Tokaj tourist

Some friends and I got together for a short trip: mini-break, wine-tasting, cultural and historical exploration. The drive to Mád is about three hours from Budapest. Why Mád? Because of a very attractive, brand new boutique hotel by the name of Botrytis – what could be more stylish in the middle of the Tokaj region, whose famed aszú wines live and breathe botrytis? But also the local Jewish history, the lovely Baroque synagogue. The peace and quiet, the undiscoveredness of the place. Even in the middle of summer, no rush of tourists. This may not be great news for the proprietors of businesses, but it was for us visitors. Wherever we went, we got the special treatment, and never had to queue.

Mad landscape

Mád feels small, intimate, very rural and traditional. People are friendly, the grass is green, the wine is white. And mainly Furmint-based of course – we are in the heart of the Tokaj region!

When you visit, you absolutely must walk up to the beautifully refurbished Baroque synagogue, not far from the centre of the village. Right next to it is what used to be rabbi’s house and study hall (yeshiva); the building has been turned into a lovely little museum of local Jewish history. The very reasonably priced ticket includes a film screening and a guided tour of the museum and synagogue. The rabbi’s house also offers accommodation for individuals and larger groups. North-east Hungary was famed for its hasidic Jewish communities and miracle-working rabbis, so there’s a lot of history to discover. Visit Footsteps of the Wonder Rabbis for detailed information.

But to return to the primary purpose of our visit: wine-tasting!

We started with the wines of Szent Tamás Pincészet, named after one of the top vineyards of the region. The winery is in the process of being merged with Mád Wine, and while the wines bearing the latter name are entry-level, easy-drinking fare, the Szent Tamás label represents their top wines made with their own grapes, selected from single vineyards. These vineyards (Kővágó, Úrágya, Szent Tamás, Nyúlászó etc.) have been known since the 16th century, and there is a strong sense of history and tradition throughout the region. Szent Tamás aims to produce a brand that is recognizable and consistent rather than reflecting a winemaker’s individual vision and preferences.

Mád Furmint 2016

A fresh wine fermented and matured in stainless steel tanks. Pretty, fruity, with lively acidity and a long finish.

_Nyulaszo_20153Nyúlászó 2016 Furmint and Hárslevelű

Limited production, under 5,000 bottles made; fermented and aged in Hungarian oak

tropical fruit, apricots and sweet candy blend with an intense oaky character on the nose; after the sweetness of fragrance the dry palate is quite a surprise. Some of the sweet notes linger but the character is mainly dry and driven by firm acidity. With time it shows a pleasant creaminess and smokey character. Apricots and pebbles on long, intense finish.

Mád Late Harvest 2016 Furmint, Hárslevelű, Muskotály

This intense green-gold wine was fermented and matured in stainless steel; amazing, intense nose of honey and fruit and caramel. Orange/tangerine flavours, with lovely acidity complementing the intense fruitiness.

 

szt_tamas_szamorodniSzent Tamás 2014, 100% Furmint

Limited production of about 2,500 bottles

A very refined and beautifully integrated wine. Restrained, elegant, coherent. Character reflects the cool year it was produced in. Intense, linear nose, apricot and creamy vanilla on palate, long mineral finish. Smooth and balanced. Excellent.

Szent Tamás Sweet Szamorodni 2013

Fermented and matured in oak. Colour deep yellow-gold, nose has a very attractive smokey, meaty savoury character beneath the standard fruit and honey notes. Oily, creamy texture, perhaps could do with a bit more acidity.

Tallya vineyard

Another winery we visited was Zsadányi, a relatively new family winery based in Tállya, an equally ancient commune in the Tokaj region whose vineyards have recently been rediscovered for their outstanding potential. Here is a sample of the best wines we tasted.

Zsadanyi szamorodniSzamorodni dry 2014 

Rich gold, intense nose with honey, jasmine and lime flowers, apricots. Vanilla oak and fruit on palate. Shortish though beautifully floral finish. The wine is fermented and aged in locally produced oak barrels.

Dongó Furmint 2015

High acidity, mineral character – typical of the Dongó vineyard. Hint of mint and eucalyptus oil on palate, intense, harmonious, rounded, loveable. Long finish.

Tökösmál Furmint 2018

A new addition to the Zsadányi top range; not bottled yet, tasted from tank. Very interesting savoury character with cabbage and vegetables. Silky texture, smooth vanilla and butterscotch notes. Look forward to tasting again after bottling!

