QVEVRI: The “Easy-Bake Oven” of Winemaking Vessels [PART 2 OF 3 ON GEORGIAN WINE]

kvevri

[QVEVRI can be made in sizes small enough to carry by one person
or even bigger than this one above] (Image from here)

Let’s begin with the most basic question: what’s the actual difference between amphora and qvevri?  Amphora, historically notable in ancient Greek & Roman civilizations, is a clay jug or vessel with a handle where wine is stored and/or transported.  Qvevri (pronounced KWEH-vree), specifically a Georgian invention, is an egg-shaped clay vessel made in volumes of 100 liters to 4,000 liters (though larger ones have been discovered) and is primarily used for making wine.  They are both made of terra cotta, so no difference there, but way they were made does differ.  Amphora most often was a “wheel-thrown” clay construction while qvevri was built in the “coil method” by layering different lengths of clay coils in rings one on top of the other (you can see the rings in the picture above where each layer was constructed).

Amphorae Boscoreale Museum[These are examples of amphora. Image from here]

In the eyes of a Georgian, to compare the two would be like comparing a bread box to a baking oven.  Obviously, this is more personal to them because they invented what is likely the original clay winemaking vessel.  Based on the earliest evidence of both vessels qvevri pre-dates amphora by millennia.  Regardless of this fact, today it is more common in the wine industry to use the term amphora to refer to the clay tanks used to make the wine no matter their historical use.

When in use the qvevri is buried in the ground.  In western Georgia where temperatures are milder it is only partially buried.  Alternatively it can be buried all the way to the neck, leaving no part visible above ground, as is customary in eastern Georgia where temperatures are more extreme in the winter.  The further down it is buried the less the fluctuations in air temperature will affect the fermentation process because the ground temperature is constant and naturally at cellar temperature.

FullSizeRenderPictured above: new qvevri waiting to be used at Iago’s Winery.  Pictured below: the qvevri room for making wine at Iago’s Winery. Each hole is the opening to an individual buried qvevri]

The egg shape of the qvevri is also very important.  When the qvevri is initially filled, the juice sits with the mother (skins, pips, and sometimes stems) floating as a solid cap at the top of the tank near the neck [see below image; left].  During the time the wine is sealed in the qvevri, the cap begins to break up and little by little the mother falls and collects at the skinny end of the egg [see below image; right].  When it comes time to separate the wine from the mother the process is quite easy because it naturally collects cleanly and neatly as a solid mass in a small area at the bottom of the qvevri.  The resulting wine is less jolted by the filtration process because it can be done with a more gentle touch.

imagesimages-1
The mother begins at the top and over time falls to the bottom of the tank where the solids collect in the cone-shaped end leaving the wine above mostly clear.

 

This is a less-is-more process.  By putting the wine into a clay vessel that’s buried in the ground allows the earth do most of the work.  There is no temperature control panel to cool or heat the tank to usher along fermentation thanks to geothermal temperature regulation.  There is no need for machinery to filter the wine because gravity and the qvevri’s shape takes care of the skins.  There is no need for the addition of yeasts that naturally occur in the vineyards.  And the more you talk to people who are making wine using the most basic and traditional of methods the more strange and out of place the standard questions to understand the winemaking process become.  So many problems had been solved with this ancient “technology” that the modern problems in the wine industry do not necessarily apply. Simply put, qvevri is the “Easy-Bake Oven” of winemaking fermentation tanks.

QVEVRI MASTERS:

The production of qvevri has been reduced to such a level that the number of producers of this ancestral Georgian fermentation vessel has shrunk to only 5 master qvevri makers.   It is a craft rooted in old tradition where one must spend their lives working with the earth and learning how to shape it into these perfect vessels.  So alarmingly small is this number that just this year UNESCO added the production of clay qvevri to the the category “Intangible Heritage” in the hopes that more attention and value will be placed on their continued production.  [Click here to visit the UNESCO site and watch a 10-minute video on Qvevri history and production.]

tcfw_in_georgia_-_9[Collecting clay to use for Qvevri production. Image from here]

As in any trade there is a system of apprenticeship, but over time fewer and fewer producers remain alive to pass on the tradition.  Regardless of the fact that just about every Georgian family owns its own qvevri, the national demand has slowed to purchase new ones because they are less often used by the average household to produce their own wine.  Family qvevris have been passed down from generation to generation and are kept around for most often for sporadic use.

