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Wine articles Wine of the week

Some choice sherries

To follow-up on my last post (insert haunting bugle solo), here are some of my favourite sherries from the Great Sherry Tasting:

La Bota no 32 Manzanilla, Equipo Navajas – This has a very yeasty nose, distinct whiff of marmite here with some musty notes. In the mouth it’s big, dry and floral with a very long finish. The Sampler £25.

Amontillado VORS, Lustau – so long and complex that it seems more like a story than a drink: dark amber, very dry but with flavours of brown sugar and salted hazelnuts. Around £60 if you can get hold of it.

Oloroso Seco Faraon, Hidalgo – walnuts wrapped up in rich velvety blanket; dry finish but with a little sweetness. £10.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

Palo Cortado Viejisimo, Cayetano del Pino – a symphony of sherry that smells of marzipan with floral notes, hugely dry and extremely long. £22 The Wine Society.

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Wine articles

Sherry: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Twelve years ago when I would ask for a sherry in a bar, I would be greeted with a suspicious look as if I was taking the mick and then, realising I was in earnest, the barman would reach for a dusty bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream. He would pour a warm stale drop. It tasted disgusting and always such a small glass. In the late 90s nobody drank sherry except maiden aunts, vicars and a few people in the wine business. It was like belonging to a secret club which was just how I liked it. Now if you go to that same bar it might well have an extensive menu of sherries ranging from light, gluggable mazanillas to a super sweet Pedro Ximenez. One can go to specialist sherry bars such as El Pepito in King’s Cross, a note perfect rendition of an Andalucian tapas bar complete with excellent ham (though sadly with London prices.) In September I attended the largest sherry tasting ever put on in Britain with over 150 wines. It was packed not only with long-nosed wine bores like myself but also with trendy youngsters with fixed-gear bicycles and moustaches.  The wines were, almost without exception, exquisite. The VORS, very rare old sherry, category is attracting collectors rather as old bottlings of single malt whisky do. Companies have sprung up such as Equipo Navajos who don’t make any wine, they just bottle rare sherries that they find in other people’s cellars. They taste a bit like single malts too: medicinal, tangy, uncompromising. Actually that should be the other way round, whisky tastes of sherry as it is aged in barrels that contained sherry.

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From London it looks like sherry is in rude health but news hasn’t reached the sherry towns of Jerez, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria which have an air of faded glory and, in some areas, outright dilapidation. Sherry used to be big business, like the wool trade in Bradford or cars in Detroit. It was big business in Britain too. Some of the biggest names in Jerez have British names, Williams & Humbert, Harveys, Osborne and Gonzalez-BYASS.  Sherry used to sell by the barrel to every bar, pub, restaurant, hotel, club and large house in the world. A few thousand people in London drinking a glass of fino a week and then writing a blog about it will not bring back the glory days. In April 2011 the Tio Pepe neon sign was taken down in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to make way for an Apple store. This advert had been in place since 1936 and was as much part of the Madrid skyline as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Though Gonzalez-Byass, makers of Tio Pepe, say that it will find a new home for the famous sign, one can’t help thinking its removal is an ill omen. It’s as if the ravens have flown the Tower of London.

Sherry missed out on the wine boom of the last 25 years. It doesn’t appeal to the modern drinker brought up on Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc nor does it have the status to appeal to the newly rich in China and India. Yet it’s expensive to make and the wine cannot be sold straight after vintage. Producing good sherry relies on holding large stocks of maturing wine, as in most cases sherry is a blend of different vintages. The idea is to have a consistent product made to a house style, again there are similarities with whisky.

Most the famous names are now owned by conglomerates for whom sherry is a prestigious but small part of their business. Having a sherry bodega is like owning a racehorse, a labour of love rather than a profitable business. Any money to be made is either at the bottom end turning out supermarket own label wines – incidentally some of them are excellent*  – or at the top end selling rare bottling for £30 a go. The middle ground has gone. And there is no room for the small player either. Bodegas are going broke every year and are swallowed up by the big boys. Or they’re selling off their priceless old wines in a desperate bid to stay afloat. The growth in rare bottling is a warning sign. Most bodegas would prefer to keep rare old wines to add complexity to their brands.

