Aug 12, 201012:00 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
Grandma Was Right … Sort of
Back in “The Day,” before homes were air conditioned and when cooling off in the car required cranking down all four windows, turning the front vent window pointing the breeze right onto the passengers and driving the American hunk of metal at less than 35 miles an hour, certain beverages were in vogue.
While listening to Jack Benny or Red Skelton or the hopelessly corny jokes, even then, of Bob Hope, the elders of the family would indulge, from time to time, in their special after-dinner treat, sherry. They poured the elixir from a bottle that had been opened for who knows how long into shot glasses and then sipped, making the short pour last for at least a half-hour, each time finishing the tiny sips with a lip-smacking noise. (At least I think they were smacking their lips. Maybe it was their false teeth slipping out of place.)
Sherry had this old-folks image, and even though I could not drink due to age constraints (I did not grow up in New Orleans where such considerations had no merit), sherry was never a drink I wanted to try. Highballs, Schlitz beer, Tom Collins, even imported wine from Portugal, I later found out, were all matters to envy. But sherry, never.
Well into my early years of alcohol discovery, I never gave sherry a thought. The stigma I had attached to it during my pre-teen years followed me right through my adult life as I tried many, many beverages and concoctions but not sherry.
About 10 years ago, when I became aware of the nouveau-cocktail revolution, I noted that sherry was often used –– and to very good effect –– in the mix of top-flight liqueurs and spirits, freshly squeezed ingredients and from-the-garden garnish.
Curiosity being what it is, I did “research” on sherry. OK, so it was a matter of purchasing a few bottles; a little cheese; and inviting friends, who are always more than happy to participate in science projects that include drinking and noshing.
The sherry shone.
Bright fruit came through nutty backgrounds, figs and velvet. Perfectly nuanced flavors remained long after the liquid had left the palate, and a warm glow arose from inside. The versatility of the beverage means that cocktails created with it as a key ingredient or a supporting player possess more depth of character. By itself, there is a quality level that can complement the occasion, whatever “the occasion” is.
Sherry is the product of the typical fermentation of grapes, with the additional step of fortification with brandy that has been distilled. In the southwest region of Spain around the town of Jerez is where all the action takes place.
The drier styles of sherry begin with hand-picking grapes at the usual appropriate moment for making fine wine and going right into the fermentation process. The sweeter styles use grapes that have been harvested as late as possible, raising sugar levels, and laid out on mats in the sun to raise the levels of sweetness even more through dehydration.
Sherry has been around a long time, going back more than 3,500 years, with both the Phoenicians and the Romans playing a wine role in the region; then the Moors entered the picture around 700 A.D. Even though the Quran prohibited the drinking of alcohol, it took 300 years for the administrators of the region to issue an edict mandating the eradication of the vineyards.
In logic eerily similar to the retention of vineyards during American Prohibition, the vineyard owners convinced the Caliphs that the vineyards really furnished raisins and fruit to the soldiers. Only one-third of the vines were wiped away, and from that point, the production of sherry increased dramatically through the Middle Ages.
Sherry became an important on-ship beverage during world trade voyages and discovery expeditions because as a fortified wine, there was a reduced spoilage quantity. Long journeys require strong wines. Sherry filled that role nicely.
Columbus carried sherry, as did Magellan. When the English sacked the port city of Cadiz in 1587, the conquerors carried sherry back home as booty won fairly, and soon there was a whole new market for the beverage in Great Britain.
Sherry comes in a number of quality levels, depending on time-in-oak, usually North American, and extra time spent in the process of producing sherry. The grape is white and known as Palomino.
Heading up the sherry ladder, from the lightest to the sweetest, we begin with Fino; then Manzanilla; and the famous, thanks in no small part to Edgar Allen Poe, Amontillado.
Oloroso is a great food accompaniment and pairs very nicely with our spicy, heavier cuisine. Palo Cortado is a rare style of olorosa and can match well with wild game.
Cream is just as the name implies, and Moscatel is a sweet expression, trying to recover from a bad reputation earned by poor production of sweet wines from other countries, like America.
The absolutely beguiling Pedro Ximénez, or PX, has the highest sugar levels of all the sherries. Warm waves of nuts and figs figure prominently in the tasting experience, but this liquid could also be a delightful addition to a scoop of vanilla ice cream or at the side of a piece of dark chocolate.
Because sherry is a fortified wine, after opening the bottle, particularly at the higher quality levels, the product should remain in good order for at least a month or two. Sherry is best served in slightly chilled white wine stemware. Also to be noted is the fact that sherry is a beverage made to a particular house style. There are no vintages, with all sherries being multi-vintage to achieve consistent results year to year.
When storing an open bottle, keep it in a cool, dark place and store the bottle standing up. The bottles are designed for this. The bottle structure allows minimal air contact in the upright position. Because sherry is fortified, the liquid does not benefit from further aging, so upon purchase, just start enjoying immediately.
Sherry has moved back into the mainstream mostly because it is an excellent ingredient in cocktails. The many levels of sugars, nuttiness and fruit provide a practically endless opportunity for developing new cocktails using sherry or adding it to old standards, each yielding a different bouquet and tasting experience.
Cocktail Web sites, such as Cocktail Database, provide many recipes incorporating sherry with any number of supporting ingredients.
We all learn the lessons of becoming older and wiser (in my case I only was allowed to pick one; guess which one), and one of those valuable lessons is that what goes around comes around.
Thank you, Grandma.
The Wine Show with Tim McNally can be heard every Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. on WIST-AM 690.