Except for their use on a small scale in commercial wine production qvevri producers have fewer non-commercial winemaking customers by the day.  The good news here is that producing wine in clay tanks is making a comeback thanks to a recent international obsession with making Orange Wine – a wine made by allowing the mother to sit with the juice during fermentation.  And regardless of anyone’s opinion on this style of wine (for it often incurs a love/hate relationship) the use of clay fermentation tanks – like amphoratinaja, and qvevri – goes hand in hand with making this style of wine.

tcfw_in_georgia_-_3
[A brand new Qvevri cellar being built. Image from here]

Thankfully there is a new interest in the use of qvevri in and out of Georgia.  And the good news for broader commercial purposes is that there is no reason it has to be directly linked to skin-contact wines alone.  Beautiful wines can be made in a fresher style without having to create bold Amber or Orange wines.  The silver lining is that it seems that for the time being that the 5 master qvevri-makers will have plenty of new work for the foreseeable future.  I even hear that currently there is a wait list for new qvevri to be shipped locally and abroad.

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REBOOTING THE CRADLE OF WINE [PART 1 OF 3 ON GEORGIAN WINE]

Passport…check.  Power plug adapters…check.  Load up iPod with new music…check.  Pack clothes for as many different types of weather because I have absolutely no idea what to expect…check.  Girlfriend gives me drugs for the 12-hours of flight time each way…double check.

That was pretty much the process I went through after I got the word that I was headed to the Republic of Georgia for an introduction to their wine & culture.  Instead of just calling it “Georgia” I obviously have to call it the “Republic of Georgia” to differentiate it from our southern US state that’s famous for peaches, Dirty South hip-hop and Chick-Fil-A sandwiches.  Ironically the US state is bigger than the Eurasian country…so maybe it’s not so crazy that the clarification needs to be made.

1.120px-Kartli_-_drosha_jvari.svg 120px-Flag_of_Georgia_(1990-2004).svg2. 120px-Flag_of_Georgian_SSR.svg3. small-Flag_of_Georgia.svg4.

[A historical progression of the Georgian flag since the 5th century AD. From left to right: 1. a Medieval Georgian flag, 5th Century AD; 2. Democratic Republic of Georgia flag, originally 1918-1921 and again from 1991-2004; 3. Georgian SSR flag, 1922-1990; 4. current Georgian flag, 2004-present.]

Although it’s known as Georgia internationally it turns out they have their own name for their homeland, Sakartvelo, a name derived from the core region of the country, Kartli.  So why then is it known elsewhere as Georgia?  There are a few explanations, but it is likely that their devout national Christian beliefs and the patron saint of the country, St. George, have much to do with it.  This is not to mention that Georgian men named George are as common as Americans named John, and the the red cross of St. George is prominently featured through the middle of the national flag.

Another reason for the separate names is that it is very hard to establish an international identity when, throughout history, your country is constantly being invaded and absorbed into whichever conquering power is marching through the region.  The Ottomans, the Romans, the Persians, and the Soviets have all claimed it at some point. Yet somehow through it all they still remain proudly Georgian.

476px-St_George,_Georgia_(15th_c)[12th/13th century depiction of “St. George & the Dragon” housed at the National Art Museum of Georgia]

GEORGIA, RUSSIA, AND WINE:

Upon my arrival it turns out that Georgia is completely unlike whatever few preconceptions I had beforehand.  The most important of which is this: Georgia is NOT…I repeat…NOT Russia! As a self-proclaimed map nerd I already knew that it has been a sovereign nation since the USSR dissolved in 1991.  But as you look at how close it is to Russia one starts to think that they must be pretty similar people.  Then as you continue to look at how many other cultures surround Georgia – Turkey to the southwest, Azerbaijan to the southeast, Armenia to the South – you start to see that this country is influenced by many different types of people, religion, and cultures.

Geographically it is located on the Black Sea and is at a crossroads of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.  Yet the Georgian demeanor seems more in line with Mediterranean cultures like Italy or Greece – emotive, warm, & fiercely proud of their culture.  Except for a few large chunks of time during the last 200 years, a mere drop in the vast historical ocean for such an old culture, Georgia has been proudly independent of their neighbors to the north.  This eludes our American national consciousness because we generally still believe that all countries that were a part of the former USSR are still bulked in to the category “Russian”.

mgeorgia[Click on image to zoom in. Image from here]

But don’t tell that to a Georgian!  This is no potato, beet, and vodka culture.  Far from it.  Located on the 42nd parallel – on the same line as Barcelona, Corsica, Oregon and Cape Cod – proto-Georgian tribes settled the area around 12th century BC and have been there ever since.  Everything grows here.  Flavorful fruits, vegetables, and vibrant flowers grow bountifully while green grass extends across the river plains, the rolling hills, and the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.  The whole country is a polyculture of this growing next to that and exists in such a way that (except for the cities) the whole country could be considered a natural park.

