Sherry Christmas

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Just about everyone is having a go at recommending sherries for these next couple of weeks so I thought I might share my tuppence worth even if, as is certainly the case, I will certainly not be allowed to choose the wine chez mes parents.

With nibbles you of course want a nice light, refreshing fino or manzanilla I reckon the optimum wine would be the Callejuela Manzanilla de Añada 1/11 but given the scarcity it might be better to settle for a nice elegant fino like Tio Pepe or the Fino Maestro Sierra I had the other day. There are a lot of more intense wines (such as my favourite fino) but you probably don’t want to start too big.

The prawn cocktail and its marie rose sauce are a famously tricky pairing and in theory you would want something nice and fruity. Riesling is the classic and along those lines the fruit and suggestion of sweetness of the Exceptional Harvest might be a good bet (I had originally thought of the Forlong blanco for this role but going back to it I don’t think it has enough sweetness) or, just maybe, the Alba Sobretabla (Lot I).

With the turkey, taters, carrots, sprouts, gravy, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, stuffing and chipolatas  I would go Amontillado Fino. Specifically, my number one call would be el Tresillo, but a Fossi or a classic Viña AB would go down very nicely too. You could also try a manzanilla pasada but you would want one at the fruitier end of the scale like the lovely Maruja.

With the Christmas pudding, and all that brandy, brandy butter and cream, you need something that will stand up to it and as balance you might even want a big dry oloroso – a Villapanes or an El Cerro. If you can cope with the sugar rush it could also be an excuse to go sweet: my top pick would be the majestic Noe, which has masses of backbone to balance up all that sweetness. A happy medium might be one of the excellent PX olorosos: Gran Barquero or the Asuncion.

Don’t ask me why, but quite often in our house a second round of dessert then appears – Christmas cake or a Yule log. If it is a log, then this is your chance to definitely hit the Noe (or maybe the Callejuela PX), but if it is a Christmas cake I reckon it would match up pretty well with an Apostoles.

With the stilton, a decent Port and some walnuts (some things just can’t be improved upon). However, once the cheese is cleared away it may be time for a drop of Privilegio or even some Toneles. At the very least, a spot of Tresillo 1874.

And then it would be time to rest one’s eyelids for a few moments while enjoying a comfy sofa.

Pedro Ximenez Callejuela  

Well this is a sad sight – I can’t believe this bottle is over.

The last week or so we have had a glass of this with a chocolate from the Cacao Sampaka complete edition – a collection of 64 different pieces of high-end high-cocoa chocolate from one of my favourite stores in Madrid. The chocolates are great, the wine is really great and together just another level altogether.

It is a dark, not black brown, has a thick, syrupy consistency and a raisin and yeast, uncooked Christmas pudding aroma. It is sweet and sticky with lots of raisin flavour then burnt sugar and sweet, black coffee bitterness. Lovely, serious flavour to it.

Really superb wine by any standards.

La Panesa with … chocolate 


This was an interesting experience – half way through my glass of La Panesa an unexpected pairing was thrust under my nose by the remarkable Ana Losada at the Chula de Chamberi.

Probably the last pairing I would have thought of – seems to break all the rules – and one I am not sure about. The chocolate really accentuates the bitterness, saltiness, and alcohol of the fino – but seems to suppress the umami and the old fruit. It is really interesting, no doubt, and gives you a look at the wine from a different angle. It also has that salty chocolate vibe. Having said that, not sure if it passes my pairing test: do I like the fino better with the chocolate, and vice versa?

Maybe with any other wine – when it comes to something as beautifully balanced as La Panesa I am less prone to adventure.

La Bota de Fino 35 – Macharnudo Alto 

  
I haven’t had this for a while. A classic from Equipo Navazos

Love the colour – quite a dark brown  like old hay. The nose too is all hay bales and granary bread – an incredibly biological nose. 

It also has a great, bready, savoury flavour – nice balanced acidity and salinity. Not quite as intense and structured as some but flavourful and elegant. 

Very interesting pairing too. It was served in the superb Punto MX  with a mexican dish of roast tuetano (bone marrow) eaten in tortillas with a salsa and onions, chilli and lime- a  fatty, meaty, bready, spicey and citric combination. Great thing about sherry is that it can stand up to anything like this, and the savoury nature of the wine really worked. 

  

You win somm, you lose somm


Earlier this year I went for dinner with good friends at a top class, three Michelin star, 50 best restaurant. I won’t reveal the name or location because this is not a restaurant blog (I will say that it wasn’t Can Roca or Mugaritz) but I wanted to share an anecdote about a rather egregious error by the sommelier that, without wanting to be overly dramatic, cast a bit of a shadow over the dinner in my memory.

Picture the scene: there I am, looking forward to a great dinner and I am asked if I would like anything as an aperitif. Of course I would, I say, and since it is a special occasion, I ask for a glass of La Panesa. A bottle of La Panesa is quickly produced, lightly chilled and freshly opened (green capsule, so a newish bottle too) and served in superb stemware  (the best stemware I have seen and one I am determined to acquire when I get around to it). The first sniff was perfect, the first sip an exhilarating mouthful of this magnificent sherry, a deep breath, a hearty toast with the afore mentioned good friends, and I am golden.