 

 

 

 

How to make beer in 10 easy steps

Making beer is super-easy. Just follow these instructions.

  1. Buy or borrow a brewery of suitable size and pedigree. brewery buildingI’d recommend something like the Hook Norton Brewery, for instance. It has history, it has charm. Their building looks like something out of Harry Potter, and they are very eager to preserve as much of the original equipment, going back about 170 years, as possible. They are located, surprise, in Hook Norton, a village not far from Banbury. The brewery has been in the hands of the same family for six generations now.
  2. Buy malt. You can of course grow your own, but at Hook Norton they believe you’re either a brewer or a barley grower. You can’t be an expert in both. So they say it’s preferable to leave the grains to the grain specialists and buy in your malt. You can blend different types of malt in your beer, depending on the style you want to produce. black maltOne malt Hook Norton uses throughout its range, in all its beers, is pale ale malt, as it gives richness to the beer. That’s not the one seen in the above photo, obviously. But I think you can guess what black malt will be used for.
  3. Crack your malt. grist millFor this process, serious people will use a grist mill – as seen in the photograph. You also want to mill some of your malt down to the fineness of flour. You might like to know that the mill featured in this photo is the only one of its kind in the whole wide world that is still in use. 
  4. Take a mash tun and fill it up with your cracked and milled malt, and pour hot water over it. Use high-quality water, ideally spring water or something similarly pure. They call this water the liqueur. That may strike you as a rather fancy name, but water plays a key role in the quality of the final product, so it’s not to be dismissed.
  5. Inside the mash tun, the magic happens. On the influence of the warm water, the starches in the malt are converted into sugar. This is crucial, because it is the sugar that can then turn into alcohol in the fermentation process. mash tunWhat you get in this process is a brown liquid, sticky with the starches and sugars, which we call wort (pronounce as you would ‘word’). In the traditional tuns at Hook Norton, you wait for the water to drip its way through the grains, which can take about 1.5 hours. Then you have to manually shovel out the grains, oh well, it’s tough to be a hard-core traditionalist. But what you get with all your hard work is 2,500 gallons of wort, now ready for fermenting.
  6. But before we get to the fermentation, something really important needs to be done. Choose your hops. Now hops have become a big thing today. Craft breweries place a lot of emphasis on the hops they use, and market their products with the hop varieties marked on the packaging, as connoisseurs really care. Often multiple hops are blended. Don’t be shy. Use your imagination. Hops are great. They are the life and soul of the beer. They have a light green colour and an unusual floral-fruity smell. Like with your grains, you typically don’t want to grown your own hops. Leave that to the hop specialists. 

    Hook Norton’s master brewer uses hops from all over the UK, as well as from the USA, New Zealand and eastern Europe. The wort in itself is ‘sickly sweet’, to quote our guide, and it will be the hops that give the beer its bitterness, as well as some other interesting flavour components, such as tropical fruit if, like me, you like that in your beer.

  7. Move the wort, together with the selected hops, into a copper for boiling. ‘Copper’ is what we call it, but it doesn’t have to be made of copper, though at Hook Norton one of the two coppers they have is actually copper. They are essentially large kettles with a ‘percolator’ in the middle. You bring the wort-hop mix to a boil and let it do its thing for about 1.5 hours. It’s not as simple as that, however. There is an order in which you add the hops here. You should start with the so-called bittering hops. The more aromatic hops should come in later, because with the boiling the aromas easily leave the beer. Once the boiling is over, the liquid is pumped out and cooled down.
  8. Fermentation! This is when your brown juice becomes beer. On our visit to Hook Norton, we weren’t allowed into the fermentation room as contamination is a huge risk at this stage. Suffice it to say that a beer with 5% alcohol content takes about one week to ferment.
  9. Pump some CO2 into your beer and get rid of unwanted yeasts using a microfilter. As simple as that. But if you’re producing a cask ale, do leave some yeasts in the beer – they are needed for the flavour.
  10. The beer is then conditioned in casks. These tend to be rather small in size, much smaller than, for example, wine barrels. The reason is that once a cask is opened, the beer will only keep 3-4 days. For a publican, therefore, it’s better to be able to turn the casks over quickly.