With this kind of climate and geography it should be no surprise that growing grapes and making wine has been happening all over the area for millennia.  Based on the discovery of fossilized grape seeds that have been carbon-dated and determined to have been used for making wine, it turns out they have been making wine in the region since before 6,000 BC!!!  Georgia has a legitimate claim to being one of the original winemaking cultures anywhere in the world, and with 8,000 vintages and counting they are certainly able to say that they have been doing it the longest.

Caucasus[Majestic mountains, mountains, and more mountains]

Geographically the country is a template that enjoys everything a vine growing region needs.  They have the Greater Caucasus Mountains that protect the country from the extreme cold weather of the Russian north and the Lesser Caucasus mountains bordering the Turkish south.  One more mountain range, the Surami mountain range, bisects the country into eastern and western.  The eastern half of the country experiences more extreme summers and winters with warmer days and cooler nights.  The western half of the country receives more rainfall and is a more moderate climate because it’s exposed to the Black Sea.  For a country smaller than South Carolina (at around 27,000 square miles) Georgia has a very diverse set of conditions that are important to growing wine grapes and producing a wide array of different kinds of wine.  Simply put, it’s a winemaking paradise and a winemakers playground.

REBOOTING THE CRADLE OF WINE:

So why then does an 8,000-year old winemaking culture elude the American wine consciousness?  Surely there are many reasons to cite.  Politically, the Soviets carry much of the blame since they absorbed Georgia into their vast republic.  We also don’t see much Georgian wine heading across the Atlantic because most of it is consumed by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and the Balkans where the wine has a reputation for very high quality.  Yet, perhaps most the most devastating reason lies in Soviet communist policies in the 1950’s that valued quantity over quality.  It was an era looking to streamline the fractured and diverse Georgian wine industry by ripping up many of the old vines from hundreds of different varieties and replace them with a very short list of local varieties known to yield large volumes.  In the context of the modern Georgian wine industry this was the biggest blow because much of the heritage of cultivating certain grape varieties found nowhere else in the world was almost completely lost.

To put this into perspective, of the 4,000 vitis vinifera grape varieties known in the world, about 520 of them are native to Georgia.  This is a massive number for such a small place!  Yet, because of the large gap between today and the last time these vines flourished, the cultivation of most of these varieties has to start over and be relearned.  And start over it has.  More and more plantings of tongue-twisting grape names like Tsolikouri, Chinuri, Tsitska, Kisi, Usakhelouri, Chkhaveri, Goruli Mtsvane, Krakhuna, Shavkapito, Otskhanuri Sapere, and Aleksandrouli (and many many more) are being being replanted and grown around the country.  As these plantings continue to occur and as vine age increases, it is with little doubt that so too will quality.

Wine Map_2014[Wine Map of Georgia]

Although Georgia has been making wine for longer than any other country it is only now establishing itself in the international wine market beyond the surrounding region.  As Russia’s shadow has receded in the last 20+ years Georgia has grown in political and economic independence.  This has loosened the grip on their trade relationship to the north and they have turned their focus westward using wine as one of their most valuable ambassadors.  They are replanting experimental vineyards with the local grape varieties in order to better understand the way each vine behaves.  Even the Natural Wine Movement [the champions of “nothing added, nothing taken away” grape growing & winemaking] has cast a new spotlight on a select group of producers who make wine only using the old traditions and are helping to promote them around the world.

Through thick and thin, the fact that the vine has survived here for so long is a testament to the symbiotic relationship between this land and these people.  It is obvious that wine is one of the most important aspects of their national heritage and that they should be a valued part of the international wine community.  In time that reputation will reach further west and there is little doubt that more and more of their wines will fill our glasses.


If you live in Brooklyn, NY come by Hotel Delmano where I have put a few of my favorites on the list by the glass and by the bottle.

EN RAMA Sherry

en rama

 

Just when you thought Sherry terminology couldn’t get any more complicated…now this?  I know.  What a pain in the ass.

BUT WAIT…it’s not as bad as you think.

