Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sherry Is The Champagne Of Fortified Wines

I often think that Porto bears a resemblance to Bordeaux: they’re both quintessentially English, they’re both generally marketed by house or estate rather than by vineyard, and both wines are relatively easy to understand. Madeira could be equated to Burgundy, with its greater complexity and its more exclusive nature — in the case of each, one needs to be initiated into its mysteries. Sherry, however, is the champagne of the fortified wine world.

There are many parallels to be drawn between sherry and champagne. Both are heavily influenced by chalky soils, and both involve elaborate processes of production that rely heavily on long periods of lees aging. Both are made in a wide array of styles — a blanc de blancs champagne and saignée rosé are as different from one another as a manzanilla is from an oloroso. A fino or a manzanilla, like a blanc de blancs, makes for a perfect and refreshing apéritif, and yet, both sherry and champagne are also much better companions at the table than most people suspect. Both wines age marvelously well, and in fact, both wines really need time to show their best.

On the other hand, both wines suffer from being largely misunderstood by the general public, and in general, people don’t drink enough of either one. Both are dominated by big houses that blend vast quantities of wine together from all over their respective regions, and as a result both downplay the importance of vineyard site, even though each region has sites of great historical renown (Macharnudo, Balbaína or Miraflores in the sherry country can inspire the same feelings of passion in a sherry aficionado as Aÿ, Verzenay or Le Mesnil-sur-Oger does in a connoisseur of champagne). Because each wine is made in such large quantity, the prevailing paradigm in each region would like you to believe that the base wine must necessarily be very neutral in character, and that it’s solely the process of winemaking that gives the wine its personality. In an acceptance of this neutrality, both regions suffer from indifferent vineyard practices and overly high yields (although in each region there are conscientious producers who do not follow the trends — Hidalgo’s vineyards in Balbaína, pictured in the above photo, are all organically grown). Curiously, each wine undergoes a final practice that can radically alter its character: champagne will usually see a dosage in the form of either sugar or concentrated grape must, while in an even more injurious practice, the majority of sherries undergo a harsh filtration that strips them of color, aroma and flavor. In short, both sherry and champagne are highly individual wines, even unique, and both can be counted among the great wines of the world, yet both could also be significantly improved.

On a different note, both regions also offer opportunities to make a fool of yourself in the cellar. Here is a slightly blurry photo of me spilling La Gitana manzanilla all over myself while attempting to wield a venencia in Hidalgo’s bodegas in Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Fortunately for my reputation, I haven’t got a similar photo of me trying to disgorge a bottle of champagne!


Jeremy S said...

I would add that Sherry and Champagne share the characteristic of being wines of "process", as well as being wines of terroir. By that I mean that the winemaking is, as a whole, unique to the area and is paramount to how the final product tastes. Beyond the extraordinary white, moisture retaining soils of Jerez, you also have the unique qualities of Flor, the Solera system, etc. My mouth waters at the thought of the delicous food and wines you have been enjoying. It's probably too late, but do pass on my regards to Javier Hidalgo should you see him again as he is a good friend.

spume said...

Brilliant post, Peter, in fact I think it's your best yet.

Enjoy Vienna!

- wolfgang