What’s really special about Hook Norton is that theirs is a tower brewery, very cleverly built in a way so that the whole brewing process is gravity-based. Today cutting-edge wineries do the same, in order to keep the process as uninvasive as possible, but Hook Norton was built in the mid-19th century so that was pretty modern for a Victorian establishment. Here is a map that shows how it all works:

map of brewery

We of course finished with some tasting. The beers available on tap included Hooky Bitter, a classic, nutty session (i.e. rather weak) beer; Old Hooky, their flagship beer; Hooky Gold, a very hoppy ale; and Trial No. 1, an interesting lager with an individual character. But my favourite, needless to say, was the Kingmaker Ale, a pale ale with passion fruit, nettle and gooseberry flavours, and with a moderate 4% alcohol. And I got to pour my own beer!

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Furmint: the new Albariño

You’ll no doubt have heard about Veganuary, Movember, or NOctober. Furmint February is a variation on that theme, in a way, but with an unabashedly hedonistic agenda. It is a month dedicated to the promotion of the Furmint wine in the UK, and it opened with a spectacular trade tasting last week at London’s 67 Pall Mall.

Upon stepping into the room, I was taken aback to see a serious crowd. Serious not only in terms of size but also composition. Clearly, London’s top wine professionals were interested in Furmint. The number of MWs per square foot was, in itself, an indication that something important was happening. Which is kind of counterintuitive when we consider the fact that Furmint hails from Hungary. Small country, iron curtain, is it Bucharest or Budapest… you know the story. So who would except London’s wine elite to come together to see what this hitherto little-known grape has to offer? The unanimous verdict is, Furmint may be the next big thing; it could well become Hungary’s new flagship wine on the international scene.

Let’s get that map out and see where Furmint grows. It is a white grape variety mostly (but not exclusively) associated with the Tokaj region in north-east Hungary.

Hungary-Wine-Map

[map courtesy of winefolly.com]

It is, in fact, the staple grape grown in Tokaj, a region famed, of course, for its sweet nectars – and Furmint plays a big part in those luscious blends. However, for the past ten or fifteen years, growers have been experimenting with making dry varietal Furmint as well. And it works!

Don’t take my word for it. Steven Spurrier, who surely needs no introduction, said so himself, when I rubbed shoulders with him at the tasting. To be precise, what he said was, ‘Furmint will be the new Albariño. Except people got bored with Albariño after a while; they won’t get bored with Furmint.’ Mark his words.

Furmint February has been going for ten years now in Hungary, with the aim of popularizing the wine. There are events and tastings to introduce people to the many faces of this exciting variety. Now, for the first time, Wines of Hungary has brought the initiative to London, in close co-operation with Mádi Kör (the Mád Circle), a professional league of wine producers from the Tokaj region. Twenty-six wineries showcased their dry and sweet wines based on the Furmint grape. Participants could not only taste but also talk shop with the producers, most of whom were pouring the wines themselves.

The atmosphere was one of excitement and optimism. I spoke to several critics and trade people at the event, all of whom agreed that Furmint has a bright future in the UK. Most British wine professionals haven’t tasted much of this versatile wine yet, but there was curiosity and a genuine appreciation of the high quality.

furmint-februar-feherborok

Peter McCombie MW has been visiting Tokaj for years, working closely with producers and tradespeople in the region. The way he sees it, Hungary’s problem is that many people immediately associate it with eastern Europe, which means communism, which means low quality. The older generation will have heard about sweet Tokaj, and perhaps Bull’s Blood, but that’s about it. Now Hungary’s other treasures are also becoming known, and perhaps, with the younger generation, the whole association with eastern European trash will fade away.

The new generation seems key in all this. Almost everyone at the Furmint February event told me that younger people are asking a new question: ‘What have you got for me that’s different?’ They are eager to try new things, to encounter new names. But by ‘they’ I don’t mean the average consumer. There is general consensus that Furmint is not a mass product. True, with its many facets it can please many people, but that’s among the more discerning drinkers, not those seeking £5-a-bottle deals. So Furmint can be an interesting niche addition to the wine lists of bars and restaurants, and will probably be seen more and more in specialist shops. The word will get out, the market is interested – but because many of the producers make small quantities (some as little as 10,000 bottles per year), this will not be a wine to fill supermarket shelves.

