Subtle Sherry and Madeira
Sherry and Madeira have many things in common. They are both fortified wines, strengthened by spirit so as to be rather stronger than table wines, about 17%-21% alcohol.
Both come from southern latitudes, yet their vineyards fall within the moderating influence of the Atlantic, so that they have subtlety and delicacy. They are both great wines and they are both grossly underrated. Their flavours are wonderfully deep and complex. Both are available in a wide range of sweetness. But here the difference between them begins to show, for the driest Sherries are much drier than the driest Madeiras — indeed they are bone dry — and the sweetest Sherries are sweeter. Both can live, in the cask and in the bottle, to attain great age. But here, too, there are differences. Although vintage Sherries are occasionally made, they are rarely sold commercially.
Vintage Madeiras, however, are available — but not many and generally only the oldest vintages, which are very expensive — and worth their price. In practice, both are matured on the solera system, which works like this: if a shipper has a cask of wine of a style which he particularly likes he draws off a proportion of it (perhaps a third), filling the void with a younger wine of the same style. After a time, the young wine will take on the character of the old and the shipper will be back where he started. This can be done over several stages, creating a complete system, one cask feeding another, so that the youngest receives newly fermented wine while the oldest gives wine with all the characteristics of great age. So, years and vineyards do not matter: the style and quality stay the same. But here a word of warning: if a wine is labelled ‘Solera 1850’, this does not mean that it is an 1850 wine. All that it means is that the solera was created in 1850. It will contain an infinitesimally small amount of 1850 wine, but it need be no older in style than one started in 1950.
Sherry is flattered by having many imitators, some of them very good wines. But genuine Sherry only comes from Spain: to be precise, from Andalusia, around the old, delightful town of Jerez de la Frontera, known to the Arabs as Scheris, from which the English word and the modern Spanish word are both derived. There are two basic kinds: fino and oloroso. Both come from the same grapes grown in the same vineyards. Which kind the wine turns out to be is largely a matter of chance. The wine makes up its own mind. If it turns out to be fino a strange thing happens: a layer of yeast cells grows on its surface. Called the flor, it does much to give it its flavour and style, with a unique, very penetrating aroma. Oloroso is darker and somewhat heavier, and although its name in Spanish means ‘fragrant’, its aroma is deep and mellow, less assertive than that of a fino. Both kinds are bone dry. To make a sweet Sherry, specially prepared sweetening wines have to be added. While those are the two basic kinds of Sherry, there are many variants. Manzanilla is a special kind of fino, matured in the sea air at Sanlucar de Barrameda on the mouth of the Guadalquivir. It is very dry and fresh with a salt tang to it. As fino ages, its character changes subtly; it grows darker in colour and acquires a flavour and aroma generally described as ‘nutty’. Indeed it comes rather to resemble the wines of Montilla, grown in the hills near Cordova, and hence its name: amontillado. The term is one that is widely misused, to the extent that some merchants seem to think that it is synonymous with ‘medium-dry Sherry’.
A real amontillado is an old wine. It is therefore necessarily expensive and it is well worth paying for. It can be absolutely bone dry but is usually sweetened to some extent. An amoroso is a lightish style of oloroso with a fair degree of sweetness. Cream Sherries, being so fashionable, vary considerably in quality and style. They are generally lighter and sweeter than amorosos. Brown Sherries are dark, heavy olorosos made very sweet. And there are several other styles which are found from time to time.
How to serve Sherry
Fino Sherry is best served chilled, but not frozen stiff. About 10°C (50°F) is ideal. Amontillados and medium Sherries generally taste best very slightly chilled. Olorosos are normally best at room temperature. As part of the joy of Sherry lies in its superb fragrance, all Sherry should be served in large glasses. Copitas are best: those tall, narrow glasses that are widest near the bottom and gradually taper inwards towards the top, where the concentrated fragrance can gather. Failing a copita, a good tulip-shaped wine glass will do just as well. Neither should be more than one third full. In contact with the air, Sherry oxidizes. The deterioration in a fino or other dry wine can be seen easily after only two or three days, though a fino kept cool at a steady 10°C (50°F) in a refrigerator will last twice as long. Medium Sherries last longer and sweet Sherries for a few weeks. Normally this is academic as they soon get drunk. But if they don’t, there are two remedies: buy half bottles or, as soon as a bottle is opened, decant half of it into a spare half bottle and cork it tightly. Then it will last as long as if it had never been opened. Another thing to remember is that fino Sherry does not like bottles.
Once bottled, it deteriorates slowly but steadily and is never quite at its best even after as little as three months. So buy it in small quantities from an outlet with a quick turnover. However, amontillado Sherries and medium Sherries generally are happy for several years in bottles. Sweet olorosos actually improve. Their sweetness gradually and mysteriously gets eaten away and the wines take on a special character of aroma that is all their own. These Sherries with ‘bottle age’ are prized by connoisseurs. But to make it worthwhile they have to be kept for at least ten years.
The area now known as Montilla-Moriles was considered an outlying part of the Sherry district until the early 1930s, when it was hived off by a meticulous government. The decree was, perhaps, right as the wines do have a character of their own which is not quite like Sherry, though there are the same styles of fino and oloroso. There is even a montilla-amontillado: an example of rendering unto Caesar the thing that is Caesar’s. Because they are less well known than Sherry, these wines are generally cheaper and are well worth looking out for. They are served in the same way as Sherry.
Madeira comes from Madeira and, happily, can come from nowhere else, as its name is one of the only two that is directly protected by law — the other being Port. A unique feature about it is the way it is matured, using estufas, or hot rooms, in which the wines are gradually heated to about 49°C (120°F) over a period of about a month, left at that temperature for about four months, and then cooled over another month. It is this that gives them their unique and delicious, slightly burnt flavour. The four most popular kinds are named after the vines that produce them: sercial, verdelho, bual and malmsey. There are two other descriptions that are sometimes found, especially in America: south side and rainwater. The former is a rich blend, like malmsey. The latter is drier, more like a sercial. The drier kinds of madeira — sercial and verdelho — are generally preferred slightly chilled as aperitifs and the sweeter ones — bual and malmsey — as dessert wines. Madeira has one very real advantage over Sherry: it does not mind being bottled and oxidizes much more slowly after being opened, so that there is not much deterioration even after several weeks.
A final word. In the bars of Jerez, Sherry is served with tapas — small snacks. It tastes best that way, wherever it is drunk, and so does Madeira. Tapas need not be elaborate — a slice of salami is ideal, or some olives, nuts, slivers of cheese, or potato crisps. Both Sherry and Madeira taste excellent, too, when taken with a course in a meal. Apart from the soup, a fino Sherry tastes well with fish, especially shellfish or oysters, and a sweet Sherry or Madeira is ideal with a pudding.
Fortified Wines From Other Countries
True Sherry only comes from Spain, but many other countries produce similar fortified wines which emulate the Spanish types of Sherry, notably South Africa and Australia. In America, California produces quite a range of sherry-type wines with a somewhat nutty flavour, ranging from dark to light amber in colour, dry to sweet in flavour.
TYPES OF SHERRY
Fino: light in colour, body and style: penetrating aroma; very dry
Manzanilla: a form of fino; very dry and fresh, with a salty tang
Amontillado: fino aged to a darker colour, nutty flavour and aroma; can be very dry but usually sweetened
Oloroso: darker and heavier than fino; usually sweetened.
Amoroso: a lightish oloroso, fairly sweet
Cream Sherry: lighter and sweeter than amoroso
Brown Sherry: a dark, heavy oloroso; verv sweet