But then the sommelier, compelled by who knows what desire to walk on the wild side, feels the need to educate me about La Panesa, and he mangles it completely.

The shock makes it hard to remember the exact words, but he essentially told me La Panesa was a single vineyard wine, from a special, very old vine and that it was unusual because the producer was more well known for manzanilla.

I was a little surprised, to say the least, because (a) no, it isn’t (I mean, it is named after an old vineyard, but that is not where the age of this wine comes from) and (b) no, it isn’t. In fact (b) in particular was a shocking error given that both makers (Emilio Hidalgo, on the one hand, and Hidalgo, on the other) are well known. I was also surprised because, frankly, if someone comes into your restaurant (and not just any restaurant) and asks you for a specific wine by name (and not just any wine), surely you have to assume that they know what they are asking for, no? Even if not, why in the world would you decide to lecture them about it, in particular if you are going to wing it?

I was shaken, I must admit, but of course, the sunshine, the group of friends etc – on we go, and indeed, given the long tasting menu in prospect we entrust the choice of wines for the meal to the chap.

Unfortunately, my memories of what followed are not great either. The first wine he serves with dinner is a much lighter manzanilla which, after the massive, majestic fino I had just supped (and learned so much about – thanks boss) tasted like water by comparison. The next pairing was awful – really not great (in fact I would have switched wines one and two around) and I can honestly say none of the wines stood out for me until a Vin de Paille with the final dessert.

Being fair to the guy, it was a tricky menu to do the pairings for – lots of dishes and some of them very challenging. But nevertheless here I am, several months later, and the first thing I remember about the dinner was that the sommelier didn’t know what La Panesa is. It was a disappointing effort, and I can’t help feeling that a lot of the disenchantment with the pairings thereafter stemmed from that basic breakdown in trust.

I am spoilt. I am lucky enough to know some really top class sommeliers – Ana Losada, at the Chula de Chamberi, Luis Garcia de la Navarra, at the eponymous Restaurante Vinoteca, Oscar Marcos and Fran Ramirez at Alabaster, Marian and Mamen at Taberna Verdejo, Paqui at Palo Cortado – I really am very well looked after. I have also been fortunate enough to have had wines chosen for me with pairing menus by cracks like Guillermo Cruz at Mugaritz and the chaps at Can Roca. If I had to pick one set of pairings, it would be the night in Mugaritz – txacoli, fino, meursault, palo cortado, sake, garnatxa, bandol, … tremendous imagination and superb harmonies, but all these experts have the skill of making wine taste better – Ana and Luis in particular have hit me with some pairings (take this and this, for example) that were memorable.

And as the years go by it becomes increasingly clear to me how very lucky I am and how crucial the role of a sommelier is in any restaurant (or taberna). A wine lover mate of mine gave up drinking for a month last year and, as you might expect, lost weight, but he reckons the reason he lost weight was that he just didn’t enjoy eating as much without a glass of wine. I agree 100% with that and If I have learned anything from the incident above it is that without the right wine, you will not enjoy a meal as you ought to, and unless you can trust your sommelier, you may not enjoy the wine as you could do.

Homecoming Part III

  
This time, to my second home and feeding station of choice: La Chula de Chamberi. And what better way to start a new academic year than with veal sweetbread and El Tresillo Amontillado Fino (a lightly chilled, freshly opened bottle no less).

It is a great combination – the sweetbread is intensely salty, savoury and buttery and the Tresillo is all of that and another notch above with spicey, smokey zing and mellow burnt fruit.

It really is good – if I didn’t have so much work this glass could easily turn into a bottle (and bring me the rest of the cow while we are at it).

Espeto and Tio Pepe

  

One of those pairings of convenience – smoky sardines cooked on a skewer over coals, a bit of salt and lemon and the only fino on offer is a good un.

The pairing is just about perfect – the sardines are salty, tasty and smoky and the Tio Pepe matches nicely.

And a decent location too … Can’t believe it is back to work on Monday. 

  

Sherry at (a fantastic) dinner

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.

Fino Capataz: awesome with steak tartare


Loving this capataz fino – so nutty. Not a great combination with these garlicy grilled razorclams but good enough.

With the steak tartare (with chopped hazelnuts) though the combination is remarkable – the sherry spices up the palate and makes the tartare seem much livelier in every sense. It makes it spicier and brings out a lot of flavours – the tartare seems saltier, nuttier, meatier, and you really notice the savoury spring onion. On top of all that enhancement, you also get a mushroom/truffle flavour from the combination.

Interestingly you also get more alcohol from the fino – almost as if it loses its other flavours to the meat. A really superb pairing though. To try the original get down to La Chula.

La Bota de Palo Cortado 52

An absolutely inspired pairing in Mugaritz last night. Here you have a head of garlic roasted with lamb juices –  you squeeze the teeth out onto a toast with parsley and then in she goes.


The dish itself is just as tasty as it sounds – absolutely delicious – and the savoury, nutty palo cortado by Equipo Navazos not only stands up for itself but is in perfect harmony.  Guillermo Cruz – the sommelier at Mugaritz – is a genius and this is evidence.