Furmint is a sort of indigenous Hungarian grape variety. I say sort of because, first, it also exists in neighbouring countries, e.g. in Slovenia (where it’s called Šipon); second, because it’s actually got international celebrities among its relatives. It is a direct descendant of Gouais Blanc, and half-sibling to Chardonnay and Riesling, both of which share with it some of their lovelier character traits. Furmint, like Chardonnay, responds well to oak-ageing and apparently makes fine sparkling wines. Like Riesling, it can produce a whole range of styles and flavour profiles, from masculine and bone dry to fruity and charming, and all the way to rich and sweet. When well made, it is expressive of terroir, has great structure, and, as I’ve learnt from Caroline Gilby MW, the main UK advocate of Furmint, it ages beautifully. It may not be the easiest variety to grow, but with sufficient care it produces stunning results. To quote one of the winemakers, Krisztián Farkas of the Bodrog Bormühely winery, the key is ‘minimal winemaking, lots of vineyard work’.

A variety that has so much to offer, and which can shine in so many different roles, is bound to succeed with wine lovers. Without a doubt, the trade in London has been sold on Furmint; here’s hoping the market will respond with equal enthusiasm.

 

Gin-gin!

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On a day out in Plymouth, visiting the Plymouth Gin Distillery is an absolute must. For a reasonable price (£7 / person) I got a fairly detailed guided tour, a tasting, and then a free gin and tonic at the bar.

Here is what I found out. Gin is a sibling of the Dutch jenever, another juniper-based spirit. Juniper is a small dark purple-blue berry that grows on an evergreen shrub, often wild. It’s also the base for a Slovakian distillate called borovička. All these drinks get their main flavour from juniper, but what distinguishes gin is that it has several other ingredients, herbs and spices, added.

When William of Orange, who was a great lover of jenever, came to the English throne in the second half of the 17th century, he opened up distillation and placed a heavy duty on wine and beer – with the result that England became a gin-drinking nation. Gin was also called Dutch Courage as the story goes that English soldiers fighting in Holland would drink it to steady their nerves before battle.

The distillery in Plymouth was established by Thomas Coates in 1793. His young business was very well placed in the port city as the Royal Navy was a major buyer of gin. Their preferred style was ‘navy strength’, at 57% ABV, as at this strength the alcohol was still flammable and if it was spilled on board it didn’t ruin the gunpowder the ship was carrying. At the end of the 19th century the distillery introduced new restrictions and started to use soft Dartmoor water only. It was also stipulated that Plymouth gin could only be made within the boundaries of the city.

IMG_5234In the Second World War Plymouth suffered from 59 bomb raids but luckily the distillery survived. However, as no botanicals were available and the wheat could not be used for distillation as it was needed for bread, gin production came to a halt. After the end of the war gin fell out of fashion – vodka was the new thing – but recently gin has seen an immense revival in England and internationally.

Today gin and tonic (G&T for short) is the standard long drink, but it was actually a Victorian invention. It first appeared in India among British officers, who took their dose of extremely bitter quinine powder blended with gin, sugar and soda to protect them against malaria.

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Each gin brand has its own individual combination of botanicals, its distinguishing mark. At Plymouth Gin, 7 botanicals are used in the distillation process to give the gin its unique character: juniper, coriander seeds, lemon peel (using only Spanish sweet lemons), angelica root, orange peel, cardamom pods, and orris root. The triple distillation process takes place in a Victorian copper pot still and takes about 7 hours. (We were not allowed to take pictures while inside the distillery, but in the photo below you can vaguely make out the copper still in the background.)IMG_5231

The base spirit for Plymouth Gin (any gin in fact) is wheat-based alcohol, basically like vodka. They then soak the botanicals in it and distil the blend until the desired flavours and aromas emerge.

Plymouth Gin is categorized as a dry gin, or London dry gin, which means that angelica root must be one of the ingredients. Another stipulation in order to qualify as a London dry is that after distillation nothing except water may be added. While Plymouth Gin ticks both these boxes, because of its slightly different style and for marketing purposes it is not labelled as London dry. It gets a sweeter character from the sweet lemon, sweet orange and coriander in the blend.

The establishment has three distillations per week, each producing 5,000 litres of gin at a strength of 82-86%, which is then watered down. Two strengths are available on the market: the original at 41.2% and the famed navy strength at 57%.

