Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Now then, a nice glass of sherry?

There was a bit of a party in Hampton Court in 1587. Francis Drake was just back from Spain. He'd raided Cádiz and carried off 3,000 barrels of sherry, or sack as it was then known. Elizabeth I and her court liked the wine and Britons have been drinking it ever since. That's why many British entrepreneurs with names such as Garvey, Harvey and Sandeman set up their own business in Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries. Sherry is a British mispronunciation of Jerez, the city where much of the production is centred.

Sherry, official sherry, is only produced in 64 registered bodegas in a region between Jerez, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the Cádiz province of Andalucia. 10,000 hectares of chalky albariza soil are dedicated to growing the white Palomino grape from which most sherry is produced.

If you think sherry is a brown, thick, sweet wine you'd be right. If you think sherry is a pale, crisp bone dry white wine you'd be right too.  Although there are several sorts of sherry there are four principal types - fino, amontillado, palo cortado and oloroso. Colours get darker from finos, which are almost colourless, through the tawny amontillados to the mahogany brown olorosos. Sugar content increases along with the colour so finos are bone dry, amontillados dry and olorosos sweet. Alcohol content goes the other way with finos less alcoholic than olorosos. Finos are best drunk well chilled, amontillados and palos cortados chilled and olorosos at room temperature. The sack that Frank Drake took to Good Queen Bess' party was probably a cheap oloroso.

There are a couple of other types of sherry. Manzanilla, a fino produced only in the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda has a lovely sharp taste when chilled. You can, if you want, drink Pedro Ximenez, made with grapes of the same name, but it really is sweet and traditionally used to sweeten other sherries. It gets used to make those sherries that come out of the cupboard every Christmas. Cream sherry is made by sweetening oloroso and pale cream sherry is sweetened fino.

Sherry, unlike most other wine, doesn't have a vintage. This is because it's produced using something called the solera process. Oak casks are arranged in rows in the bodega. The oldest wine in the bottom row, the solera, is what goes into the bottles. These bottom casks are replenished from the row above, and those in turn are refilled from the row above them. The top casks are topped up with new wine.

Researching this piece I read an article that said  the best way to experience sherry is to enjoy it with the right food and the reviewer mentioned drinking fino along with traditional tapas. I sort of agree except that I think a fino or manzanilla can be enjoyed anywhere and any time so long as it is served cold. I hate to compare Coca Cola to good sherry but both need to be served at the correct temperature to get the best from them.

One last thing. In 2003 the Spanish Government introduced a law, the Ley del Vino, to promote wine drinking as a healthy part of the Mediterranean diet. It just goes to show that politicians aren't always stupid.

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