Tim's Blog

Sherry and Madeira Tasting and Dinner

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This blog is being written by Fliss, Tim’s wife.  I’m currently studying for the Diploma in Wine, and my first written paper is on Fortified Wines, so it’s lucky for me (if not for readers of Tim’s blog) that I can put some of my learning to practice.  My thanks to people who came on tour to Jerez with Tim last year for the photos.

The wines are listed on the Wines we have tasted page – most are available widely, but Tim can help out with one or two.

Earlier this month we enjoyed a fine wine tasting with dinner at Le Salon Privé in St Margarets, with a lineup of wines that one might not normally associate with food.

We were welcomed with a table wine, ie not fortified, made entirely from Palomino Fino, the grape that goes into most sherry.  Sherry is said to be created in the bodega rather than the vineyard, so it was great to establish at the start what the base wine, that is subsequently fortified and matured to become sherry, actually tastes like.  Most of my reading has described Palomino as making rather neutral wines, but the Ojo de Gallo, produced by Valdespino using grapes from their flagship Marcharnudo vineyard, was lively, fresh, with a tang of ozone and olives.

Flor in a barrel of Fino

We then compared the two leading types of ‘biologically aged’ sherries, which spend several years making their way through a series of partly filled barrels in a system called a solera.  On the surface of the wine in each barrel a layer of ‘flor’ forms naturally.  The yeasts in the flor consume the oxygen in the barrel (hence the need to keep the head space at the top of the barrel, and the bodega well aerated), and the sugars, alcohol and particularly glycerol in the wine beneath.  Wine is taken from the oldest barrels (the solera) to be bottled and sold (for immediate consumption as there is no bottle maturation), and replenished from the next oldest barrel (first criadera), which is replenished from the next oldest (2nd criadera) and so on.  The replenishment is necessary to keep feeding the flor, which ensure the wine does not oxidise and imparts distinctive aromas and tastes of olives, almonds and umami (Vegemite to me!).

Some of Valespino’s barrels

The La Gitana Manzanilla, which like all manzanillas is made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the coast was paler, fresher and slightly salty compared to the Inocente Fino, made by Valdespino.

Amontillado sherries start their life under flor, but after a few years they are fortified to a higher level, which kills off the yeasts and move through an ‘oxidative’ solera.  Here the barrels still have a head space of air above the wine, but thanks to the high level of alcohol the oxidation that happens does not make the wines tired and unpleasant.  Instead complex savoury aromas and tastes develop, including hazelnuts, herbs and (for me) a sense of that Vegemite!  We compared Valdespino’s Tio Diego (one of the very best Amontillados) with a Sercial and a Verdelho Madeira.

Madeira vineyards

Madeiras are made very differently to Sherry.  The best ones are made from specific grape varieties (the names on the bottles), which bring specific characteristics to the wine.  All grow in Madeira’s maritime climate, which though beautifully warm most of the year, and definitely hot in the summer, has plenty of water, either falling from the skyor supplied via the levadas that snake alongside the terraces (poios) where the vines are grown.  As with sherry, the magic of Madeira is what happens in the winery, following fermentation and fortification.  Sweeter wines are fortified sooner, the addition of 96% alcohol stopping fermentation in its tracks, with plenty of grape sugar still in the finished wine. Mimicking the experience of wines that were transported across the oceans and crossed the Equator a couple of times several centuries ago, Madeiras are matured under the influence of heat.  The best ones are left for several years, in rooms that benefit from sunlight and warmth.  Here they ‘maderise’ (it’s where the word comes from), very slowly, with relatively little oxygen contact, forming fragrant esters and aldehydes and creating wines that are so stable that you can open a bottle and keep it for months or even years in tip top condition.

Jerez vineyard

Sercial is the driest style, with little residual sugar, Verdelho is probably the commonest of the four most noble grapes, and makes medium dry wines.  What’s very obvious as soon as you taste a madeira is its acidity.  Unlike Palomino grapes ripened in Jerez’s blazing sunshine which is also reflected up from the blindingly white albariza soil, Madeira grapes have plenty of maritime wind and rain to cool them down and keep acidity levels up.

Opinions differed slightly among the group, but for me the fresh, raisiny, citrussy Madeiras went best with the ham hock and rémoulade, while the richer Amontillado was perfect with the scallops in a creamy sauce.

With our meltingly tender beef cheeks main course we returned to sherry, two Olorosos and a Palo Cortado. With regard to the latter, you can be as romantic or cynical as you wish when listening to the stories they will tell in the bodegas about barrels undergoing spontaneous conversion from biological conditions to oxidative conditions, but the Wellington VOS we had was definitely made from very fine grapes, and was very rich while being very elegant.  The basic Lustau Oloroso was dry, smoky, spicy and had a degree of burnt sugar on the palate, while the 1842 Solera Oloroso from Valdespino was altogether richer,  with lovely citrus and coffee notes.  Its medium sweetness (achieved with the addition of some PX) was just wonderful with the rich main course.

Our final trio of wines were another Oloroso, this time a fully sweet ‘Cream’ sherry, and the sweetest of the Madeiras, the Bual and Malvasia (or Malmsey in traditional speak).  I have been learning about how good Cream sherries can be since Tim and I went to Jerez a year ago, and the Lustau from Waitrose was super, lively despite its definitely toasty oxidation, with intense sweetness.  The acidity of the Madeiras was a bit of a shock with the almond tart, the sweeter Malvasia feeling more complex with lovely marmalade flavours.

We rounded off the evening with a Pedro Ximinez.  I don’t think ‘prunes’ quite does justice to this amazingly luscious wine, but it’s what I get from it (and stops me confusing it with other dense dark fortified wines like Banyuls or Classic Rutherglen – but that’s a topic for a different blog!).

There was a consensus that we need to do the same thing again, but next time challenge Le Salon Privé’s amazing chef, Gianluca Di Monaco, to produce a meal to complement some very fine ports.  Over to Tim….