The shop downstairs has a small exhibition where further historical information is available to the keen gin lover. They also run a connoisseurs’ tour as well as a master distiller’s tour, which are much longer and the latter even gives you the opportunity to create your own gin blend.

Tzora, Judaean Hills

There was a man who lived on a kibbutz and had a dream to set up a winery. That kibbutz was Tzora, in the cool hills not far from Jerusalem, and the winery he started, and which bears the same name, is thriving today.

The man was Ronnie James – he didn’t live to see the success of his brainchild, but his memory lives on in the winery logo and he is remembered with fondness and reverence. In fact, as I look at the large painting of him in the tasting room, I get a feeling that in some sense he still very much runs this show. And then I recall that another winemaker in the Judaean Hills, Ze’ev Dunie of Seahorse, has named his signature Chenin Blanc after this man – James… one of my favourite Israeli wines.

Twenty-five years ago, Ronnie James decided that, instead of selling grapes like everyone else did, he was going to make his own wine. Small-batch winemaking was still in its infancy in Israel at the time, with literally only a handful of people experimenting with the promising but challenging task.

For a while Ronnie’s endeavour remained a one-man show, but finally in 2006 investments were made and the winery hired a professional winemaker, Eran Pick, who today is the first and to my knowledge only Master of Wine in Israel. Eran’s vast experience belies his years: not only has he completed the extremely rigorous MW degree, the Ph.D. of the wine trade, he has also worked in a number of top wine regions around the world from Bordeaux to Australia. His mission is to continue Ronnie’s commitment to creating wines that express the terroir, the land they came from. And so Tzora’s wines have character. As Eran says, he is trying to capture the fragrance of the herbs and spices that grow wild in the breezy Judaean Hills.

Tzora has about 15 hectares of vineyards and they only use their own grapes to produce wine – 100,000 bottles a year. We taste a range of whites and reds; Judean Hills, Shoresh, and Misty Hills are the three labels.

The Judean Hills white is a very crisp, citrusy, refreshing wine based on Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Care has been taken to avoid obvious oaky notes. The wine is light and lean, with terrific acidity – characteristics it shares with the Shoresh white, a similar blend but here the Sauvignon Blanc dominates. This latter wine, however, is made in 100% oak and the effect is noticeable: softer pear drop, toffee and caramel flavours mingle with the lively, sharp fruit and acidity. Eran’s goal has been to reduce body and alcohol levels, and this approach is clearly reflected in all his wines.

Tzora’s most important wine is the Shoresh red. We taste the 2016 vintage, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. It’s a toasty, spicy, savoury wine, with the lean character familiar from the whites. ‘Lots of flavour without the heaviness’ was Eran’s motto here.

Misty Hills, their top wine, is produced in very small quantities. At 280 NIS (70 USD) it is pricy but superb. We taste the bright ruby 2015 vintage and it is dazzling. It’s so together, so balanced, with all the intensity and complexity one could wish for. Great flavours, great youthful exuberance, herbal finish – a very attractive wine.

Not only are Tzora’s wines stylish and interesting, but the winery itself is worth a visit. The visitors’ centre and the gardens are beautifully designed, the massive table in the tasting room leaves quite an impression, and we were very warmly received by the winemaker himself, who even opened a couple of special bottles for us.

Tzora, a kosher winery, is a member of the Judean Hills Quartet, a fairly recent joint initiative of four wineries from the region to promote internationally their beloved Hills and the amazing wines produced there. The other members of the Quartet are Domaine du Castel, Flam, and Sphera – a very prestigious team indeed!

Luxembourg Surprises

Who would have thought that good wines were being made in the tiny country of Luxembourg? To be sure, I was aware, from my student days, of the presence of some wine industry there – but stuck between the famed wine regions of northern France and west Germany, Luxembourg has received little of the limelight, even though wine production there is as old as in neighbouring Mosel.

Moselle L

The wine industry in Luxembourg is centred around three groups of producers: co-operatives, grower-merchants, who have their own federation, and independent winemakers, of whom there are at present 52. After England, Luxembourg is the smallest wine producer in the EU; but not being sizeist, I went along to a tasting of its wines and was very pleasantly surprised. The tasting focused on the wines of independent grower Abi Duhr (Château Pauqué), and I came away a fan.

