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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I’m Just Wild about Sherry

Truly Vintage Stuff Dept.: I'm not saying that bartenders tend to be arrogant and stupid. But if you've never even heard of the beverage I've requested, don't try to make me the butt of ridicule, as one jackanapes in Saratoga Springs attempted. This, written eight years ago, was my very measured response.


SO HERE I WAS in London, a high school junior on a theater tour, in a pub with some classmates. One of them, Lynette, was my co-star in a just-finished “Blithe Spirit,” in which she played one of my wives. I was supposed to kiss her during the first scene.

When I learned that she would be playing the role, my knees weakened. She was one of the most gorgeous and desirable young women in the school. Previously, my fantasy world included a passionate romance with her. Now that I was faced with nothing more than a stage kiss, my inner idiot shone through. At the first blocking rehearsal, she obligingly stood before me, with dewy, pouting lips, waiting.

I trembled. I froze. I looked at her oh-so-beautiful face and I became an inert mass of outsized protoplasm. “For God’s sake!” the director shouted. “Just KISS her!” And everybody in the rehearsal hall dissolved into laughter.

It was eventually decided that I should kiss her on the back of the neck, a less-painful but humiliating compromise. My inner idiot rationalized that she understood my restraint to be a manifestation of deeper adoration.

So here I was in a foreign land, sitting beside her, freed from the legal confines of the States, watching my classmates order vodka martinis or other fast-acting cocktails. Lynette asked me to order her something.

“Two sherries,” I told the barmaid. “Amontillado.” The amber fluid was presented a small wine glass, looking unlike anything else our table was consuming. The charm of my sophistication needed no jump start from vodka or whisky. She and I raised our glasses and toasted one another. Lynette sipped and made a face. “Ewww!” she cried. “This is awful! What the hell is it?”

It’s probably your finest wine bargain, yet it’s tragically unhip. During the past year, I’ve been conducting an informal, unscientific poll, asking for it at many of the restaurants I’ve recently visited. Too often, the bartender or server looks at me as if I’d just asked for Moxie or mare’s sweat.

A glass of good sherry is a wonderful way to begin a meal, to post-prandially relax, to savor the complex flavors of some of the world’s oldest wine grapes. Unfortunately, it has turned into some kind of secret. If people think of it at all, they probably associate it with effete English detectives sipping it at the outset of some Masterpiece Theatre murder mystery.

Sherry is a fortified wine from Spain’s Jerez region, on the country’s southern coast, which dates its viticulture back to the Phoenecian occupation of 1100 B.C., as recorded by first-century Greek geographer Strabo. And sherry continured to flourish when the Moors occupied Spain for several centuries.

The British craze for the wine took off during the reign of Henry I, who traded English wool for his favorite tipple. According to legend, Shakespeare and his pal Ben Johnson used to put away a few bottles of the stuff whenever they visited the Boar’s Head Tavern together.

Sherry is based on the Palomino grape, which otherwise makes a lousy wine. The product appears in three major varieties.

Fino, the driest, forms a thick yeast layer in the barrel that keeps the wine away from oxygen. Like all sherry, it’s mixed with brandy, then goes through the Solera system, in which wine from different vintages are blended to give the result a consistent flavor. This year’s bottling, in other words, will be just as good as what you sampled five or twenty years ago. Fino is always served chilled and has a fairly short life after it’s opened. As Craig Camp, wine and spirits editor of puts it, “When you see an open bottle of unchilled Fino on the back of the bar, run away as fast as you can.” Amontillado, a cask of which figured in a famous Poe story, is an aged Fino with some late-in-its processing oxydization.

Oloroso gets the oxygen Fino doesn’t, and develops a darker color even as it maintains an impressive dryness and a lot (comparatively) of alcohol. A fine Oloroso is worth whatever you spend on it; happily, you don’t have to spend much.

Cream sherry, the most familiar variety, is an Oloroso blended with a sweet wine like Pedro Ximénez, a grape that’s ripened into sugar-rich raisins before being picked and processed. Although it works best as a dessert wine, many people think this is all there is to sherry, and thus miss out on the complex range of flavor available at a relatively low cast.

“We have regulars who buy sherry,” says Todd Yutzler, manager of Delaware Plaza Wine and Liquor. “They keep it going. The old-timers still like Harvey’s Bristol Cream, but I’ve found that people who like Bordeaux and big California cabs like dry sherry.” Yutzler keeps a sherry selection on hand, but finds it hard to maintain a variety what with the ever-shrinking demand.

“Younger people aren’t willing to check out the unknown,” he says. “I remember when Harvey’s went on a big push to make their product appear hip and to try to attract a younger generation, but after a year they canned it.”

The versatility of a good Fino is such that it’s an ideal companion to a variety of foods, from spicy meats to vinegary sushi. And it’s at its most classic as an aperitif, served fresh and well chilled.

I don’t recall the condition of the Amontillado served to Lynette and me in that London pub. I didn’t know enough about it at the time. And how could I remember anything when her reaction took me so much by surprise? “I thought it was going to be some kind of a cherry drink!” she cried. And so it was that she went out dancing with a vodka martini type, leaving me to console myself with this undervalued wine. I even finished hers.

Metroland Magazine, July 15, 2004

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