EN RAMA is basically just a way of saying that the wine is barely filtered (or “IN THE RAW”) so that the experience of drinking the wine is closer to what it would be like to pour yourself a glass directly out of the barrel.  This is not to say that Sherry isn’t as good once it has been bottled – there is nothing better than a crisp, cold, and refreshing bottle of Fino sherry on a hot summer day.  But there are notable differences between tasting untouched Sherry straight from barrel versus pouring yourself a glass out of bottle long after it has been filtered and stabilized.  Here is where the difference lies.

Most notably Sherry in the barrel is richer, has more color, tastes more wine-like (milder/softer), and is more complex in barrel.  For quality control most producers before bottling remove the active yeasts in the barrel.  This is done through a very important step that filters & clarifies the sherry to make it more stable for shipping.  Unfortunately this process also strips the wine of color making it somewhat lighter and it results in a mild loss of depth of flavor and aroma.  For you audiophiles, it’s like what happens when you transfer your favorite song from vinyl to your iPod – you lose a range of sound and instead can transport your music more easily.  Tasting sherry directly from the barrel is a window directly into the true nature of the wine before this process of intense filtration and clarification has begun to alter its character.  The EN RAMA category is an attempt at bridging this gap.

oyster sherry

Although sherries have been quietly bottled EN RAMA since the late 90’s, this is a new category from a commercial point of view.  Because of this there are no actual defined parameters to put the term on the label.  Thus the term EN RAMA is not something that means the same thing to every producer.  Only a few generalizations can be made:

1. they are minimally filtered
2. they are always Manzanilla or Fino sherry
3. the best examples are from specially selected barrels,
4. the best examples are made by blending older wines beyond the 2-year minimum aging requirement,
5. they tend towards a softer, more “wine-like” character.

This can be seen when trying the same producer’s EN RAMA sherry versus their regular label.  Below are a few producers who release both styles (if you can find them, try and buy one of each to see the difference):

Gonzalez Byass “Tío Pepe” Fino vs. “Tío Pepe” Fino en Rama
Bodegas Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla vs. “La Gitana” Manzanilla en Rama
Valdespino Manzanilla “Deliciosa” vs. Valdespino “Deliciosa” Manzanilla en Rama
Barbadillo Manzanilla “Solear” vs. Barbadillo “Solear” Manzanilla en Rama (released 4 times a year and labeled for the season they were bottled: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter)
Gutierrez Colosia Fino vs. Gutierrez Colosia Fino en Rama

Deliciosa en rama

You may also notice that there are vintages on some Sherries labeled EN RAMA.  Are these the vintage?  The answer is no.  Although there is such a thing as a vintage Sherry, they are very rare and denote an exceptional wine that was never blended.  If you see a year listed on an EN RAMA bottle, it is to tell you when the wine was “pulled” from the barrel for bottling (this is known as the saca).  This gives you an idea of how long the wine has been aging in the bottle.  You will see it on a label as (for example) “Saca de Verano 2014” – which means, “pulled during Summer 2014.”

Why is that important?  Here is where we get into the complicated nature of the EN RAMA category – at this point it is a purely theoretical debate amongst producers and professionals that will only be settled over time.

Some people believe that EN RAMA sherry is less stable than conventionally filtered sherry and is therefore less age-worthy.  They believe this because the mild filtration leaves some of the potentially active elements in the wine from the barrel and there is a chance the wine will not remain stable.  Because of this many producers recommend the wine to be consumed within 3 months of the saca so that there is no chance for this potential stage of instability and the Sherry instantly turning bad.

However, a small camp of people believe the contrary – that EN RAMA sherry ages much better than conventionally filtered Fino sherry.  This group of believers is willing to bet that it will not only last longer than 3 months, but that it will last much longer than most conventionally filtered Fino-style sherry.  Their reasoning is that leaving those trace active elements in the wine is a step closer to creating an environment for the wine more similar to the one in the barrel.  And it is in the barrel where Sherry finds it’s most stable environment.  For now the debate continues.

photo

The reality is that the debate about how long Sherry can age continues above and beyond the EN RAMA category.  The Sherry industry promotes the idea that Fino’s are ideal for drinking during the for 6 months after saca.  But what happens after 6 months?  The answer to that is unclear.  Some will argue the wine is “less fresh” and once time passes beyond a few months after bottling, it will spoil with every day it sits around.  Others argue that the wine is simply evolving and the freshness is replaced by a wine that’s developing into a more mature wine.  They argue that the wine is simply maturing as any other wine does when left in bottle over many years.  The only thing that can be said is that the debate will continue.

