15 August 2014
As a former wine merchant demand from restaurateurs to furnish wine lists were frequent. A bundle of daily menus were provided along with the invitation to return with a written selection of global wines to complement the chef’s regional culinary prowess.
Wine and food pairing, untethered from history and geography was becoming an intriguing concept.
Disappointingly, I never got to design the wine list first and instruct the chef to match my own eclectic selection in return. Looking back I shouldn’t be surprised for as much as we hope chefs will exercise their skills in unearthing seasonal ingredients prepared within hours of picking or purchased fresh from the market, we understand that most wines are expected to wait patiently across the seasons for their arbitrary day of consumption. But it would have been fun.
Fast reverse more than a quarter of a century. Our flight then to more modest protein intake forced the chicken breast consumption skywards in both domestic and restaurant kitchens. Chardonnay, apparently breaking loose from its occluded links to the town of Chablis, was to provide one of the first egalitarian wines from the New World - and chicken coquettishly squeezed its new global partner. When fish consumption burgeoned, Sauvignon Blanc was on call as the blind date for Salmon and Sea bass, and as we moved towards the leaf salad years, Pinot Grigio was often thrust into a joyless marriage with Rocket and Mizuma.
(Why, at the mighty court of Italian grape varieties, did we choose the court jester above the prince …another time perhaps?)
The idea that most imported wines were required to slipstream behind contemporary culinary fashion was beginning to emerge.
As the epicurean pendulum swings again, with fusion cooking replaced by the faux-indigenous, and bourgeois presentation shunned in favour of the bucolic, wine has been expected to manoeuvre within the culinary umbra displaying all the skills of a moon landing.
Just as some may find modern gastronomic vacillation a touch baffling, winemakers can live in fear of capricious selection too. If fickle required proof, how did we overlook Muscadet and find Viognier, misplace Pinot Blanc and deify Picpoul de Pinet? As for the now ubiquitous Rosé, who could have predicted that it was destined to become a consenting partner to everyone’s national dish? Clearly equivocation has become contagious in the science of wine pairing.
Italian growers scratch their heads in puzzlement at the plastic lined tankers of Pinot Grigio that continue to ply the world’s seaports, and although consoled by an equally warm caress of their wallets, they would do well to look to their winemaking colleagues in South East Australia. Many now rue the day Chardonnay was exported further than the former boundaries of the British Empire as the similarity of its shrinkage becomes as dramatic as its earlier expansion - both wines in thrall to casual food ‘partnerships’.
The importation of many wines did not necessarily chime with their original gastronomic heritage either. Gavi and Albarino found themselves on fish menus long before they began to consort with the Italian and Spanish dishes they once enhanced. The portal for Austria’s Güner Veltliner was often via Thai and Japanese cuisine rather than exported Viennese heurigers. Alsace Rieslings were frequently shoehorned into Chinese restaurants and Merlot and Chianti appeared mildly uncomfortable with their chance conjunction on Indian takeaway menus. In their efforts to provide variety, sommeliers and the wine and food-pairing coterie tended to de-nature the wine by masking historic prerogative - all in the pardonable guise of well-meaning originality.
Context was quite literally becoming a moveable feast.
WHY, AT THE MIGHTY COURT OF ITALIAN GRAPE VARIETIES, DID WE CHOOSE THE COURT JESTER ABOVE THE PRINCE?
But these matters concern only tens of years, not hundreds. The commercial dramas visited upon the wines of Andalucia, have seen this…. and much more.
A wine as intriguing as it is demanding, and a range of wine styles that demand marginally more of context than content, Sherry has been with us for centuries.
Today there are vestigial signs that Sherry’s Sisyphus-like career may be approaching a more recumbent landscape and culinary colonisation accounts for part of that re-engagement.
