When was the last time that you ordered a Sherry? Have you ever? Do you know what it is and where it comes from?
One of the many aspects of Wine that stimulates my passion for it is the variety. Sure, as creatures of habit we turn to trusty old favorites like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon again and again. But, on occassion, the ability to have a new experience, hear a new story, taste something exotic or distinct, and buck the routine is, as the saying goes, the spice of life. I like to drink beer, Champagne, German and Alsatian Riesling, White and Red Burguny, Bordeaux, to name a few. This week I had the unique opportunity to attend a Sherry-Style wine dinner and that is exactly the type of variety and unique experience that chases the ho-hum away.
I had my first exposure to sherry about five years ago, and it blew my mind. Last night I attended a dinner that paired the wines of Alvear, a Sherry Style producer from the region of Motilla-Moriles, at Aigre Doux, a fine new restaurant behind Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The dinner was hosted by Fernando Gimenez Alvear, Consejero-Delegado of the Bodega, Rafael Rodriguez Panadero, the export manager, and the local distributor, Robert Houde of Garchacha Ltd.
Unrelated but needs mentioning; Before the room was ready I had an Austrian Lager called Stiegl, something that I will seek out for future consumption, refreshingly tangy with subtle complexity and structure and an excellent apertif in its own right.
Then, after entering the private dining room downstairs, I was poured a glass of the Alvear ‘Fino en Rama’ 2003, a vintage Fino, the first one in modern history according to the literature. The Fino was richer and more complex than others that I have tried and led us from reception into the first course, Caulifower soup with Dungeness Crab and Black trumpet mushroom garnish. WIth that course we were poured the second wine, the Alvear ‘Carlos VII’ Amontillado. Amontillado, or ‘in the style of Montilla’, is basically an aged Fino. While Fino is produced by keeping the Flor, a layer of dead yeast, and protecting the wine from oxygen, Amontillado is produced when Fino casks see a degredation of Flor. This particular wine was a light golden brown with similar character to the Fino, but with added nuttiness. The earthy/sweet flavors of the soup and garnish worked well with the nutty, dried fruit notes of the crisp, dry wines.
Don Rafael Rodriguez gave an informative presentation of the history of the Bodega and it’s wines through the first course and up to the Entree course, Chicken with Pomme de Terre, Broccolini, and lemon confit. Alvear Oloroso Asuncion NV was poured with this course, displaying the ability to form a beautiful pairing between Sherry-Style wines and savory foods. The Oloroso was a balanced, and slightly sweet, expression of the walnut, almond, dried fruit, molasses, and baking spice character that these class of wines are know for. This is a wine that, when you open it, fills the room with these distinct aromas and makes itself apparent to all in proximity.
Dessert, a Hazelnut and Chocolate Pot de Creme, was matched with two wines. The first, Alvear Solera Cream, is an Oloroso with addition of concentrated Pedro Ximenez (grapes that have been dried in the sun on mats for about 10 days) and has a dark brown color, with an unctuiousness and creamy texture that befits the style name. The second, and my Wine of the Night, was the Alvear PX Solera 1927. The Solera 1927 comes from a specific Solera System that was begun in 1927, is made exclusively from the dried and concentrated PX grapes, and contains more than triple the sugar/liter of the Solera Cream. This is a wine that, despite its sugar content, is remarkably balanced and, at least interms of value, has no match in the entire world of wine. Its German, Austrian, French, and Hungarian sweet wine counterparts fetch prices 2 to 10 times the cost. Brown sugar, molasses, creme brulee, hazelnut butter, and a syrupy, balanced palate experience.
If you are happy wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, and drinking the same wines everyday, then you may not be interested in trying Sherry, or Alvear wines from Montilla-Moriles. But, if you are interested in a different experience, traditional, though perhaps unfamiliar wines like those made by Alvear are one excellent alernative. With Fall and holiday dishes like white meats surrounded by earthy root vegetables and sweet, dried fruits, finding themselves on menus of restaurants and dinner parties, think about Sherry/Montilla-Moriles. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
A brief explaination of Sherry, and the distinction between it and Montilla-Moriles:
Sherry, as it is known in the U.K. and U.S, hails from a region of southern coastal Spain called Jerez, or Xeres, from which the name Sherry is derived (somehow). The area is extremely hot, though the ocean moderates the temperature to some degee. This part of Spain is known for a very unique white, chalky soil called Albariza (Albero in Montilla-Moriles). The Albariza soil is important because it retains water in an area that is hot and dry. The absorbent chalky alberiza soil will be a source of water to the vines when the 120 degree summer heat bakes the surface of the earth into an impenetrable crust. In Sherry they use primarily the Palomino Fino grape and produce two general styles, Fino and Oloroso. The basic difference between Fino and Oloroso has to do with exposure to air. Fino, protected from oxygen exposure in the barrel by a layer of yeast called Flor, kept ‘alive’ by a network of barrels known as the Solera System, will be pale, bone dry, and high in acid with a toasty, golden raisin quality. Oloroso, exposed to oxygen and fortified, will have a brownish hue and exude nutty, caramel, and honey aromas and flavors, and can be sweet. Sherry of almost any style is an ideal apertif because of the high acidity and complex flavors that stimulate appetite.
Motilla-Moriles is not on the coast but farther inland and sees even more extreme temeratures than Jerez does. The varietal grown and used in Montilla-Moriles is Pedro Ximenez, a rich, early ripening grape that reaches high sugar levels and can result in wines that reach alcohol levels upward of 15% without fortification. Sherry-Jerez-Xeres and Montilla-Moriles became distinct regions with classification of Denominaciones de Origen (DO) in the 1930’s, but the wines are very similar and are generally known as ‘Sherry’.
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