Perhaps it is worth noting here that a small group of sommeliers are listing multiple Fino’s (regardless if they are EN RAMA or not) by the date of the saca.  They are doing this in hopes that people will see that after bottling, Fino’s of high quality continue to evolve in the bottle.  As this is tracked over time the information yielded will be key in uncovering the answer to this debate.  To take it a step further, it follows the theory that Champagne continues to evolve in bottle and that the date of disgorgement is important to track this stage of the wine’s evolution.  One of many commonalities between Champagne and Sherry.  By drawing conclusions learned from the wines in Champagne may be another way we will uncover the capabilities of Sherry’s evolution in bottle.  Time will tell.

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Other notable EN RAMA sherries:

Lustau “3 en Rama” series – 3 different bottlings, one from each major Sherry town (Manzanilla en Rama from Sanlúcar, and 2 Fino en Ramas: one from Jerez de la Frontera and one from Puerto de Santa Maria)
Gonzalez Byass‘ Palmas series: 4 wines called Una Palma (a 6-yr Fino), Dos Palmas (a 8-yr Fino), Tres Palmas (a 10-yr Fino), and Cuatro Palmas (a 46-yr Amontillado).
Equipo Navazos has both a Manzanilla en Rama, called “I Think”, and a Fino en Rama, called “Navazos”.
Fernando de Castilla Fino en Rama
Williams & Humbert Fino en Rama

Ravines Argetsinger Vineyard Dry Riesling 2010

Ravines

I get a kick out of finding great wine from lesser known regions and producers. The Ravines dry Riesling from their single vineyard, Argetsinger, is just such a wine that comes from just such a place.  As an added bonus, it’s basically a “hometown hero” since it is made only a few hours away from where I live in Brooklyn, NY.

Fingerlakesmap

In New York the Finger Lakes region continually builds on its reputation for surprisingly delicious wine, especially in regards to Riesling.  To those unfamiliar with the region it is located in the northwestern part of New York state with most of the grape growing areas collecting around a series of long, skinny (finger-shaped) lakes that run from north to south.  These lakes, formed long ago by glaciers, are important because they moderate the extreme temperatures of northern New York’s cold winters and provide a better climate for nearby grapes to grow and ripen properly.  The Ravines winery is located at the north end of the deepest of these lakes, Seneca Lake (632 feet deep).

The Argestinger vineyard has old Riesling vines that are planted on gravel with a unique subsoil containing limestone.  These two factors (older vines and limestone soil) were important for the inspiration to make Argetsinger a single wine.  The 2010 was a particularly balanced and tasty edition of this wine.  Today it’s lean, vibrant and energetic with flavors of lemon zest, wet stones, and a dry, mouth-watering finish that makes it perfect with oysters.  It’s a wine that successfully combines the freshness of Muscadet with the texture and subtle citrus flavors of dry Riesling – delicious!

We currently have it on our wine list at Hotel Delmano (to check out a current edition of our wine list visit our website at www.hoteldelmano.com/menus).

Sherry = Wine in 3D

Simply put, we are in the midst of a Sherry Golden Age.  But you wouldn’t know it if you asked most casual drinkers with an opinion on the matter.  More than likely they would say, “Gross…you mean that stuff my grandma likes to drink before bed?  That’s granny juice.” Or, “Sherry? You mean the stuff that’s like Port? No thanks. Too sweet for me.”  But those kinds of one-dimensional misconceptions are outdated impressions of a beverage that has long been misunderstood.  So what exactly is the Sherry of today?  What has changed to make people start paying attention?


A Blessing and a Curse.
In the past decades the Sherry industry has gone through a sustained period of economic dormancy when demand for the wines has fallen short of the pace of production. Because of this many cellars have not sold as much wine as intended and have maintained stocks of sherry that are a culmination of wine that is of a much older minimum age.  This is a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it.  Because of the poor image of this highly misunderstood wine from the south of Spain, the wines of Jerez have quietly been sitting in their forgotten tombs awaiting the moment when their day would come.  And although there is something in the air, such a day stubbornly remains just out of reach.

A blessing: To taste some of the rare gems of the region is to experience the pinnacle of winemaking and aging at a level of amazingly high quality.  These are wines that have been blended and aged over 50 to 100 years in some cases.  Imagine Bordeaux or Burgundy going through a 30-40 year dip in sales forcing the wines to sit around quietly aging until the occasional curious thirsty traveler came knocking.  What a revelation that would be to the lucky adventurer.

