Fri 4 Sep 2015
Sherry remains the great bargain among the world’s wines, with even fine examples costing no more than a trade paperback book, but it’s a hard sell. A few years ago, we had people over for dinner, and I served as first course a chilled pea soup with a glass of fino sherry to accompany it, actually a classic pairing. Our guests were not only not amused, they took one sip and wouldn’t go back to the well; they just didn’t get it. Despite that experience, however, I’ll breast the tide and offer as Wine of the Day, No. 58, the Fino Jerez Seco from the firm of Emilo Hildago, founded in 1874 and operated now by the family’s fifth generation. How much about sherry needs explanation? Probably everything, so here goes.
Sherry is made only in the arid region around the seacoast city of Cadiz in far southern Spain, on the Atlantic side, west of Gibraltar. The combination of grapes varieties, the chalky soil, proximity to the ocean, the close to drought-like climate — annual rainfall is 19 inches — and the unique solera process result in a wine that at its best rivals the great wines of Europe’s other famous winemaking regions. The corollary is that lots of anonymous, generic, mediocre sherry is also produced.
Sherry is a fortified wine made principally from the palomino grape with some estates still cultivating minuscule amounts of Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Ximenez, the latter for dessert wines that can attain legendary qualities. After fermentation, the wines are fortified with grape spirit to 15 or 15.5 percent (for elegant fino sherry) up to 18 or 19 percent for richer oloroso style sherry. The lower alcohol content in fino sherry does not inhibit the growth of the flor, the natural yeast the grows across the surface of the wine in the barrel and contributes to fino sherry its typical and unforgettable light mossy-nutty character. The sherry houses are situated in three towns, Jerez de la Frontera — “sherry” is an English corruption of “jerez” — Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria; though geographically not too distant from each other, the three locations impart different qualities to the fino sherries that originate in them.
The solera system is a method of blending in which some of the oldest wine is withdraw from its barrel and topped up with the next oldest and on down the line to the youngest wines that entered the solera after fermentation and fortifying. The constant process of topping off in this manner keeps refreshing the older wines and ensures a steady house style year by year. Some houses run complicated systems of as many as 20 different solera to satisfy the demands of the different types of sherry that they produce, which we won’t get into except to say that fino is the lightest, driest and most delicate of the categories and perfect for drinking with a variety of dishes, including fresh seafood, sushi and — the traditional match — thin slices of Iberico ham.
The Emilio Hildago Fino Jerez Seco, made from 100 percent palomino grapes, offers a pale gold color and aromas that would indicate the sort of snacks or tapas you might want to nibble while sipping it: toasted almonds, green olives, fried capers with hints of thyme and sage; after a few moments in the glass, it evinces a subtle and elusive floral element. All of these elements are woven with utmost nuance and delicacy. On the palate, this fino sherry is nutty and slightly mossy, savory and saline and imbued with a sense of ethereal energy, vibrancy and structure. 15 percent alcohol. The barrels this fino sherry were aged in, by the way, are 80 to 100 years old and made from American oak. Winemaker was Manuel Jesus Nieves. Fino sherry should be served thoroughly chilled and then stored, recorked or with a stopper, back in the refrigerator, never out on a shelf or sideboard. Serve with smoked or roasted almonds, green olives, Serrano or Iberico ham, roasted peppers, calamari or fritto misto. Also my famous chilled pea soup. Excellent. About $14 for a 500 milliliter bottle, representing Great Value.
Imported by Winebow, Inc., New York. A sample for review.