Extract: Sherry by Julian Jeffs

14 June 2021 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Sherry, Wine and spirits

Into the glass
Like all wines, sherry’s raison d’être is to give pleasure. And like all great wines it gives pleasure in complex ways appealing to all the senses. As soon as it is poured into a glass it shows its colour and clarity. A lot can be learned simply by looking at it. Then comes its appeal to the nose. The bouquet of a good sherry strikes the nose while it is being poured into the glass, sometimes even from the next room. The nose is a major organ of tasting, receiving the first sensations. For this to happen the wine needs room for the volatile compounds to collect and concentrate above its surface, contained in the space defined by the glass, which should therefore taper in towards the top and be big enough for the wine only to occupy about a third of it. The little thimbles sold as ‘sherry glasses’ with the wine filled to the brim do not give it a chance. Apart from the bouquet ascending to the nose, the colour and viscosity can be appreciated. These features reveal the character of the wine and lay the foundations for the pleasure it can give in the mouth. There is a difference between aroma and bouquet. The aroma is the smell of a young wine, while the bouquet develops with age as the wine matures, giving a complexity that can be immense, subtle and complex.

Many wine lovers begin by being interested in one or other of the great table wines; they are perplexed by the many styles of sherry and sometimes never seek out ones that really satisfy them. It is essential to try all the styles. The final choice depends on the time of day, the weather, and the other wines that are taken with the meal. Above all, it depends on what one happens to like. It is not easy to advise anyone. There is only one hard and fast rule: judge for yourself and drink what you enjoy. No one has the right to tell others what they should drink, but that has never prevented people asking. The only possible answer is that people who drink sherry regularly generally agree about the styles that suit certain occasions, and it is as well to try following their example first. Then by all means be original; your own taste is all that matters. To be dogmatic is a form of ignorance, and often a manifestation of wine snobbery. Other people’s views may act as a guide, but they are only opinions and should be treated as such.

For those who enjoy a glass of wine and a biscuit in the morning, any style of sherry is suitable, though the majority prefer a dry wine when the weather is hot and a sweeter one when it is cold. It is here that the fuller-bodied wines – amontillado, palo cortado and dry oloroso – come into their own. In the sherry country there is a saying that one should have a glass of oloroso mid-morning to prepare the stomach for the serious drinking of fino before lunch.

Very dry sherry has an unaccountable snob appeal, but habitual wine drinkers do generally prefer such sherries as aperitifs. My own preference is certainly for a bone dry aperitif save in the depth of winter, when the sugar in a slightly abocado sherry is very comforting. In choosing an aperitif one must obviously bear in mind the table wine that follows. A very old amontillado would destroy the flavour of a Moselle; it would even overpower many Burgundies. Wine lovers like to arrange a progression of flavours, leading up to a big white wine, like a Burgundy or Rhône, with a light manzanilla or fino sherry; but many white wines, like those from the Saar or Loire valleys, or the north of Spain, are light in themselves and have high acidities so that instead of a progression there is a rather unsatisfactory contrast. Here an amontillado, a palo cortado or a dry oloroso can be better; and sherries such as these with the soup provide just the right degree of contrast when champagne is served as an aperitif. Claret can follow a fino, young amontillado or delicate palo cortado; Burgundy can withstand a somewhat older amontillado or an oloroso; a Rhône wine, a big Spanish red, or a super Tuscan can safely follow an old sherry. Old palo cortados and olorosos, whether dry or sweet, are excellent with cheese, particularly blue and green cheeses, and goats’ or ewes’ milk cheeses such as queso Manchego.

A dessert sherry should generally be more or less sweet, though a dry palo cortado or oloroso can be delicious after lunch on a hot summer’s day. A wine to be drunk at the end of a meal should have plenty of body, and although I have enjoyed an old amontillado after lunch, palo cortado or oloroso is generally more attractive. Earle Welby was undoubtedly right when he wrote that sherry is far better than port after champagne.

Pedro Ximénez had long been used in the sherry country as a blending wine but was seldom drunk by itself, though locally it was thought good for nursing mothers. Then, in the 1990s, shippers began to bottle and sell it. Perhaps they had a surplus, as wines like brown sherry were going out of favour. Pedro Ximénez is slightly viscous, sticky and very sweet, but these qualities give it an appeal of its own. It tastes delicious poured over a vanilla ice-cream and the rest of the bottle can then be drunk with the ice-cream, a food that is usually impossible to match with wine. And when Pedro Ximénez ages it develops real distinction; although still very sweet, its after-taste becomes almost dry, complex and very long.

