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Andalusian Days (IV): Sherry School in Jerez de la Frontera

SPAIN | Thursday, 23 June 2016 | Views [642]

Bodega Diez Meritos, Jerez

Shakespeare himself once said it: ditch wine, drink sherry. Or perhaps it was more to the effect of: knave! Drop from thy hand that gaudy goblet of insipid wine, and drink sherry.  

Easier said than done. Sherry, to be sure, is an acquired taste, but with hefty doses of practice it became one that I acquired in about twenty-four hours. In popular imagination, sherry is a misunderstood spirit: sticky, sweet, syrupy, opaque, British (a stereotype engendered by the Brit’s lack of native good wine, and Francis Drake’s timely delivery of thousands of barrels of sherry pillaged from Andalucia), good only as aperitif or dessert wine, to be sipped by fireplaces in moody weather, in short, utterly unglamorous and grandmotherly. It is, for the most part, everything but.

Sherry, or jerez in Spanish, encompasses an extraordinary range of wines ranging from the translucent and crisp fino to the chokingly sugary Pedro Ximenez (PX), and its various iterations can be served as refreshing table wine or overpowering digestif.  In Andalucia, sherry is consumed in liver-shredding quantities both during annual ferias (city carnivals) and, quotidianly, as an accompaniment to any meal, at any time of the day. Its genius lies in its strength, complexity, and simultaneous weightlessness. Not counting sherries of the dessert variety like Cream and Pedro Ximenez, even some of the more fortified strains of sherry, bone dry and served fresh, will cool you right off in the Andalusian heat while warming your innards with a fiery trail.

Like almost every other local product I’ve encountered in Andalucia, sherry falls under the legal protection of regionally controlled appellation and can only be called jerez if it is from the town of Jerez de la Frontera, slightly more northern and inland than Cadiz. “De la Frontera”, or “of the frontier”, is a suffix to many a city around Cadiz, and if you connect the dots on the map you would find yourself retracing the border between the Moorish empire and Catholic kingdom. Jerez, as a city, is composed and proud, self-contained in its modest urbanity yet obsessive about its sherry industry and, even more so, of its fine horses that mix Arabian and Andalusian blood that have earned the city a global reputation as an equestrian capital. Metal and bronze sculptures of splendid horses, standing on hind legs with muscles bulging, greet visitors at roundabouts and in hotel lobbies. Pride aside, Jerez lacks the exhibitionist beauty of Sevilla and carries about its business with surprising severity: steps away from the charms of its historic center, its streets are somewhat washed-up, unembellished, and an austere authority reigns over the low buildings. Mid-afternoon, walking through blocks and blocks of bodegas, everything is still, silent, mysterious.

The viniculture of the region long transcends its Arab and Spanish occupiers, and the peculiar climate, soil, and light of the region have been exploited for winemaking since the Roman times. The earth around the Sherry Triangle, a chalky white soil called the albariza, absorbs enough humidity to feed the grapes even during times of extreme heat, and produces the palomino grape used for most sherries (the two other grapes are the Pedro Ximenez, rumored to be named for the German Peter Siemens, and moscatel, a variety also popular for sweet Malagueño wine).  Though I was preening for a plein air vineyard tour amidst hills of grapes and rural estates, sherry-tasting in Jerez proved to center on all the opposite characteristics: dark, cool, spartan urban bodegas sprawling over entire blocks, where sherry is stored in rows of barrels and left to age. The architecture of the bodegas is most peculiar and strikingly uniform throughout the city: from the outside, they almost look like the siheyuans of Beijing with their white walls and slanted roofs with black tiles. We knock on the heavy door of the Bodega Diez Meritos, and hear footsteps approaching. Once inside, secret Andalucian gardens bloom into view: rick, peach yellow walls, arched doorways, stone pillars blackened by the years, orange trees in cobblestoned courtyards.

In the shadowy vaulted caves of the bodega, we walk along interminable rows of stacked barrels, with the oldest closest to the floor and the youngest to the ceiling. Sherry, however, is not defined by a particular year, as it is matured by solera, a tireless process of agglomeration and balance by mixing intervals of different ages of sherry, until all complex variants are averaged into singular smooth concoction, albeit without failing to contribute their original little kick of flavor.  

