The international writing assignment breezed into my inbox: “Give us an original story about a white wine, which goes with seafood.”
I gave myself an even greater challenge: Find a white wine other than Champagne (way too predictable), which complements most seafood dishes.
Taking the Indiana Jones approach, I grabbed my brimmed, soft fedora and a corkscrew (who needs a bullwhip these days?) and hit the road to find such a wine.
Now that I am in the southern crescent of Spain, called Andalusia, where there are, in fact, bullrings, and bullfights, perhaps I should have brought along my bullwhip after all.
After an exhaustive parade through numerous bodegas (wineries) here, I have good news: I have found a single white wine, which complements just about every seafood dish imaginable.
In a word: Sherry.
I am referring particularly to the palest, most delicate, most ubiquitous, and least expensive type of Sherry – Fino. Proof that you don’t have to spend top dollar to experience Liquid Poetry.
Though not sparkling, Sherry is like Champagne in one respect: it is an ideal white wine to marry to all sorts of shellfish and seafood dishes. It’s great with oysters on the half-shell, great with grilled sea bass, great with a peppery seafood stew.
Unlike Champagne, Sherry is slightly fortified. Even so, it still qualifies as “wine.”
Sherry is always served well chilled, and by “well,” I mean extremely well, much colder than you would serve Champagne or other white wine. That’s the way the folks who make it in Spain serve it in Spain. They should know.
Jerez (pronounced “Heh-reth” by the lisp-endeared Spanish), is the Sherry capital of the world. I have just spent five days here, interviewing Sherry producers.
The Sherry industry association, which sets standards with respect to grapes, harvesting, production, bottling, branding, and what constitutes DOC (Denominations of Origin) Sherry, is the oldest wine trade group in all of Spain. The Consejo Regulador was established in 1933.
César Saldaña, director general, of the regional Consejo, invited us to his association’s headquarters in Jerez to explain the complicated way Sherry is made – using the solera system.
Phoenicians brought grapes to this region more than 3,100 years ago and even during the 500-year Muslim conquest of the area (700 to 1400 AD), wine, Sherry by name, was continually produced here. In fact, “Jerez” is a transliteration of what the ancient Moors (Muslims) called the city – Sherish.
Sherry has changed styles over the centuries, as you might expect. The beverage we know as “Sherry” started being fortified in the mid-1700s, as exports ramped up; traders sought wines for long sailing expeditions. They discovered that fortifying a wine with additional grape spirits kept the wine from spoiling.
Today, only three grapes are permitted to make Sherry: Palomino, Moscatel, or Pedro Ximenes, which sounds more like the name of a Spanish TV comedian than a grape. All three are white grapes.
The chalky soil in this region is rich in limestone and calcium carbonate, which helps preserve what little moisture there is; vines of the three DOC permitted grape varieties, are forced to send roots deep into this cruel soil to reach the moisture. Scorching summer days produce grapes filled with high sugar content.
It takes clever winemakers to tame the fruit, grooming it into something palatable and delicious.
The grapes are pressed, fermented and the best lots are aged in American oak barrels where fermentation produces a particular “flora,” or micro-culture of yeasts, which transforms the liquid into a beverage with delicate, attractive, and nutty nuances.
A component of winemaking that is unique to this region is the maturation process. Every Sherry must spend a minimum of three years ageing in the solera system.
“The solera system” is not to be confused with “the solar system,” though it is possible to make comparisons; both are wonders of nature… and you can’t explain either on a single typed page.
Here’s the Solera System for Dummies version: Sherry producers age their wine in a series of tiered barrels, mounted three, four or five rows high. The upper tiers are called criaderas (nurseries) because they hold the youngest wine.
Each harvest, when new wine is made, it replaces the wine in the top-tier barrels. But first, the wine previously held for a year in this top row of barrels is transferred to the row of barrels just below… whose wine has been transferred to the wine in the barrels immediately below… and so on, down to the ground level.
In this fashion, the wine on the bottom row, which has been housed the longest in this tiered apartment house of barrels, is now ready for blending, fortifying and bottling. Solera, by the way, comes from the Spanish word for floor, or suelo.
It takes at least three years to make a Fino Sherry, as the wine drops down in successive years, from barrel row to barrel row, eventually hitting the ground tier.
In effect, a three-year-aged Sherry has a little bit of wine from each of three successive vintages. This helps winemakers produce Sherries of consistent color, taste and texture.
Please don’t start singing Man of La Mancha
The aged wine from the ground level of barrels is blended and fortified with distilled spirits. (You can technically call these spirits “Brandy,” as many textbooks do, but the term, to me anyway, suggests a spirit from France; the fact is that the distilled alcohol used to fortify Sherry mostly comes from grapes grown near La Mancha.)