Sherry is generally at its best with food. In Spain, it is taken with a tapa. The word means a lid, or cover, and is said to be derived from an old Spanish custom of putting a plate with a morsel of food on top of the glass. Bars in Spain compete with one another in providing good tapas, and the choice includes such things as cheese, prawns, fish, small steaks, tomatoes, olives, potato salad, chips, pâté, fried squid, fancy sausages (notably chorizo), egg including cold Spanish omelette, meatballs, salt cod, ham and a multitude of specialities. Fino sherries are particularly good with food. My own favourite working lunch is a large glass of fino with a salad or with more easily portable food such as a slice of quiche or a well-filled sandwich. It even tastes good with an egg mayonnaise sandwich, something which defeats most wines.

While the second edition of this book was in the press I got married and proudly took my wife to a vintage feast in Jerez. Soon after midnight the two of us, walking with a sherry-shipping friend in the feria, began to feel the need for dinner. We were passing by a stand where they were spit-roasting chickens, basted with oil and flavoured with the most delicious herbs. I ordered a chicken and a bottle of fino. ‘A whole bottle, for three?’ Deborah asked, aghast. But she did not bat an eyelid when I ordered the second. It is, after all, very little stronger than many table wines and one drinks more with impunity when well exercised and in the Andalusian air.

Sherry is a white wine, and the general rules for serving white wines apply. A fino tastes better if it is chilled but not frozen and this is especially so in hot weather; wines of greater body need only be slightly cool, for instance at cellar temperature; and dessert sherries are best served on the cool side of room temperature, though cream sherry nowadays is sometimes served ‘on the rocks’ as a refreshing drink. On no account should any sherry be warmed.

Sherris-sack was first drunk from silver vessels – and they usually held a man’s measure. Then, during the seventeenth century, Venetian glass was introduced into England, and it was generally drunk from flute glasses. A wide choice of wine glasses is available today; many of them are aesthetically very beautiful, but few are suitable for drinking wine out of, and the small so-called ‘sherry glasses’ are by far the worst of all. Among the worst are those that narrow towards the middle: so-called Elgin glasses and schooners. The former are said to have been designed by an extraordinarily mean peer who wanted his guests to think they were getting a good measure when they were not. One of the best things about sherry is its deep, penetrating fragrance that prepares the palate for the flavour of the wine; the bouquet of a good sherry is so attractive that one can enjoy it without tasting the wine at all. Sherry needs a big glass with plenty of room for the full fragrance to gather within it. Tulip-shaped wine glasses filled only half-way are very good, but the special tall tasting glasses, known as dock glasses and used in the wine trade, are better still. The ISO glass, now widely available, is a good example. These are from five to seven inches high and gently taper in towards the top; they should only be filled to the height of one inch or two. A smaller version which is good is the copita. But good glasses not only show up the beauty of a wine, they also reveal its faults. There is a saying in Jerez: solo hay dos clases de Jerez, el bueno y el mejor – ‘there are only two kinds of sherry, the good and the better’, but there are a few sad exceptions in the cut-throat competition of today, and most of these find their way to public bars, where small glasses may perhaps not always be out of place.

What happens to sherry after it has been bottled depends very much on its style. A fino is never at its best after more than three months in bottle and this is especially so with wines sold en rama. Light amontillados also deteriorate and coarsen in bottle, but rather more slowly. Strange things can happen when dry sherries are kept for a long time. In my own cellar I laid down some fine palo cortado rather more than thirty years ago. For the first three or four years it improved; then it went through a bad patch that lasted for six or seven years. After that it came out on the other side, showing great age and elegance that improved annually until the wine had about twenty-five years’ cellaring. Then it began to go off.

An unsweetened oloroso remains unharmed for several years. If the wine is sweetened, its behaviour is quite different. Light amontillados do not improve but they last far longer than finos and can safely be kept in bottle for two or three years. The development of a medium-quality amontillado in bottle over a long period of years is extremely speculative. Many years ago I inherited three bottles of an identical, slightly sweetened amontillado that had been in my grandfather’s cellar for twenty years. One had absorbed all its sugar and had become a bone dry, very smooth wine of outstanding character, while the other two were dreadful. A really first-class amontillado, palo cortado or oloroso, if it is initially sweetened, develops in bottle and steadily changes. It gradually consumes its sugar, and becomes remarkably smooth while the bouquet and flavour grow exceptionally. Such wines are said to have ‘bottle age’. Given long enough in the bottle, a dessert oloroso can become absolutely dry, though this may well take fifty or sixty years. I have tasted a sherry that had been in bottle for over a hundred years, and it was truly remarkable. One of the finest dessert sherries I remember was a good oloroso my father bought before the war; it was still very sweet thirty years later, but had developed a remarkably mellow and complex flavour with a remarkable nose. Such wines develop with every year in bottle, and they have long been sought after by wine lovers. They should be kept at the very least ten years if the quality of bottle age is really to be appreciated. Then they are glorious.