Thankfully, the variety on the sherry spectrum is manageable to learn as it roughly follows the progression from dry to sweet and pale to dark. Fino is the closest to white wine, driest of dry,  protected from oxidation by a thin gray layer of yeast flor that forms in the barrel, and fortified to around 15% alcohol. Manzanilla, a close cousin, owes its extreme delicateness and salty touch to the sea wind of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Amontillado, the next notch up in intensity, is a slightly more aged fino that owes its darker hue to slow oxidation but remains very dry, albeit nuttier and more complex. Oloroso, named for the rather pungent scent it yields, is the richest and strongest type of sherry, fully and lengthily oxidized to reach about 20% in alcohol content. Traditionally, sherry does not allow for blends in grape varieties, but an innovation by British winemaker Harvey’s in the late 1880s mixed Oloroso with sweeter wines from Pedro Ximenez and moscatel grapes, and produced the “cream”, an enjoyable crowdpleaser solidly in the dessert realm that is, contrary to its name, neither milky nor creamy. Palo Cortado, the most elegant and evasive of sherries, begins on the Amontillado track but develops the darker qualities of an Oloroso due to serendipitous biological processes, and transforms into beautiful amber gold with hints of salt and caramel. Finally, for those with a dedicated sweet tooth and reliable dental insurance, the Pedro Ximenez, made almost entirely from very sundried, very mature, and very sugary PX grapes, is an unctuous elixir with notes of chocolate and spice. Unlike the much smoother Cream, it contains such a high sugar concentration that drinking it feels like sipping syrup, and I had to put down the glass when overtaken by a coughing fit from a throat scorched by sugar.

A great virtue of sherry, other than getting you very drunk with sneaky stealth, is its potent excellence as a cooking ingredient. Every type of sherry, from a light hint of fino to an intense PX reduction, can complement range of meats and fishes and lend the resulting dish a curious complexity. La Carbona, an absolute jewel of a family-run restaurant housed in a great traditional bodega hall with high vaulted ceilings, welcomes us for a sherry-themed feast: a deluge of dishes both cooked and paired with sherry. Javier Muñoz junior is the talented young chef behind the stove, while Javier senior mans the bar and asks for our preferences for the first-round of pre-dinner drinks. Amateurly sherried-out from my tasting at the bodega, I timidly ask for a glass of white wine, which I now imagine will go down like water in comparison to sherry. Javier Sr. narrows his eyes, and chuckles as if correcting an unthinkable mistake stemming from my poor Spanish : “White wine? You mean a fino?”

Unable to withstand the pressure, I forfeit: “yes, thank you.”

Thus armed with my sixth or seventh drink, I hover over Javier Jr.’s cook station as he steams large prawns with fino sherry and curry powder and fries up soft boiled artichokes with olive oil, fino, and sea salt. Javier, self-proclaimedly unfit for school, was whisked away up north to Santander by a family friend as a young man and cut his teeth in the Michelin-starred El Serbal. Nowadays, he is offering a “market-based” cuisine at La Carbona that he describes as simple and traditional, which it may seem at first sight, but the expertise with which the meat and fish are handled clearly point to sophistication and inventiveness. Most days of the week, Javier Sr. visits the local fisheries and butchers early in the morning to pick out the best cuts, and Jr. works with the bounty of the day, often creating seasonal dishes unlisted in the menu.


Artichokes fried in olive oil and sherry with curried prawns

For 32 euros per person, with food and wine pairing both included and traditional ingredients of the finest quality, La Carboná’s sherry tasting menu is dizzying in both its succulence and alcohol content. The artichoke and shrimp we just cooked materializes trifold on our table, accompanied with Amontillado sherry. Another starter on the tasting menu is a stacked pastry of mackerel marinated in sherry vinegar, liver, onions, and apples, married with a Palo Cortado. Next arrives more serious fish: two perfectly seared chunks of the daily catch sitting atop a bed of spinach tagliatelle and puréed peas, trailed by a glass of fino. The great surprise of the night is an enormous cut of cantabrian steak, grilled to perfection, buttery and tender, so rare in parts it tastes like tartare, paired with rich oloroso. For dessert, goat cheese ice cream with raspberry coulis and fino, with a cream sherry of medium intensity.


Fish pastry with vigegar-marinated daily catch, liver, onions, and apples


Deluxe Cantabrian steak


Seared white fish with spinach tagliatelle and pea puree

All in all, that’s a lot of sherry, even for an intrigued beginner. I struggle to finish each glass in time for the next pairing to arrive, and have nursed no less than ten or eleven drinks by the time the dessert plates were cleared. Ultimately, years of collegiate training rose to the occasion and I exit La Carbona bipedal and upright, carrying with me a newfound resolve to, at least, keep on developing a palate for sherry. For the moment, however, I am desirous of a break, foolishly thinking in my drunkenness that I can resume a regime of white wine in the coming days, forgetting that I am in Andalucia and that, inevitably, a chilled glass of tangy sherry would find its way to me.

Tags: andalucia, drinks, food, sherry, spain, travel

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