Well, Sherry is having that moment now.  Although the wines are not all 50 years old, the average age of the wines is increasing concurrently with every year marked by negative growth in sales.  Because of this the wines maintain a level of complexity and beauty that most wines produced and aged more traditionally can never achieve.  They are the wines that pair with foods that no other wines can match – everything from seafood and sausage, to artichokes and popcorn.  They come in categories that range from the driest Fino (see 2 sections below) to the sweetest PX (a dessert Sherry made from dried grapes).  Also of note, similar to some Champagne, all Sherries are a culmination of multiple vintages of wine that has been painstakingly blended together in the cellar.  This makes them more consistent from bottle to bottle and from year to year than most other types of wine.

And did I mention this stuff is cheap?  Buying a bottle of sherry will run you around $7 and up.  Most of it is under $25 and almost all of it is under $50 unless you’re getting to the really rare stuff.  But even the top wines are fractions of the price of Burgundy, Barolo, or California Cabernet.

Plus, on top of it all, this gets you a wine that’s already aged properly for you because the aging happens mostly in the barrel (although you can age many of them in bottle too, if you like).  This is not like buying a young wine and being unsure when it will be ready to be opened.  This stuff is ready to drink at the time you purchase it and take it home.

A curse: The Sherry industry is barely holding on by a shoestring.  As I mentioned above, each year Sherry sales are unmistakably on the decline.  Every year there are less people who are willing to tend to the grapes nor who will come to work the harvest.  Vineyards are being sold off, vines ripped up and replanted with different grapes or more profitable crops, and smaller Bodegas (sherry production/aging cellars) are going out of business and selling off their stocks of wine to other larger producers.  Where there used to be hundreds of houses making Sherry, the number of bodegas in Jerez has dwindled to well under 100.  And this number will likely shrink further before it begins to grow again.

Furthermore the image of this wine is akin to the LEAST popular kid in school.  If Champagne is considered the prom king/queen, then Sherry for sure is thought of as the weird kid who smells funny and eats his/her own boogers in plain sight.  But this disconnect between image and wine couldn’t be more confused.  The only way this image will change is by understanding the wines and helping people see the other side of them.  Let’s turn the weird kid in school into the helmut-wearing, über-successful, eccentric Daft Punk of the future.  You know, “cool weird” not “gross weird”.


Why does it seem like Sherry is only sweet?
In Spain, Sherry has a different image than the one that it has abroad.  Historically, the English controlled the Sherry trade and made a serious business out of selling the blended semi-sweet and sweet style Sherries – Cream Sherry, Pale Cream Sherry, East India, etc.  These are blends of dry sherries and sweet sherries intended to create a more pleasing, easier to drink, after-dinner, semi-sweet wine; perhaps as an alternative to Port.  But these wines did not necessarily undergo long aging.  In fact, they could be relatively young and simple.  These are the wines that have provided most people’s exposure to Sherry outside of Spain and have especially dominated the category in the USA.  If you go to a bar or liquor store in any corner of the US and ask for a “sherry”, more than likely they would hand you one of these styles of dark colored, semi-sweet sherries (this is the “Grandma juice”, by the way).

However, in Spain the vast majority of Sherry sales are in the Generoso category.  These are the savory dry Sherries that come in categories named Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, & Palo Cortado.  This is the range of Sherry that has people so excited and have absolutely nothing to do stylistically with the sweeter ones listed above.  These wines are all slightly distinct from each other, but they share a few things in common:
1.They are not sweet
2.They are quite complex in aroma and flavor
3. They are wines for the dinner table, not the dessert cart


So if they’re not dessert wines, what do THESE dry Sherries taste like?
Manzanilla & Fino
are the fresh “white wines” of sherry that are light, a touch nutty, briny, sea-salty and refreshing when served cold.  They receive much of their character from a blanket of yeast, called flor, that lives on top of the wine. This blanket consumes all the remaining sugar and creates a very dry style wine.
Most bottles will last about a week after opening them.
Amontillado, Palo Cortado, & Oloroso are the more “robust” dry sherries that have all been allowed to age without protection from air and have turned varying shades of brown.  The wines smell of dried fruits, sweet spices, are richly nutty, savory, and quite complex.  It is this complexity that demands the drinker’s attention as well as the proper food to eat with it.
Once opened, bottles can live for a month or more depending on quality.