Once the bottle has been opened, fino sherry oxidizes and gets coarse very quickly: the more delicate the wine, the more noticeable this is. A natural fino should be drunk within three days of opening the bottle, unless it is kept very cool, for instance in the door of a refrigerator, when it lasts twice as long; anyone who takes longer should buy half-bottles. Alternatively, as soon as a bottle of sherry is opened, half of it can be decanted into a clean half-bottle which, if immediately and tightly corked, preserves it almost as well as if the wine had not been opened at all, as there has been hardly any time in the air for it to become oxidized. Nowadays there are gadgets that help: one of these evacuates the space above the wine, while another fills it with inert nitrogen and carbon dioxide; both reduce oxidation.

The same thing applies to the other styles of sherry provided they are completely dry. Oxidation completely spoils them and since few people could wish to drink these wines very cold, the easiest way of ameliorating it is not available. They should be drunk within a week. The more body or sweetness a wine has, the longer it lasts and, at the opposite end of the scale, a brown sherry can safely be left for a month even in a decanter. Decanters are far less airtight than corked bottles, and sherry tends to deteriorate more quickly if it has been decanted. This does not generally matter, as a good wine seldom gets the chance to last for more than a day or two, and decanters are very decorative, but they are only really useful when the wine has been in bottle for two or three years and has thrown a slight deposit.

Strong wines such as sherry attack their corks, which crumble and leak, utterly spoiling them. This can be avoided if the bottles are stored upright, and this is always done in bodega reference rooms, where the wine is generally stored for three or four years. If it is kept upright for longer, there is the danger that the cork may get too dry and cease from being airtight, though I have never known it happen to a bottle of sherry. It is the reason why table wine bottles are binned horizontally, though. For sherry to be laid down, upright or horizontal, it should be corked with long corks of the first quality, like those used for vintage port. Nowadays metal screw-tops with thin plastic seals inside are rapidly taking over. This reduces the risk of oxidation and works very well, though when they were introduced in the 1980s the plastic was not entirely inert and I have known an amontillado become positively nasty after a couple of years. I would not expect this to happen now.

Sherry, like other wines, should be stored in a dark place, as light catalyzes oxidation. The traditional sherry bottle is made of very dark, almost black, glass and that helps. ‘Market forces’ however are calling for clear bottles. Wine in such a bottle should be kept in a dark place and certainly never exposed to direct sunlight.

There is a dictum of Robert Benchley that, ‘Drinking makes such fools of people, and the people are such fools to begin with, it’s compounding a felony.’ A man who drinks fine wine because he enjoys it will never become a drunkard: wine stops being a pleasure long before it becomes a danger. Taken the right way, it is wholly good. During the Great Plague, only Dr Hedges, of all the London doctors, escaped contagion; he drank a few glasses of sherris-sack every day, and wrote in his memoirs: ‘Such practice not only protected me against contamination, but instilled in me the optimism which my patients so much needed.’ There is a legend that many years ago there lived an archbishop of Seville who so far exceeded the decent complement of years laid down in Holy Writ as to reach the age of 125. He was a man of regular habits and drank a bottle of sherry with his dinner every day, save when he was feeling at all unwell; then he drank two bottles.

In Castile and the north of Spain sherry is given as a tonic to expectant mothers. When George C. Howell, of New York, examined the ages and habits of the sherry shippers in Jerez, he found that 10 per cent were light or very light drinkers, and the other 90 per cent were heavy drinkers; 10 per cent died before the age of seventy, and the other 90 per cent lived longer; 15 per cent lived to be ninety. If a sherry shipper dies aged less than seventy, his colleagues regard it as a case of infant mortality. Henry Swinburne recorded the curious fact that, ‘The earth in the cemeteries of Xeres, has the quality of preserving corpses incorrupted for years and ages.’ Some doubt has been cast upon the accuracy of this observation, but if indeed it was true, I am sure the quality of the earth had nothing to do with it: by the time a Jerezano dies, he is safely pickled by a lifetime of steady drinking.

When a Jerezano opens a bottle of sherry, he sometimes gives it a shake and throws a little on the floor before filling his glass. There is a good reason for this, as it gets rid of the wine that may have been corrupted by contact with the cork. But it is also a ritual – a sacrifice to the earth that gave the wine its being. Then he does the really important thing: he drinks the rest of the bottle. But he bears in mind the rule of St Gildas the Wise: ‘If any monk through drinking too freely gets thick of speech so that he cannot join in the psalmody, he is to be deprived of his supper.’

Extract (edited) from Sherry, Julian Jeffs (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
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