Thursday, July 9, 2009

Oh Sherry

"You shoulda been gooone!!"

Yes, I should've been gone. Gone from the (ugh) "blogosphere" and studying my butt off for the CSW exam.

-"blogosphere" is about as appealing a word as "staycation" or "Dallas Cowboys"-

To my chagrin, my test date has been postponed indefinitely, leaving me in proverbial limbo. In a strange way, I really feel like Steve Perry (left). Should I take the prudent route, stay with Journey, continue to make hits (or in my case, study), or should I blaze my own trail; strike out on my own for a chance at greater fame and fortune, release Street Talk and bank my solo career on a tune called "Oh Sherrie"?

Well, I can't sing, but I hope to shine bright as a writer, so- like Perry- I've put together my own masterpiece, only it's about Sherry, not Sherrie.
Pretty sweet explanation about where I was going with this post, huh?

Well said.

[Shake it off] Onto Sherry. I'll be straight with you: before delving into a world of wine obsession, I hadn't given Sherry much thought. Really, any fortified wines for that matter. To me, they were nothing more than cheap, sickly-sweet beverages made from what the winemaker had left over; dosed with so much sugar to hide the crap underneath (to illustrate this point, think about how much sugar you used to dump in the "Hunch Punch" back in college...). Even when I started my training for the CSW certification, I figured I'd glance over the fortified production section before it bored me to death. Indeed, fortified wines were like Journey's new singer, Arnel Pineda- already written off before even given a chance.

However, once one gets into studying the fortifieds, he realizes that these are legendary, time-honored beverages, marked by particularly painstaking and expensive vinification techniques (don't get me started on solera systems). In fact, they used to be the most popular in the world, and it makes sense. Fortification creates a higher alcohol content, thus better-preserving the wine. When your wine had to sit on a ship for 3 months, you'd want it as preserved as possible. Port, Madeira, and of course Sherry, were favorites of the British, and when the "sun didn't set on the British Empire", it likely didn't set on fortified wines either.

Sadly, as with anything popular, low-cost options started to flood the market. Cheap "cream sherries", bad port-imitations, and others hit the bargain bins, and people who could once not afford the pricey authentics thought they were getting a piece of the action. Left unimpressed by these imposters, they wrote off the whole genre. To this day, fortified wines seem to have fallen out of favor, relegated to the dusty bottom-shelves of many package stores.

But it's time for a renaissance, and we'll start with Sherry. Made in both dry and sweet styles, sherry hails from the Spanish town of Jerez, from where the beverage gets its name. Both dry and sweet styles utilize the Palomino grape, and there are also sweet examples made from the Pedro Ximenez grape. Sherry is also generally classified into 2 different styles: fino and oloroso. Olorosos are fermented to dryness, then fortified up to 18% abv for aging. With the high alcohol level, yeast die and the wine is exposed to oxygen, thus oxidizing the wine and giving it a distinct character. Finos, while also fermented to dryness, are fortified only up to 15.5%, a level which keeps yeast alive, creating a "cake" on top of the aging wine (called flor, shown in the barrel cross-section to the left), protecting it from oxidation. In addition to offering a shield from the elements, the flor also imparts a unique flavor to the wine. In the case of the Gonzalez Byass "Tio Pepe" Extra Dry Fino I'm drinking right now (about $15 at a local store), the aroma can be described as, well, moldy and least at first. Nonetheless, this initially off-putting (but interesting) nose turns into something incredible...

I get the smell of caramel apples. Crazy caramel apples. It takes a minute. The mustiness is still there, but suddenly, my olfactory memory picks up the smell of tart, granny smith apples covered in caramel. I feel like I'm at the carnival with an LSU corndogs, though (hee hee; a little college football-rivalry humor to the uninitiated). Mixed in with the the smells of basement, apples, and caramel is also a bunch of nuts; as if that caramel apple was dipped in a bunch of crushed nuts, then thrown into your grandma's basement with all those creepy dolls.

Now the taste. This thing smells like it's gonna be sweet, but BANG! it's completely dry. Musty and tart flavors dominate, and the finish is full of almonds. I really didn't know if if liked it at first, but it's just so damn interesting that it grows on you. I then figured it out: this is wine for scotch drinkers. The apple-y aromas, the nutty finish, the high alcohol. If you like scotch, you'd probably hop on the dry Sherry train.

So let this be the first of many posts to bring the fortified wine back to relevance. They were once loved by all, then forgotten, but in the immortal words of Steve Perry, "Oh [Sherry], our love holds on. Hold on."

Until then, Cheers, Sláinte, Salud, Prost, Skål, Konbe, and Kampai!
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