzanilla for me. Barbadillo are Spain's biggest producer of manzanilla and are consequently now my best friends.

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