Wine and food matching, Jerez style. If it swims, serve Fino. If it flies, serve Amontillado. If it runs, serve Oloroso.
What better place to taste sherry, in London at least, than Bar Pepito, the dinky sherry and tapas bar off-shoot of Camino? It's a small but perfectly formed homage to the bustling and cramped bars of Andalusia and provided an authentic place to taste Gonzalez Byass sherries and to test out that Andalusian food and wine matching advice.
We started with a taste of something that most wine drinkers don't get the chance to taste – mosto, or the base wine made from Palomino grapes that forms the departure point of fino, before it is fortified.
Dear reader, you're not missing anything. It did, though, afford me a Proustian flashback to Spain in the 1970s and a family holiday on the Costa Brava. Remember those super-sized oil and vinegar glass vessels (pictured left and called a porron) filled with something loosely called wine, which hapless tourists were expected to drink from? Same stuff.
The fascination comes when you go on to taste Tio Pepe, the final product of this wine, once it has been fortified and aged in soleras under a protective layer of yeast (flor) for three years. The flabbiness and weight have gone and in their place are the crisp freshness and dryness which make fino the finest aperitif. There is also that unique mix of aromas and flavours which are hard to define (apple, almonds, rubber?) but easy to recognize.
Tio Pepe is a benchmark for fino, but our next taste was of his sexier, more flamboyant brother: Tio Pepe En Rama. En rama literally means twig and has the sense of raw, which in this case means that the wine is unfined and unfiltered. Essentially it's fino with the volume turned up, or nothing added, nothing taken away, Shredded Wheat style.
The colour is deeper and the flavours are more pronounced and it feels weightier, making this a great food wine. The only downside is that limited quantities are available each year, following a small bottling run in the spring. This year's stock is no longer commercially available, having been already snapped up, mostly by people in the wine trade.
Moving up a level of maturity, we tasted Viña AB Amontillado. Amontillados start their life in the same way as fino, maturing in barrel under a layer of flor. At Gonzalez Byass they then leave casks destined for Amontillado to their own devices. Over time evaporation means that the level of alcohol becomes too high for the yeast to flourish – eventually it dies off completely. Once the flor has gone, with it goes protection from oxygen and the wine undergoes oxidative ageing, giving it a darker colour and very different flavours.
Ten years old, still bone dry, and retaining some of the appley character of fino, but with flavours of caramel, golden syrup and nuts and a hugely long finish. Wonderfully balanced and a great companion to some jamon iberico (jabugo if you can stretch to it). It's still only 16% alcohol, which seems to contribute to the lovely poise and balance.
Del Duque 30 year old Amontillado is essentially the AB left to age in solera for a further 20 years. The wonderful aromas evoke Christmas: nuts, grilled almonds, dried fruits, beeswax and something floral. Length, poise and power.
The first thing anyone learns about sherry is that it is aged in solera, where small amounts of younger wines are continually added to the older barrels, resulting in a blending process which means that sherries are always based on an average age of the wines involved.
Now I discover that they set aside a number of butts each year which never get involved in the solera system, producing something I thought didn't exist: vintage sherry.
We were treated to a taste of Añada 1982: gorgeously fragrant, with nutty and mouthwatering complexity.
Apostoles 30 year old Palo Cortado and Matusalem 30 year old Oloroso Dulce are two old friends from my days at Oddbins. One of these would always be available for tasting in the run up to Christmas – and we had to taste along with the customers, rude not to.
Palo Cortado is a sherry style with myths surrounding it – that it started its life as a fino, but somehow veered off the usual path during ageing and transformed itself instead into an Oloroso.
The truth is, of course, more prosaic. Sherry producers know what they are doing and if they want to make a Palo Cortado, they will. Essentially it is the lightest style of Oloroso which often smells like Amontillado but tastes more like Oloroso.
The Apostoles has wonderful smoky, Tia Maria notes on the nose. The palate is sweet (sweet wine from PX grapes is added after ten years in cask) and it is apparently a great match for pheasant.
Sometimes sherry is so good, it's almost obscene. Just sniffing the Matusalem made me sigh inadvertently. Need I say more? Oh OK, sweet-sour combinations of bitter chocolate, savoury meatiness and a finish longer than January.
At the extreme end of sherry are the Pxs – intensely sweet, dark, sticky sherries made from the Pedro Ximenez grape. If you want to try one, don't muck about and head straight for Noë 30 year old Pedro Ximenez. It's like a crazy cocktail of soy sauce, treacle and the best, most expensive balsamic vinegar. It has a mind-boggling 400 grams of sugar per litre, so don't tell your dentist.
Recommended retail prices
Tio Pepe Fino - £9.99
Tio Pepe En Rama - £11.99 (not available until next year)
Viña AB Amontillado - £11.99
Gonzalez Byass Añada 1982 - £70 (not commercially available)
Apostoles - £16.49 (37.5 cl)
Matusalem - £16.49 (37.5 cl)
Noë - £16.49 (37.5 cl)