Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Plea For Sherry

I'm going to talk about the least popular, least sexy of the great wines of the Old World.

Sherry, which hails from Jerez, Spain, is a non-vintage wine, grown in soleras, which depends on a local yeast called flor for its distinctive iodine tang. You can find a short introduction here (or even better in a series of fine article at thewinedoctor.com) but the best resource, isn't online, it is Julian Jeffs' classic Sherry, which covers everything from the history of the British colony in Jerez to specifics of wine making (probably more complex than for any other wine, even more than Champagne) and the different styles.

If wine is your hobby and passion and you love it for its connection with tradition and the history of the places it hails from, then sherry is a wine you really need to try. It is the last unsullied bastion of the Old World. Parker has only recently discovered it and there is no way a Michel Rolland could find clients there because arguably, Jerez is suited only for making Sherry. And sherry is an oxidized style of wine that by definition defies modernity. It has no use for new barrels; while new barrels might be a questionable choice of style for certain wines, for sherry it is probably close to a physical impossibility. You cannot teach making sherry at Davis because flor only thrives in Jerez (and Jura for that matter).

If you like sharp, intellectual wines, then a dry sherry from a Fino to a Palo Cortado will tax your brains to their limits. If you just want let your hedonistic tendencies run wild, then Jerez makes some of the lushest sweet wines in the world, with flor playing the role of noble rot, lending sharp, saline notes to balance the sweetness. And its unpopularity makes it a very good value wine. Where else could you find a 30 year old wine for 30 dollars?

But this unpopularity is the reason it's so hard to find. Sure I could always find the good stuff in Spain, London or in the big cities in the US, but everywhere else you're down to the basic commercial stuff which is fine in its own right but I want more. If I'm not mistaken, only 4 labels in the VOS/VORS range are imported to Israel.

I am fully aware of the commercial reasons. It has an image problem. It is associated with old British ladies. The high alcohol level scares some people off. It takes time to develop a taste for flor. Many have had bad experiences with stale, badly stored Finos, a wine that thrives on freshness to begin with.

So sure, it's only a niche wine and in Israel wine itself is only a niche market in a certain sense. But look, if you open a bottle of Lustau's East India or Williams and Humbert's Dry Sack Solera Especial 15 Years Old Oloroso at the store and let people taste it, they're going to flip for it and buy some. I'm sure they're going to buy it. Every time I've served these two wines to neophytes they adored it and wanted me to find them a bottle. So couldn't you start with the easy (I'm going to try and kick my head for calling the Solera Especial easy) stuff and work your way up to a lovely, delicate Palo Cortado that can play Charlie Parker riffs on your palate?

A friend of mine organized an Emilio Lustau tasting a year or so ago. He got the wines directly from the bodegas for free. Nobody who attended the tasting had to pay for the wines, only for the food in the hosting restaurant, appropiately enough a tapas bar. But not a single importer that he contacted showed up! We just didn't register on their radar. So they never saw how much everyone enjoyed themselves, including wine lovers who had never tasted more than a sherry or two in their lives. They never saw how we haggled over the leftovers bottles.

Lustau has a good story to market, especially with its range of almacensitas which you can read about here or here. It offers consistent quality, food friendliness, a recognizable style despite the almacensita system and very attractive prices. In some ways, it is the Tardieu-Laurent or Louis Jadot of Jerez and tasting its range is a text book example of how flor affects different soleras in subtly different ways. It has been marketing itself in bold, modern ways and gets good reviews from the American press. Their bottles for good or bad do not project a stuffy, conservative image. This is the one Jerez house for a bold importer who loves wine to carry.

So this is it, my plea for more sherry in Israel. Amen.

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