Although I touched on this in a previous post, recently I took two top bottles of Jerez to a quite spectacular dinner with some good friends and it really gave me a lot to think about.
The two sherries were excellent – la Bota de Manzanilla Pasada 40 and la Bota de Palo Cortado 51 – but they were on show against some quite spectacular wines, including amongst others, a quite amazing Henri Abelé Millésimé 1990 champagne – for me the wine of the night-, a Francois Chidaine Les Bournais 2011 that was full of juice and character, an ethereal 1998 Schonenbourg Alsace Grand Cru, a 2007 Chateau Rayas blanc that was pure minerals (woodsmoke in a glass) and a simply majestic 2008 Les Chenes by old man Lafarge.
In summary, a great test of sherry’s ability to fight it out for the centre of the table on a big occasion and against top class wines of every kind.
So what did I learn?
- I have some very good friends indeed – some of the wines were quite outstanding and many will live long in the memory.
- The manzanilla pasada certainly didn’t struggle for structure or depth, even in this company. A top, top wine.
- The palo cortado was maybe a little more out of its depth (as I think I said at the time).
- Despite the quality of the manzanilla and the excellent company, a few of the guys were not that keen – sherry is not everyone’s cup of tea, even amongst well meaning wine buffs.
- In general, it strikes me that these wines are hard to match to wines of other styles, so you either go all sherry or the food pairing becomes critical.
- Even if you love it like I do, it is obvious that the dry character and salty, iodine notes of the manzanilla made it hard to place it in the line up. We ended up having it first and I can’t argue with that.
- For similar reasons, the palo cortado ended up last in the line-up (by which stage the Lord Mayor’s show was well and truly over), mainly due to the difficulties of combinations with other wines (and also partly due to the lack of a food pairing). That in itself was a problem – it is a tough gig for a dry, intense wine like the palo cortado to come last after some big fruity reds – and on reflection we probably got that wrong. The old rules for wine tasting – from dry to sweet, light to heavy, still apply. Maybe the palo could have pulled it off had it been a lighter, more balanced wine, or had it been one of the slightly sweet, “traditional” after dinner wines, but this was super dry, burnt caramel.
- In this case, the food involved was fusion-style sushi, which didn’t even really stand up to the manzanilla pasada and would not have coped at all with the palo. The menu was more suited to the champagnes and mineral whites – a straight up, fresh fino or manzanilla would have been an easier pair.
- Had we had tastier vegetable dishes – artichokes or asparagus, or vinegar dressing or sauces – the manzanilla could have spread its wings. Similarly, the palo was crying out for a spicey, intense flavoured savoury dish, like callos, or the roast garlic that I had paired with the Bota de Palo Cortado 52 in Mugaritz.)
Overall, a chastening experience for a sherry fanatic – I would have put the manzanilla pasada on the podium but I suspect that others would not, and overall it was a reminder of both the extreme competition sherry faces as it fights to regain its former glory and the complexity of achieving the much talked about goal of converting sherry into a “gastronomic” wine.
It is no stretch of the imagination to drink sherry with dinner – there are great wines and great pairings – but it is not as easy to displace all these other great wines, and neither is it easy to cohabit the table with them. You can have a great sherry menu, and if you are lucky a genius sommelier will nail a pairing in as tasting menu, but taking a bottle of sherry to dinner with friends requires great care.