Sherry is only Sherry if it emanates from Jerez (pronounced ‘hereth’). The Sherry region in Andalucia is in the far South-West of Spain on the very edge of the European continent and sits on a latitude further south than the North African coastline it seeks to touch. The climate is fiercely hot and the landscape clings to the very edge of aridity. The soil is a blisteringly white chalk called Albariza, which blinds in the incessant sunlight and is untouchably hot by midday. Fortunately it has the propensity to store the minimal rainfall that visits the region, and unlike almost all other fine wines, how and where the principal grape variety – Palomino - is grown, is far less important than the wine it eventually produces. This runs counter-intuitively to the worldwide Terroir debate, yet the resultant wines encompass some of the most thrilling and ‘natural’ flavours across the wine landscape.
The culture and history of the place and its unique product would be a wasted joy if not partially examined. From the Moorish occupation of the early 8th century to the late Middle Ages, this region of the Iberian peninsula was regarded by merchants and travellers as one of the most civilized parts of Europe, with the colonising Muslims providing Astronomy, Philosophy and advanced Mathematics alongside the first use of paper and Arabic numerals. Their tally of imported food runs from the orange, peach, date and lemon to saffron, ginger and rice. But it was their importation of distillation techniques that provided the gateway to the making of Sherry. It was the Moors who first created a type of Brandy in Europe and it is such base spirit that fortifies the fermented white wine of the Palomino grape.
After fortification, raising the alcohol level to 15%, the rulebook of fine wine making is thrown from the window. Barrels of white wine are only partially filled so that a mould of both intrinsic and air borne yeasts can be welcomed to attend the surface of the wine. The thick carpet that ensues is known as flor (flower) and grows to protect the developing wine from much of the invasive oxygen, thereby keeping the wine pale in colour and bone dry in flavour.
Sherry is produced in three towns; Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. If this ice clear Sherry comes from Jerez or El Puerto it is called Fino, from Sanlucar then it is known as Manzanilla. If the wine is left to age and the protective layer of flor lessens and allows mild oxidation to occur, when the wine darkens and more complex flavours develop, this is the Sherry we call Amontillado. The style we know as Oloroso is the same base wine but with a higher alcohol fortification, 18%, which stuns the blanket of yeast cells, removes all barriers and allows a rapacious influx of oxygen followed by the emergence of a nut brown, deliciously intense Sherry.
Sherry is also a wine that seeks to lessen, rather than cherish, variability across harvests. The cunning yet simple procedure by which consistency is achieved is called the Solera system. When the wine requires bottling a proportion is extracted from floor level barrels. A layer of barrels above with younger wine, are used to top up the ensuing gaps and the barrels on the third tier disgorge some of their even more youthful contents into the barrels below, finally this top tier is provided with the most recent vintage. By this method of fractional blending, it is inevitable that at least some part of the Sherry in your glass will have been on this planet considerably longer than you.
But of course this is the Spanish wine of Velásquez and Goya as much as it is of Picasso, Miró and Tàpies. In an era of homogenized wine styles, Sherry offers an unarguable sense of place, a relentless continuance of culture, an unwavering and tangible philosophy as well as a belief in both context, anarchy and imagination – all of which are found in every thrilling, entrancing sip.
What is apparent in Sherry importing countries is that at least some of these concepts are beginning to be revered via the establishment of the partisan food cultures of Morocco, Spain, Lebanon and even South America.
Sherry, after the buffeting of marketing and the ceaseless optimism of PR activity, may well find an authentic and longstanding route via the slipstream of the exported cuisine it was born to enhance. Like the natural yeasts it depends upon, we expect it to be airborne.
In Reasons to drink Sherry - Part 2. We offer comprehensive tasting notes of all Sherry styles, including the small quantities of Moscatell and Pedro Ximenes – regarded by the author as the unsung dessert wine heroes of Iberia. We follow Sherry from its own gastronomic tradition and look at the many apects of integration, successful or otherwise, it has frequently been asked to undertake.
And if Sherry ‘is God’s chosen draught’ then the 30 year-old Sherry known as Palo Cortado is certainly transported to us by angels as we look at one of the great wine miracles of the world.