Quite a few years ago, I was enjoying dinner with then California Poet Laureate Al Young (http://alyoung.org/) at the home of his hosts, the Central Coast poet Glenna Luschei and her husband Bill. Bill found out I appreciated wine and he asked me
“So have you discovered sherry?”
Sherry? I thought to myself.
“You mean like cooking sherry?” I asked.
There’s much more to sherry than what you cook with, he assured me. He offered to open some up and share it with me but by this time the evening was late and I needed to drive home and teach the next day so I took a pass.
Fast forward several years later. At the last minute, I was offered the opportunity to attend the 2009 European Wine Bloggers Conference in Lisboa and to tour the Alentejo region of Portugal as a guest of Enoforum Wine. Of course I said yes!
Unfortunately, I was traveling from California to Portugal and missed the first day of the conference when Esteban Cabeza taught the group about sherry and led them through a tasting.
Fortunately, I met Esteban after I arrived, and he gave me a tutorial using the power point he’d prepared. We were also able to procure bottles of three types of sherry so I could taste them.
To be honest, it seemed like his lecture went on and on when there were three bottles of sherry available to open and to taste while learning about them! But Esteban really knew his subject and I found the process of how the various kinds of sherry were made quite fascinating.
You can read more about the process of making sherry here, but in a nutshell, as you probably know, sherry is a fortified aged beverage.
One aspect of sherry that makes it distinctive as a wine is the way that it’s aged: each year a portion is taken out; the wine is transferred over the years from one barrel to another, combining older sherry with newer.
Each year the sherry acquires a different name and different qualities depending also upon its exposure to air which oxidizes it or by its flor (yeast).
Another aspect that makes sherry interesting is why it was fortified in the first place: to make it travel better! Adding a distilled spirit kept the wine from spoiling as it was transported from Spain to various ports in Europe and America.
What really makes very good sherry interesting to me is its complexity: the sherry I had with Esteban seriously blew me away. I’d never had anything like it and I didn’t know where to put the experience in my categories of taste memories.
I wasn’t even sure whether I “liked” it, actually—the taste was so different than what I expected, especially the fino, the most dry sherry. I just knew that I wanted to puzzle it out, come to know it, and understand it. It truly challenged me.
While I was tempted, I couldn’t imagine how I would manage to bring three open bottles of sherry with me back to the United States so I gave the bottles to my host Delfim Costa of Enoforum (http://www.enoforumwines.com/). If I had only known how impossible it was to find sherry of this quality here in the US, I would have connived some sort of way to bring the sherry back—or I would have drank it! (And no pictures? What’s up with that? How is that I don’t have any pictures of those wines?)
Because what I have discovered in my part of California is this: it is difficult to find truly amazing sherry here. And until it is readily available, people will have no idea how wonderfully complex and engaging sherry is.
I had no idea how hard it was to find really good sherry until I was asked by the Secret Sherry Society to write something up about sherry for their now defunct site.
I figured I just wasn’t really putting an effort into my quest for sherry but with that much lead time, I’d find something interesting but not too obscure and of Spanish origin.
A few years ago, Henry Wine Group held a wine tasting at a local restaurant that was open to the public, so I’d picked up and written about a bottle of Gonzalez Byass Solera 1847 Oloroso Dulce sherry ($20 which I found to be good but rather sweet and simple compared to the sherry I tasted in Portugal; read more here https://winepredator.wordpress.com/2010/01/20/wine-blogging-wednesday-65-wines-for-winter-let-it-snow/). The rep told me no one was carrying it around here and he had no suggestions for places to go for sherry.
So I turned to Twitter and Facebook for help in finding sherry!
Fellow sherry fan and photographer/blogger John Nichols (http://sespe.wordpress.com/) shared my grief, told me the following story of one of his sherry searches, and suggested I try the Ojai Beverage Company:
Sherry is one of the greatest wines on the planet but it does not get the respect it deserves. I didn’t always know that. It came to me slowly and by chance.
John continued: “I have been visiting a friend’s cabin in Big Bear on Labor Day weekend for over 20 years. About 10 years ago we were digging through the liquor shelf and way in the back was a dusty bottle of sherry. I asked permission and was allowed to open it. It had been there for at least 15 years said the owner of the cabin.
“The label read El Monisterio.
“We drank some that weekend and it was so delicious that it set me off on a multi-year quest to find another bottle or something as good.
“When I searched online, it was not available. The owner finally remembered that it was purchased years ago at a Santa Paula, California shop long closed called The Coffee Bean. The great thing was that the owner had one other bottle at her home in Santa Paula. I had a good year or two to continue tasting from those two bottles. After no luck with internet searches I contacted the distributor. They answered that the company was likely out of business. He said that sometimes a family will sell a lot and have it bottled and then that will be it.
“Years later I was thumbing through a catalog when I spotted a bottle of El Monisterio on the shelf in one of the home product photos. They were selling accessories, not sherry. I wrote to that company asking for a lead. They asked the photographer. It was just an old bottle he had and was using for a prop. Another dead end but a valiant search.
“All during this time I was tasting sherry. It was incredibly inexpensive relative to the high quality I was getting. It was also a complex product to delve into. There are many variations from sweet to dry. I found I liked the stuff in the middle of the spectrum.
“It’s been a while since I had my last glass of sherry. I think it’s time for some more,” finished John.
I couldn’t agree more, John! An excellent sherry is a worthy quest!
I followed John’s advice and trekked up to the Ojai Beverage Company and came home with a $25 bottle of amontillado, a semi-dry, nutty expression of the sherry family made by Bodegas Dios Baco, S.L. in Jerez.
While not as complex as the sherry I had at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in 2009, it took care of the ache for sherry I had in my heart with its seductive rich, warm color, deep caramel color, its butterscotch aromas, its nutty, spicy, fruity character…
If you’re looking for something a little different and special to surprise your sweetie, this might be it!
Sherry goes quite well with candlelight…and this one was a winner with Belgian chocolates with a hazelnut praline filling.
Remember to serve it chilled—not cold, but not room temperature either. Bring the temperature down in the refrigerator then bring the temperature up with a seductive and lengthy presentation! Or you might try one of the many sherry cocktails now in vogue (http://www.latimesmagazine.com/2011/02/sherry-reconsidered.html).
I am revisiting Sherry now because of today’s Wine Pairing Weekend challenge: to pair a sherry with food. Recently, I went to the Ventura Wine Company which now has four different kinds of sherry, so I chose this one:
But since this post is already over 1500 words, stay tuned for Part 2 where I share the sherry I asted and what I paired it with! If you can’t wait, check out other participants and see what we discovered.
You can also check out out Saturday morning, July 9 our chat on Twitter at #WinePW .
- David at CookingChat will share DzGrilled Salmon with Mango Salsadz
- Martin at ENOFYLZ Wine Blog will share DzAn Exploration of Sherry; In the Glass And At The Tabledz
- Christy at Confessions of a Culinary Diva will share DzAjoblanco & Amontilladodz
- Jade at Tasting Pour will share “Fino and Fennel”
- Nancy at Pull that Cork will share “Oloroso Pairings for #winePW: What Worked and What Didn’t“
- Lauren Walsh at The Swirling Dervish will share “The Possibilities of Manzanilla Pasada“
- Jeff at FoodWineClick will share “A Sherry Pairing Mnemonic”