So what’s the answer? Drink more sherry obviously and remember that 30 years ago Scotch whisky was in crisis with distilleries closing every year. What saved Scotch was canny marketing of the big brands in emerging markets and the growth of single malts at home, the US and Japan. Sherry could learn something from this. The quality is there and the interest is increasing. It may never rule the world again but it might once again make good business sense.

A longer version of this article appeared in Sunseeker Magazine.

*I’m currently drinking Waitrose Jerezano Dry Amontillado made by Lustau which offers absurd quality for £8.99

Click here for some more sherry recommendations.

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Restaurants Wine articles

Wine and food matching nonsense

Like most people who think themselves humorous, I have a very low tolerance for other people making jokes. I commented in an earlier post about the silly suggestions about wine matching on the Oddbins website. I said they sounded like the idea had come from a by a gang of facetious students. On reflection I can see that I was wrong. I now see that they’re satirising the modern fetish for over-specific wine and food pairing suggestions. Is it anymore ridiculous to suggest matching a wine with music by Bob Marley than ‘barely-seared albacore with green zebra tomato salsa’?

This ‘absurdly specific’ recommendation was noted by Eric Asimov in his thoughtful book, How to Love Wine. It comes from Wine & Spirit magazine and the suggested wine is a Swanson Pinot Grigio 2008 from California. The 07 won’t do as it is best served alongside grilled unagi (whatever that might be.)

The old buffers at the Sediment blog have a similar experience in their Wining & Dining ebook:

“I once encountered a wine whose producer ‘recommends drinking with braised pork belly with seared scallops and a white bean mousse’ – an unbelievable proposal, not unlike a car manufacturer saying, ‘the maker recommends this car for driving along the A406, turning left on to the Finchley Road.'”

Wine and food matching is all the rage in the wine world at the moment. I put it down to the growing influence of sommeliers. They have a vested interest in making the business of putting wine and food together as complicated as possible. If it was simple, they’d be out of a job. Nowadays wine writers don’t only try wines but attend dinners put together by chefs and sommeliers where dishes are ‘paired’ with specific wines. This leads to a whole new level of embarrassment for amateurs like me as not only are you expected to comment on the wines but also how they go with the food.  This happened recently at a recent dinner where I was on a table with expert Lucy Bridgers – she leant over and asked me just this. I didn’t know what to say, I liked the food, I liked the wine, and they seemed happy if not ecstatic together. Rather like my parents.

There are of course some classic matches, port and stilton, bloody meat with tannic reds, albariño and clams, but the problem with many recommendations is that they are really only of interest to sommeliers and experts such as Lucy Bridgers. We should not forget that food and wine matching is a very recent thing. Enthusiasts of yore would have paid no attention to our rule of dry wines with main courses and sweet wines with pudding. The truth is that most dry wines will go with most savoury dishes and the old rule about white wine with fish and red with meat isn’t such a bad one. This is especially good advice when eating out because everyone will order differently so forget matching just order a delicious bottle of red and one of white and I bet you’ll be happy. A heavier Beaujolais cru and a decent Macon will cover almost any eventuality, you are as unlikely to get a major clash as you are to score a sauternes and Roquefort style perfect match. If you’re eating on the continent, life is simple as you can just order the local wine and it’ll probably work.

Look, I’m not a total anachronist.  I don’t want to go back to sack with everything. I’m glad that someone worked out that Burgundy goes with game birds. And it’s nice that at this very moment there are sommeliers in Brooklyn working out the right wine to go with octopus vol au vents. I’m just saying please don’t make wine any more complicated that it is already. I’ll leave the last word to Mr Asimov:

“. . . just as with tasting notes, overly specific instructions for matching wines and foods are mystifying and intimating for novices and useless for experienced drinker.”

I should add that the Sediment ebook is well worth reading and only costs £1.99 from your friendly local online retailer. It goes particularly well with a 2005 Bandol from Pradeaux served with my aunt’s Armenian lamb stew.