Thursday, January 11, 2007

"For the Love of God, Montresor..." -- Adventures in Sherry

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I have our New Year's tradition. Going out on the Rockin' Eve does little for either of us. As a friend of mine once said of New Year's -- "It's Amateur Night."

We tend to be homebodies on December 31st. We watch some basketball and some football -- and then settle in to making a big ol’ feed to pair with wines we haven't tried before. This year, we decided we'd try some sherries.

Sherry -- the name evokes images of deep shag carpet, wide lapels, ruffled blouses, and key parties. The quintessential 70's drink, every household was required by law to have at least one bottle of cream sherry on hand for highballs and nightcaps. Alternatively, there's usually a bottle of cooking sherry in any well stocked pantry. After our pleasant sojourns with Spanish wine, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try the native Iberian drink.

What is sherry, anyway?
Preventing Fortunado from
driving drunk on New Years.
Sherry is fortified wine. In WineSpeak -- a "fortified" wine means that the winemaker's gone and added a bunch more alcohol. Many sherries are right around 18-20% alcohol. Sherry is made largely from the Palomino grape, but there's another grape called Pedro Ximénez often used in sweeter varieties. "Sherry" is also the region in Spain where all this wine is made ("Sherry" is a Anglization of "Jerez.")

Sherry is fascinating because of the method of production. Most winemakers do everything they can to keep their wine from air while fermenting. Sherry is an oxidized wine -- the winemakers fill the casks only halfway -- and then put the bung (translation: "big ass stopper which closes a cask") in loosely, so air can circulate during fermentation. While in the barrel, as much as 5% of the wine evaporates. As any veteran of a distillery tour can tell you, this is what's called "The Angel's Share." (which also happens to be a Ted Leo song title)

There's also what they call the "Solera System" of aging, by which an aged cask may be drained of as much of a third of its contents, and then young wine, made in the same style, is added to refill the cask, thus "refreshing the mother wine."

There are five basic types of sherry: Fino and Manzanilla are dry. Amontillado is aged for eight years and is dry to medium dry. Oloroso is also a medium dry sherry. Cream sherry is sweet. Fino and Manzanilla are made to be served well chilled. The others can be chilled slightly. (Also, Cream sherry is often poured over vanilla ice cream.)

Truth be told, it was the Amontillado that gave birth to this idea. As a recovering English major, Edgar Allan Poe, The Bard of Baltimore, was a favorite of mine. One of his signature short stories was "The Cask of Amontillado." (If you'd like to read it, go here for the full text. You can get through it in 10 minutes or less.)

Sherry is traditionally served in Spain with tapas. The SP in Crime and I are huge tapas fans, so we decided to have a meal in that style. If you're not familiar with tapas, it's basically scads of "small plate" appetizers. (A close Asian equivalent is dim sum, which we also love) We got ourselves some smoked salmon, a fish chowder (inspired by our Maine adventure), and a sort of semi-bruschetta with fresh mozzarella and chorizo. We got three bottles of Sherry. There's a saying in Spain regarding this wine: "We drink the dry and ship the sweet." So, we picked up a Fino, a Manzanilla, and (to satisfy my curiosity) an Amontillado.
We were…shall we say…surprised at what we found.

The first bottle we tried was Osborne Pale Dry Fino. The label doesn't lie -- this is a very light-colored wine. This sherry actually had a very nice nose -- a nice scent of almond oil. The taste was very neutral and dry. There wasn't a lot of flavor to it -- just a neutral alcohol taste that wasn't too strong. I realized why dry sherry and tapas go together so well. This type of sherry would be an excellent palate cleanser. It cut right through the oil of the salmon, and if it could do that, it would do the same with just about anything else. You could easily switch from food to food without a problem. In addition, the high alcohol content would make for a good start to any evening. This was, by far, the most drinkable of the sherries that we had. I could actually see pouring a glass of this with food. A bottle goes for about $10.

We bowled up the chowder and poured the Savory & James Deluxe Pale Dry Manzanilla.