Duhr created Château Pauqué exactly 30 years ago, with the aim of producing high-quality wines that would raise the profile of the wines of the Moselle. Quantities are small – with a production of 30,000 bottles we’re talking about a boutique winery. The two main styles are classic Luxembourg whites produced in the traditional manner (e.g. Riesling and Pinot Gris) and Burgundy-style wines fermented and aged in oak.

The grape varieties in Luxembourg are more or less the same as in Germany and Alsace: lots of white – including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Elbling and Pinot Blanc – and a little red, Pinot Noir. Typically we find single varietal wines, which means wines are produced from a single grape variety and are labelled as such, but there are some blends around, including some of Duhr’s wines I’ve tasted. The wine region (and appellation) is called Moselle Luxembourgeoise, and Grevenmacher, where Duhr’s winery is based, is referred to as the ‘metropolis’ of the region. The townlet lies on the bank of the river Moselle, right on the German border.

The wines listed below all bear the Moselle Luxembourgeoise appellation.

abi-duhr-bromelt-2015Rivaner and Elbling are the most common local varieties, used for mass-produced, mediocre wines. But both in his Jungle 2015 (Rivaner) and in his Bromelt 2015 (Elbling), Duhr has done well above mediocre, producing delightful, fresh, pure, fragrant wines. The Jungle has a sweeter, toffee and caramel character and a flinty finish, while the Bromelt is austere, bone dry, and slightly vegetal, reminding me of a spring shower and wet grass. Both are excellent choices for an apéritif wine.

Pinot Gris is, again, not one of those grapes that get wine connoisseurs really excited – and yet Duhr’s Pinot Gris Paradais 2016 has character and charm: sweet candy and caramel on the nose, lovely and fragrant, and a bit of CO2. His Riesling Paradais Vielles Vignes 2015 is also full of youth and floral perfume, but combined with oily texture, the rubbery character of Riesling, a darker gold hue, and a quite spicy, vegetal palate.

fossiles 2005 abi duhr

We were shown two vintages of Duhr’s blend, Fossiles – one from 2015 and one from 2005. Made from Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Chardonnay, Fossiles is an interesting wine to age, though I’m not sure for how long. The 2005 vintage showed a lot of quirky character, which I enjoyed; its pungent nose and cooked cabbage palate mix with lees flavours and a smokey toasty finish. The one shortcoming seemed to be a lack of acidity, which won’t help increase life expectancy.

A fantastic contrast was seen between the young and the aged Chardonnay. We tasted the 2014 Chateau Pauqué against the 2004 vintage, and it was a wow moment. While the young wine is reserved and discreet, despite its youthful fruity charm, the 2004 vintage seduced already with the nose: such depth, as if smells could have dimensions – and it seems they can! I found an intense, honeyed sweetness on the nose, which was totally contradicted by an utterly dry palate full of mature, vegetal flavours, combined in an unusual harmony with lees and oak characteristics.

Duhr’s Clos du Paradis Auxerrois is also one to recommend. We tasted the 2014 against the 2004 vintage, and the wine goes from zesty, citrusy and slightly fizzy refreshment to a toasty, savoury, rich wine, with oily texture and to me very enjoyable flavours from butterscotch to cooked cabbage. The acidity here is still great, and the finish long and flinty.

Chateau Pauqué wines are produced in small quantities so they won’t be that easy to find, and they won’t be that cheap either – around £ 20-25 a bottle – but if you’re keen to try something new and different, they are definitely recommended!

Oh Sherry

The word that would best describe my initial relationship with Sherry is probably incomprehension. It was no love at first sight. On the few occasions that I tasted it, it always struck me as a weird drink. Here I’m talking about dry Sherry, as sweet ones held little interest for me. Sherry has hardly any acidity but is nevertheless super-dry; and it baffles you with strange flavours unfamiliar to drinkers of regular light wines – flavours that I might even say would be considered faults in a light wine. But when I had to taste one Sherry after another in preparation for my fortified wines exam, it started to grow on me. I started to enjoy its nuttiness, its quirky characteristics, its oily texture. And what constantly kept astonishing me was how cheap Sherries were compared to other drinks of a similar calibre.

Sherry comes in so many colours

So I was extremely pleased when I heard about the Sherry masterclass that was taking place under the auspices of the Wines from Spain annual tasting in London. It seems I was not the only one who had a soft spot for Sherry: even though I turned up 15 minutes early, the hall was already full, with standing room only. Not exactly what I’d expected, but I stayed anyway, and I’m glad I did.

