To warm a winter night
It's Groundhog Day, the Super Bowl is behind us, and as the world slouches into February, I'm just about ready to start looking for the first signs of spring. I'm not much of a winter enthusiast anyway, and an ice storm last week followed by this region's first sub-zero reading in eight years has just about given me my fill of the season for another year.
But winter has its saving graces, and one of them is Sherry.
Not that there's anything wrong with enjoying a taste of Sherry at any time of year, but there's something about a brisk, blustery winter night that makes a glass of this warming Spanish fortified wine seem just right.
A lot of wine lovers are dubious about Sherry, in part because of its reputation as a sweet, insipid drink served in tiny glasses to be sipped with pinky extended (actually, many Sherries are "dry," and the real thing is rarely insipid); and in part because it is so distinctly different from most table wines and traditional dessert wines that it almost seems like a different beverage entirely.
Sherries can range from dry (the relatively light style called "Fino") to rich and dry (today's featured Sherry, "Amontillado" and the fuller-bodied "Oloroso") to sugary ("Cream" Sherry, which is sweetened Oloroso, or the toothache-sweet "Pedro Ximenez" and "Moscatel," which are named after specific grape varieties).
Whatever their sweetness, all share the characteristics that make Sherry unique among wines: They're naturally oxidized, fermented in open vessels under a white, fuzzy blanket of an odd natural yeast called "flor," yielding distinctive nutlike aromas and flavors and a brownish color that ranges from pale gold through caramel to mahogany. And all but Fino are "fortified" with the addition of brandy, which stops fermentation, stabilizes the wine and provides a warming strength.
Another process that separates Sherry from all other wines is the "solera," a system in which wines of many vintages are mixed together in a stack of barrels, older wines being used to top up newer barrels down through the years until the wines drawn off for bottling contain an amazing blend of vintages that may extend back a century or more. (Today's wine is the result of a solera that began in 1918, an impressive age, although it should be noted that solera is not equivalent to vintage - at most there will be only a few drops of 1918 wine in any one bottle.)
Readers frequently ask if Sherry should be served chilled or at room temperature. As with other fortified and dessert wines, never serve it cold, which will make the wine seem light-bodied and tart. Room temperature is fine, although if you want to experiment, try bringing your bottle down to a cool but not icy "cellar temperature" by sticking it in the refrigerator for no more than a half-hour before serving.
Sherry is fine for sipping on its own, after dinner or - especially with Fino - as a whet-the-appetite aperitif. But don't underestimate it as a food wine, serving it as the Spaniards do with a wide variety of bite-size tapas, particularly seafood. I like it with onion soup, with blue cheese (try a Spanish Cabrales for a nice ethnic match), or playing up to the wine's natural flavors, freshly cracked walnuts, hazelnuts and pecans.
Finally, here's one of the best things about Sherry: Largely because it is widely misunderstood and not wildly popular in the marketplace, it's rarely expensive. Today's wine, a delicious, balanced and complex drink of substantial character, bore a price tag of just $9.49.
Amontillado ("Ah-MOHN-tee-YAH-doe") - a name familiar to anyone who ever read Edgar Allen Poe's deliciously scary short story - means "in the style of Montilla," a wine region near Jerez (Sherry) in Southern Spain. It's essentially a Fino that has been fortified to stop fermentation, then allowed to oxidize under controlled conditions to a light, tawny richness. More full-bodied than Fino, it's warming but dry or nearly so; it makes a fine after-dinner drink, but don't mistake it for a dessert wine.
IS SHERRY FOR YOU?
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Wisdom & Warter non-vintage Extra Amontillado Sherry ($9.49)
This modestly priced Amontillado is a clear, light golden-brown, approaching a caramel color. Its appealing aroma is full of nutlike character that mixes walnuts with something lighter like pecans. It's all walnuts in the flavor, though; black walnuts, freshly cracked from the shell, rich and full-bodied, with a hint of a yeasty fresh-bread note and a gently sharp lemony tang to add structure and flavor interest. Neither a traditional table wine nor a dessert wine, it requires Sherry's usual paradigm reset, well worth making the effort on a cold winter night. U.S. importer: Excelsior Wine and Spirits, Old Brookville, N.Y. (Feb. 1, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Served by itself as an after-dinner drink. For accompanying munchies, think of complementary flavors: Cracked nuts, robust cheeses (even blue cheese) and dried fruit.
VALUE: Most Sherries are underpriced, and this one is no exception. Once you've made the mental shift to Sherry, it's hard to imagine a wine this appealing for a single-digit price.
WHEN TO DRINK: In contrast with sweeter Sherries, dry Amontillado shows its delicacy best when it's reasonably fresh, but it will certainly keep in the unopened bottle for several years.
WEB LINK: Wisdom & Warter's Website is online in Spanish and English. Click the flag for the language of your choice at
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Find prices and vendors for Wisdom & Warter Sherries on Wine-Searcher.com:
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles and features that I hope you'll enjoy:
Nat Decants - Calling the Shots; My Joe Job
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group: Favorite wine with chocolate?
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Introducing Burgundy: Morey-Saint-Denis (Jan. 30, 2004)
Martini meets Gallo (Jan. 28, 2004)
About Viognier (Jan. 26, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Burgundian pork chops (Jan. 29, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Feb. 2, 2004