The Drink of Matadors

The Cathedral in Jerez de la Frontera (Photo: Will).
The Cathedral in Jerez de la Frontera (Photo: Will).

It always strikes me as rather sad that one of the world’s finest white wines, with a history ofmany hundreds of years, has become so hopelessly out-of-fashion apart from in its own country. In Britain, it has been a popular wine since Shakespeare’s time and throughout most of the twentieth century it was a popular pre-dinner drink among the more affluent classes. But sadly, these days it’s become associated with maiden aunts and dotty country vicars or simply used to perk up the taste of a Christmas trifle. In Spain, it’s the preferred drink of bull-fighters.

I refer of course, to sherry. The wine is unique in that the genuine article is made in one small corner of Spain and nowhere else. Over the years, there have been many imitations but they were mostly pale shadows of the real thing. Sherry is made from white Palomino grapes grown near the town of Jerez de la Frontera in the region of Andalusia. The name sherry is theanglicized version of Jerez, which itself is a modern version of the much older Xerez. Strangely enough, the city’s main football team continues to use this exotic-looking spelling.Andalusia is one of the hottest parts of Europe and it’s about as far south as you can go in Spain before wading into the Mediterranean.

When Spanish ships sailed the oceans during the Golden Age of exploration, they always carried a plentiful supply of alcohol,because water was usually disease-ridden and unreliable. Ordinary wine deteriorated rapidly at sea but sherry, a wine fortified with grape spirit survived. To this day, sherry remainsa fortified wine. It is heartening to know that when Ferdinand Magellan prepared to sail around the world in 1519, he spent more money on sherry than on weapons. In Shakespeare’s time, sherry was known as “sack”. In George Rainbird’s 1966 book on the subject he writes, “as every schoolboy knows, sack was Falstaff’s favourite tipple”. These days, I doubt whether many schoolboys would know who Falstaff was, let alone his drinking habits.

There are several different types of sherry, ranging from bone dry to staggeringly sweet.In its natural state, which is how most Spanish people prefer it, sherry is almost transparent, completely dry and invariably enjoyed with food. The wines you’re most likely to encounter are Fino (clear, dry and nutty); Manzanilla (paler and even drier, made only in the town ofSanlúcar de Barrameda); Oloroso (rich amber with an aroma of hazelnuts);Amontillado (somewhere between a Fino and an Oloroso) and Cream Sherry (sweet and unctuous).

The finest sherry comes from companies such as Croft, Sandeman, Williams and Humbert, Domecq and González Byass – the makers of the renowned Tío Pepe. Because sherry is sold under brand names, consistency is important. This is achieved by blending wines from successive years in an extensive range of barrels known as a solera. After blending, something strange happens. As the new wine waits in its cask, a layer of natural yeast called florsometimes develops on the surface. This phenomenon occurs almost nowhere else in the world. It comes as a surprise to some people to know that that sherry should always be served cold, as they do in Spain.

Custer’s Fino Dry Sherry, Spain

Bottled in Jerez, this gold-coloured wine has an aroma of raisins, almonds and olives, along with delicate hints of white fruit. It’s several shades darker than a Tío Pepebut surprisingly, it’s rather lighter in body, noticeably drier and a dash more acidity. The wine has a very long dry finish and is really rather elegant. If you prefer a typical dry Fino, especially as an apéritif, you’ll probably enjoy this wine. For some reason, this brand seems to be very popular in Scandinavian countries. Even so, this is bargain-basement wine but unfortunately few supermarketsoffer a decent selection of sherry. If you want to splash out on a classic,Sandeman Dry Sherry and the superbTío Pepeare available at some outlets.

Bookmark Dry Apera, Australia

Not so long ago, they called this wine Bookmark Dry Sherry but nowadays the use of the name “sherry” is understandably forbidden outside Jerez. Hence the rather strange name apera. This is a very pleasant wine too and at this price, a real bargain. A light straw colour,it has a rich,nutty aroma with almonds, marzipan, raisins, a hint of yeast and a pronounced tang of orange peel. The taste is full and fruity and there’s a softmouth-feel with a good dash of rich acidity. There’s an amazingly long finishwith floral overtones and hints of orange.The wine is not as dry as a typical Fino and its rich buttery taste reminds me of an Amontillado.

Incidentally, the Angove story began in 1886 when a Dr Angove established a medical practice in a place called Tea Tree Gully and began experimenting with vines and winemaking, initially as a tonic for his patients. I wish my doctor would try something similar.