Again, the sherry was very pale in color. The taste and bouquet were somewhat similar to the Fino, although it seemed slightly "wetter." It reminded me a bit of sake. If you like sake, I would imagine that you could pair this up with a plateful of sushi and you'd be OK. Otherwise, well…not so much. We did a side by side with the Fino, and the Fino was markedly more tasty. However, the chowder lacked something after a few bites, so I poured in a few splashes of the Manzanilla. What a difference! The soup took on a new, tastier character with a little Manzanilla added. However, for my $10, I could buy three bottles of cooking sherry.

We read that the Amontillado was better served with slightly heavier foods, so we had it with the semi-chetta. After being a little disappointed with the first two sherries, I was ready for an upswing. I wanted to know why poor Fortunado was tempted to his death by a cask of the stuff. We poured some Pedro Romero Amontillado. This wine was much darker than the other two. Since both Amontillado and Oloroso are aged longer, the tannins in the barrels impart a darker color. There was also a more pronounced bouquet -- reminding me very much of Madeira. Much more sugary and nutty. I was interested -- until I got the stuff in my mouth. Maybe I'm missing something, but this tasted like cooking sherry mixed subtly with paint thinner and lighter fluid. The taste almost made the SP in Crime gag.

From what I've read, Amontillado is supposed to be "darker and softer" than fino. I guess that's true -- in the same way that death by billy club is softer and darker than a strike through the heart with a rapier. This was about a $12 bottle. In the spirit of full disclosure, most wines that I don't care for end up as cooking wine. The number of bottles I’ve dumped can be counted on one hand. This Amontillado made the list. Perhaps I don't have the correct palate for it, but this was simply horrid.

I admit -- I'm a Sherry newbie. I don't know "good" sherry from "bad" -- and if any of you out there can give me better ideas, I'm open to suggestion. I don't know if I made poor choices or if I just don't know how to properly appreciate the stuff. However, with so much delicious Spanish tempranillo, albarino, and the like -- I don't see putting more money into the Sherry region anytime soon.

Oh, and don't worry about us going dry on New Year’s. Since the Sherry Experiment didn't work out -- we pulled some tasty selections from the cellar to more properly celebrate.

And no one got shackled to a wall.

Auld Lang Syne!

8 comments:

The Wizard said...

Never had the cojones to try Sherry, and not sure that I ever will.

However, I am looking forward to a discussion of ports. I've had a couple of those, and they kind of remind me of mead, which I like very much.

Dan M. said...

With all due respect judging fino sherry on the basis of Osborne's is like judging California red wines on the basis of two buck chuck.

Try an Emilio Lustau or Tio Pepe. Cost is 5 to 10 dollars more a bottle, but it's money well spent.

Mike said...

Thanks much, Dan. Like I said -- I don't really know one sherry from another. Appreciate the recommendation. I'll give it a try at some point down the line.

Aside from cost, what would you say makes the difference in a sherry?

Dan M. said...

Difference is the same as with any other wine, find a quality producer who doesn't take short cuts.

The oxidation in sherry gives it a unique taste that just works with some foods. Try it with some picholine olives and smoked almonds.

Since you're in the Cincinnati area take a trip to West Carrollton OH sometime (just south of Dayton) and try some tapas at El Meson, a Spanish and Latin American restaurant. Good selection of sherries. That way you don't have to buy a bottle.

JenJen said...

Hey Dan,

El Meson is one of the best-kept secrets from my hometown of West Carrollton.

Let's keep it that way... I hate waiting for a table. ;-)

Dan M said...

jenjen,

Does that mean I can't talk about the flamenco guitar on the patio in the late spring to early fall evenings? :-)

That must mean I can't (or shouldn't) talk about the night I had one too many sangrias and had my first Spanish dance lesson (also the last lesson according to my wife).

It really is a great place.

Anonymous said...

What, if any, is difference between dry and cream sherry?

Mike said...

All sherries are naturally dry. Cream sherry is usually oloroso sweetened with wine made from Pedro Ximenez or moscatel grapes. It tends to be much sweeter and is generally used as a dessert wine.