Enough technical detail! This is not meant to be a primer on Sherry but is meant to introduce you to the wonderment of this beverage and the pleasures it can bring to the table.
I have visited numerous bodegas in Jerez and haven’t found a single Sherry I didn’t like. But irony of ironies, my favorite Sherry, Tio Pepe, is produced by the oldest and largest bodega here, Gonzalez Byass.
Gonzalez Byass offers the closest thing to a Robert Mondavi Winery experience. Like Mondavi, GB was an original, game-changing winery in its homeland, though Gonzalez Byass had nearly a century’s head start on Bob Mondavi.
As at Mondavi, Gonzalez Byass offers the region’s premier educational tour. To see grapes growing in Jerez and learn how Sherry is made, book the Premier Tour.
My impressions of GB Sherries were heightened by two events: an intimate, first-class Sherry tasting led by the industry’s most respected senior taster/blender, Antonio Flores Pedregosa.
This was followed by a catered dinner in the Gonzalez Byass cellar, stacked high with many solera rows of ageing Sherry.
It also helped to sit at the multi-course, catered dinner with a director of the family-owned winery, getting his insider’s industry stories. Let’s be honest: Journalism may pay poorly, but it sure has its perks.
My take-away from Jerez is that Sherry, whether it’s the Tio Pepe, Fernando & Castilla, or Lustau brand, is a beverage of unique complexity and flavor.
Types of Sherries
Fino Sherry is the type I recommend to accompany seafood dishes. The pale gold wine has a taste of blanched almonds, fresh yeasty dough and the scent of pleasant herbs. Fino Sherry is an ideal complement to seafood, olives, or cured Iberian ham (or prosciutto – let’s not get too precious with the pairings!).
Manzanilla Sherry has a more prominent floral characteristic with hints of chamomile but it, too, would nicely complement many seafood dishes.
Amontillado Sherry is the result of blending two different types of Sherry (one produced “biologically,” one produced “oxidatively” – let’s not go into these distinctions here). Amontillado tends toward amber in color, and exhibits aromas of hazelnuts and tobacco. It is a great stand-alone aperitif and complements cheeses wonderfully. But I’m not thinking it goes so well with seafood.
Olorosso Sherry ranges from rich amber to deep mahogany in color. It is a warm, rounded, walnutty scented Sherry with sweet-ish top notes and flavors of toast, wood, and tobacco. Great with cured, or grilled, meats, but not a friend of seameats.
Pedro Ximenes is like treacle. Made from the “PX” grape, as locals call it, this Sherry sets the bar for sweet wine. Raisins, figs and dates jump to mind; the most recognizable scents are of honey, grape syrup and candied fruit. If 100 were the most sugary sweetness one could cram into a beverage, PX would rate 110 on the scale.
What is confusing to American consumers is that ALL these different styles of beverage are called Sherry. In the US, when we call a wine Cabernet Sauvignon, we kind of know what we’re getting into. Yes there may be bell pepper notes, or hints of blueberry, or the wine may be tannic, or oaky, but there is a bulls-eye, or target, of flavors, which define “Cabernet.”
Sherry, by contrast, is all over the place in colors, levels of sweetness, complexity of flavor and even in the process to make it - “would monsieur like a ‘biologically’ produced Sherry or one ‘oxidatively’ developed…?”
In a world of short attention spans, having to go to school to learn about the confusing, complex and arcane methods of production to enjoy and understand the beverage is not going to win Sherry producers many Facebook fans.
The take-away from this story is: Fino Sherry is a wonderful beverage to complement most seafood recipes.
As noted, my favorite Fino is Tio Pepe (which means “Uncle Jack” – named after a helpful uncle of the original owner of Gonzalez Byass). It is delicate, nuanced and complements many Mediterranean-style dishes, not just seafood. It is available in most US markets and, best of all, is not expensive. Which makes it one of those win-win-win beverages, proving that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to drink good wine.
A potential encore benefit: Sherry may be good for your health, though no one makes such a claim on a bottle. Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, scrawled this on the end of a barrel of Sherry, ageing in the cellar of one Jerez bodega:
“If penicillin cures the sick, then Sherry resuscitates the dead.”
Another thing to like about Sherry; an opened bottle will keep for a month, or longer, if recorked and stored in the fridge.
If we have company to our home and serve prosciutto with chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano as an appetizer, I often pull a previously opened bottle of Tio Pepe from the fridge. Each time, the Sherry remains bright, friendly and complementary to these foods. Thanks, Uncle Jack!