I don’t want to go into much detail about how Sherry is made, as that was not the focus of this masterclass. But I will mention some aspects because I learnt some interesting facts from Sherry specialist Beltrán Domecq, who presented us with a fascinating overview of the development of Sherry from a young, neutral base wine into a highly complex, mature drink. So, one of the interesting facts I learned was that the tradition of increasing the alcoholic strength of wines by the addition of spirits (the key act in the production of fortified wines such as Sherry, Madeira and Port) goes back as far as a thousand years. The purpose was not to get you drunk more quickly, but to stabilize the drink. The higher the alcohol content, the less likely the wine was to go off. But it was really only in the 16th-17th centuries that fortified wines enjoyed a boom: witsolera illustrh the discovery and colonization of distant lands and the massive increase in long-haul sea voyages, wines started travelling and when they were fortified they travelled much better. Sherry, it turns out, was the first wine to circumnavigate the world, in the famed voyage of Magellan and his crew that started in 1519. It was apparently 300 years ago that the solera system was introduced, to create uniformity in quality and style.

I also learnt how the word Sherry came about. The place name changed from Xera to Ceret under the Romans, then to Sherish under Muslim rule in the 8th century. It then became Xeres de la Frontera under Alfonso X, who reconquered the land from the Muslims. From Xeres it was only a small step to Xerez in the 16th century, which today is written as Jerez. As many wine merchants, including a lot of Brits, established themselves in the region, the name of the wine became known in its anglicized form as Sherry.

The production of dry Sherry consists, very briefly, in the following basic steps:

  1. produce a dry and neutral base wine relatively low in alcohol
  2. leave this wine uncovered so that a film of natural yeast can develop. This is called flor. flor
  3. classify wine, depending on character and the development of flor, in two main categories: fino (well-developed flor, light-bodied wine), oloroso (fuller body, little or no flor)
  4. fortification: finos to 15% alcohol, olorosos to 17%
  5. maturation in the solera system

Yš

What we did in this tasting, though, concerned only the part that came in and after step 5. With ageing, not only did the wines take on darker and darker shades of gold and then amber; they also developed new characteristics and lost old ones. So the fruity-neutral, pale lemon base wine (Barbadillo 2016) gradually turned into a golden, very dry drink -in our tasting, it was an Ynocente Fino – with flavours of toasted nuts and seeds. The American oak (a rather unconventional solution for Sherry, I would have thought) lent the wine a noticeable woody character. The dryness of Sherry, I learnt, is caused by the disappearance of glycerol from the wine (it gets eaten by the yeasts). The next step up: a darker golden wine in which the nuttiness becomes more prominent and the wood less so (Fino Tradicion by Bodegas Tradicion). Our next wine, an amber-coloured 12-year-old Amontillado of Willams & Humbert was a special treat: the acetaldehyde aromas and flavours so typical of fino Sherry begin to go down at such a mature age. Other flavours are becoming more and more evolved and concentrated: candied, toasty notes on the nose and palate, rich, mouth-filling texture.

The older the wines the more concentrated they become because thanks to the porous texture of oak barrels, water can evaporate through the walls of the barrel but other, larger molecules remain. The first of our last, seriously grand wines was a Fino Imperial Merito Amontillado, aged for 30 years. VORS on its label stands for Very Old Rare Sherry, and old and rare it was, with lots of depth and a complex, rich, medicinal character. To wrap it all up, we tasted a Harveys 30-year-old VORS Palo Cortado. Medium amber, this wine was the first to exhibit a degree of sweetness. It was creamy and beautifully nutty, had a rich fruitcake palate and pretty high alcohol (19.5%), and a toasty, woody finish.

I also learnt from Mr Domecq that Fino and Manzanilla Sherry should not be kept for more than a year after purchase, and that once opened, they should be consumed within a week. Other, more mature Sherries can be kept for up to 3 years. They like to be stored in a standing, upright position, and they should be served chilled: 5-7 C for Fino and Manzanilla, and 14 C for the more mature wines are optimal temperatures. And please serve your Sherry in a proper wine glass!

 

If you’re as enthusiastic about Sherry as I am, you’ll be pleased to know that International Sherry Week is coming up in November 2017. To find out more click here.

If you’d like to learn more about Sherry, I recommend the official Jerez website, http://www.sherry.wine