So I shouldn’t only drink Sherry after dinner?
It turns out that during dinner, the classes of dry Sherry listed above are some of the great wines of the world to accompany your meal.  To use a Dr. Seuss-like mnemonic device for pairing Sherry with food, “If it swims, drink Fino.  If it flies, drink Amontillado.  If it runs, drink Oloroso.”  I know, I know…this is silly and rather oversimplified to the people already on a Sherry kick.  The reality is that each category of Sherry is so dynamic in flavor that it goes with all kinds of foods – not just the pairings mentioned above.  But we have to start somewhere.  My hope is that this will help get sherry on the dinner table – where it belongs.

The ONLY thing all Sherry and dessert wine have in common is that due to higher alcohol levels (between 15% – 23% depending on style) Sherry should be consumed in smaller amounts: around 2 -3 oz per glass.  This is about half the amount compared to how much is poured on average for a glass of wine (5 – 6 oz).  But it should still be served in large wine glasses so you can get the full experience.  Screw the little thimble-sized dessert wine glasses.  They’re no help at all.


Ok, you’ve convinced me there is great intrinsic & historical value in these wines.  But to put it bluntly, Sherry tastes funny to me. I still think it’s weird.
There is no denying that the range of flavors that define Sherry are unfamiliar compared to other wine.  I think the best way to attempt to understand the unique character of Sherry is to talk about the so-called “5th flavor” – UMAMI.  Umami is the Japanese word used to describe the taste that literally translates to “yummy” or, more useful to our conversation, refers to a “pleasant savory taste”.  It provides other flavors with dimensions like lift and roundness. With that in mind it is no surprise that sherry is often used as a secret ingredient to make Teriyaki sauce to help provide that umami quality.

A while ago in a brief conversation with Peter Liem, co-auther of the most recent book on Sherry called “Sherry, Manzanilla, & Montilla” (shameless plug), we spoke of what he called “sapidity” in Sherry.  Sapidity is perhaps a term that can be applied specifically to Sherry in tandem with umami.  It is a somewhat foreign sensation that gives freshness, tension, and energy to Sherry in place of low levels of acidity (acidity is usually what gives freshness to most wine).  Obviously, I don’t expect it to be a trend to hear people to start commenting on the sapidity in dry sherry.  But I suppose stranger things have happened.

If we talk in those terms of savoriness, lift, and volume, then perhaps Sherry flavors becomes less foreign.  Without question Sherries by definition include the oxidative, briny, doughy, salty, tangy flavors.  These are the flavors that tug at your taste buds telling you something is a little off.  But those flavors/sensations do not necessarily have to be negative.  After familiarizing yourself with them, it will be those same qualities that will open the door to experiencing flavor in three dimensions instead of one or two dimensions.  It’s like learning to appreciate the fermented qualities of Kimchi in Korean cuisine, or any other accquired taste for that matter.  Admittedly Sherry’s greatest weakness is that it takes some time to get used to.


I realize that I sound like a crazy person talking about something called “multi-dimensional flavor.”  It’s like you’re having a conversation with a Sci-Fi nerd (which is exactly what’s happening to you right now).  You’re probably thinking, “isn’t this just booze”?  Well…yes.  No argument there.  But imagine you’ve listened to music with the bass turned off on your stereo for your whole life, and then one day someone turned it on for you and you started hearing the music you’ve always listened to in a very new way.  To say the least, it would be a completely different experience.  Sherry has a dynamic flavor/texture/sensation that is not present in almost all other wine.  It provides added “bass” to the wine.  It’s wine in 3D!

This isn’t the answer to the meaning of life, an explanation to the origins of the universe, nor the cure for cancer…but Sherry IS one more tremendous way to experience wine in a unique and interesting manner.  Check the method.


Your Assignment: Give this stuff a try with dinner
Go to your favorite wine store – or you can try finding Sherry online & have it shipped – and find one of each of the following:

1 bottle of Manzanilla or Fino 
Store it in the refrigerator and drink it cold like white wine.  It should last about a week once you open it.
1 bottle of dry Amontillado or dry Palo Cortado
Store like you would a red wine and drink it room temperature or with a light chill.  It should last about a month or more once you open it.
1 bottle of dry Oloroso
Store like you would a red wine and drink it room temperature or with a light chill.  It should last about a month or more once you open it.
Important producers: La Guita, Valdespino, Hidalgo-La Gitana, Emilio Hidalgo, Lustau, Gonzalez Byass, El Maestro Sierra, Gutierrez Colosia, Barbadillo, Equipo Navazos, Fernando de Castilla, Bodegas Tradicion.
Note: Many of these wines will also be available in half-bottles so you don’t have to buy full bottles of them.  Which is great for your bank account.

