|The wine sparkled in his eyes|
And I adored the the background details: the expatriate British colony in Jerez, the venerable houses, decades old soleras hidden away in warehouses and private houses, a dying craft, grapes no one has ever, or will ever grow elsewhere. And such evocative names for the grapes and styles: Fino Palomino, Pedro Ximinez, Amontillado, Palo Cortado.
Jerez even came with a wealth of literary references dating back centuries: Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado”, to quote the most well known.
None of the really good stuff was ever imported to Israel. The most venerable name to make the journey was Humbert and Williams, but I think provenance was always a bit dubious, here and abroad. For a few years, I explored the range whenever I traveled abroad (the premium bottlings from Lustau, Domeq, Gonzalez-Byass for the most part). I never thought anyone would ever import anything interesting.
Rey Fernando de Castilla certainly qualifies as interesting. The bodegas's site is in Spanish, but I found an excellent write up here, in what looks like a good source for sherry notes and information in general. The bodega is a 50+ year old house - a newcomer, in other words - that was taken over in 1999, along with neighboring almacenista José Bustamente, by a group of investors lead by Norwegian-born Jan Pettersen, who had been working in the Spanish alcohol industry for decades.
Jan Pettersen recently visited Israel, guest of his brand new local importers Eldad Levy and Uri Caftori, participating in marketing events for restaurateurs and private clients. I paid my shekels for an evening at Habasta, where the staff managed, quite successfully to go for food pairings beyond the almost compulsory jamon and gazpacho.
We tasted through two series of dry sherries. The grapes for both are sourced mostly the from the renowned (in Jerez, at least) Pago Balbaina vineyard, but the wines in the Antique series are aged for longer periods in smaller, soleras, with a older reserve stocks, so they're deeper, more concentrated. In most cases, I'd pay the extra price for the Antiques, except in the case of the Finos, where the style is a greater differentiator than quality and I'd recommend that both styles be experienced .
I'll touch on the basic sherry terms as I go along, but if you're new to sherry, you might want to google the basic terms and styles - or try the link I mentioned earlier.
Finos are the lightest of the sherries, as close as you can get to an unfortified white wine. The Classic is aged for a few years in a solera with reserves 2-9 years old. It combines fresh fruit flavors - I thought apples jam - with nutty and pungent (iodine and brine) aromas and flavors. 15% ABV.
Finos evolve into Amontillados as the flor covering the wine dies in time, so it's not very surprising that the Antique, which remains in the solera for a few years longer than the Classic, feels halfway to Amontillado on the palate. It's deeper, more apple pie than apple jam, the aromas and flavors of nuts and cured meat more complex. 17% ABV.
If the Fino Antique is halfway to Amontillado, this seems to be just past the metamorphosis. An adolescent Amontillado, if you will, with an added layer of complexity compared to Fino, yet light and fresh. 18% ABV.
A truly excellent wine that was aged in a 20 year old solera, angular and pungent, yet silky at the same time, with a fine finish, carrying a complex array of briny flavors that beg to be sipped slowly. 18 ABV%.
There's a common misconception that all sherries mature under flor. As I mentioned, Finos evolve into Amontillados once the flor dies, while Olorosos either never develop flor or else the flor is killed by the winemakers. It's a richer style of sherry, which makes it suitable for sweet sherries, which has created a sort of a backlash, due to the negative image of English grannies sipping a thimble of sweet sherry at Yuletide: if sweet sherry is a more plebeian style and Oloroso is the base of sweet sherries, then Oloroso is an inferior wine. Personally, while I prefer the edgy angularity and pungent kick of the other styles, I appreciate the richness of a good Oloroso and, man, I'd drunk some lovely sweet sherries back in the day. Having said that, the Classic is a little tame after the Finos and Amontillados: there's brine and nuts, melded into a very mellow piece, and what pungency is there to be found flares up on the finish. Good complexity, though. 17% ABV, from a 9 year old solera.
This is aged in a smaller solera, with stocks aged 20-30 years. It's earthier than the Classic, yet finer at the same time, fuller and deeper, longer too. While it's still a dry wine, the richness creates a pastry-like effect. 17% ABV.
Palo Cortado Antique
Google it if you don't believe me: no one really knows what Palo Cortado is, except that it's very fine and rare. Even Pettersen laughed about it, before offering the first halfway understandable explanation I ever heard: sometimes the flor just doesn't settle right and you either get vinegar or something combining the pungency of Amontillado and the richness of Oloroso. In short, Palo Cortado happens. This is aged in the house's oldest solera, 30+ years old. It's very reserved, forcing you to concentrate and contemplate, but it's well worth the effort because this reserved beauty is complex, ethereally nuanced and expressive, the ultimate figure of refinement. It’s also the tastiest wine of the tasting.