Now go to your favorite Chinese restaurant that’s BYOB, or order take-out/delivery, and get some egg rolls, some noodles, especially any seafood dishes for the Manzanilla/Fino, something with pork or duck for the Amontillado/Palo Cortado, and maybe a rich dish with beef for the Oloroso.  And then have at it.  We’ve all got a Chinese restaurant somewhere near us and the dishes are built for Sherry.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.


And feel free to send me stories of great moments in Sherry in the comment section.  I want to hear all about it.  And if you still don’t dig it, I want to hear about that, too.  Maybe I can help, or maybe it’s just not your kind of juice.  I respect any and all opinions on the subject.  Most importantly I just want people to give it a shot and try what they have been missing.

And I hope that you do.

Wine: The Social Beverage

THE SECRET TO FINDING GREAT WINE IS SIMPLE.  The key is to (1) trust your own taste and (2) to be able to describe what you like to someone else.  Mastering those two skills will hand you the two most important tools for finding wines YOU like without being forced to rely on the opinions of others.  Admittedly this is easier said than done, but now that you know that’s the end goal it makes the task of learning about wine much less daunting.  You can spend all your time studying wine books and learning the names of the wine regions around the world…BORING…and often confusing.  Or you can buy an assortment of wines in different styles and one by one taste them with a couple friends to figure out what you like.

Tasting with others is important for a few reasons.  First of all, it’s not as much fun to drink wine alone.  If you want to drink alone get a beer, a nip of your favorite whisky, or a martini.  Those are drinks for one.  Wine most often comes in a large bottle (3/4 of a liter, or a touch more than 25 oz.) that serves about four or five glasses of wine.  This makes it an ideal social beverage meant to be shared.

Second, it cuts down the cost of buying the wine.  If you’re drinking with four friends, then each bottle of wine is one-fourth the cost of you drinking it alone (do you see how good I am at math?).   All of a sudden that $20 bottle of wine is now only $5 (yup…my math skills are killin’ it right now!).

Third, drinking with a crew allows you all to try multiple kinds of wine at one time.  This is important so you can compare and contrast.  If everyone brings a bottle of wine, you can taste a few things alongside of each other and figure out more quickly what floats your boat.  Each person can buy one bottle that (for example) is made from the same grape, or is from the same place, or is of some other a aligned theme.  The more you taste, the better you will understand what you like.  I know…soooooo complicated.

Learning to taste is the same as training your ear to listen to music.  Anyone can turn on the radio and hear the music without knowing who or what is playing.  But it’s another thing when you decide what you like based on your own experience and you can tell the difference between The Beatles & The Rolling Stones or between Tupac and Biggie.  Learning the differences between wines is the same thing.  Unfortunately for wine, unlike music, you can expect some variation between bottles and you can’t play the same bottle twice.  But don’t fret about that.  I have found more often than not that the great moments produced by a delicious bottle of wine on a good day far outpace the ones that don’t knock me off of my feet.  Either way I usually walk away happy.

Lastly, tasting with friends is good practice to taste more clearly and to hone your wine vocabulary as you learn how best to describe the wine in front of you.  Is it light or heavy?  Dry or sweet?  Fresh or funky?  If it’s fruity, what kind of fruit is it?  Cherry?…well what kind of cherry?  Maybe it’s sour cherry, black cherry, or dried cherry.  In a group dynamic you’ll be able to recognize those things more easily because each person might perceive the wine differently.  You’ll pick things up faster with more noses and palates paying attention than if it were just your own.  Soon it will become apparent that being able to describe wine is as simple as being able to link your food vocabulary to your drink vocabulary.

With that in mind, tasting wine with a meal is invaluable.  For instance, if  you don’t normally recognize what black olives smell/taste like, how can you identify them as a wine’s aroma/flavor?  It’s much easier to recognize it if you happen to have some olives on your pizza while drinking a red wine that smells the same way.  Learning with food will help you recognize those similar characteristics in wine.  And, trust me, doing this at the dinner table with a few good friends is the best place to experiment.

I’ve always believed that dinner for one just isn’t as fun…and wine is no different.