Whizzing through the vastness of central Spain, approaching Madrid at 250 km/hour on the excellent Spanish railway system. My Sherry adventure behind me – though of course I hope I’m carrying something useful away.
As well, that is, as a few bottles of fine sherry to drink at leisure sometime back home. Angela Lloyd told me of a tweet from the British wine writer Robert Joseph, travelling in Andalusia and lamenting the fact that even here he could not find sherry in the shops: “If not here, then where?”.
Sadly true. In Jerez itself, I found it very hard to find any for sale at the more serious level, and regretted I’d neglected to buy any at the bodegas I visited. In fact, I didn’t see a single wine shop in the whole of Jerez (there’s apparently a good one in the other important sherry town of Sanlucar de Barrameda). Eventually I found some good bottles tucked away in a shop offering mostly crummy souvenirs!
(Gosh. There I was, looking out of the train window shortly before reaching Cordoba, thinking how dreary the vista was – when rather suddenly there was a small rocky mountain with a splendidly turreted medieval castle perched atop. Spain is replete with surprises.)
And sherry too is full of surprises and, again and again, exceptions to any rules there might seem to be. In fact, a new awareness of its complexities – both of flavour and of categorisation – is maybe what I’m primarily taking away. Palo Cortado for example – admittedly probably the most complicated of the main sherry styles. I thought I was getting a grip on it (despite being aware of inevitable exceptions to just about everything I thought I knew), when I was confronted with two glasses and reminded that, of course, palo cortado can have its origin in either amontillado or oloroso. Which is going to make quite a difference. I kept on working.
But this is part of the wonder of wine, as we all know. The more you learn, the more you realise how much more there is to discover – and enjoy.
On my last night in Jerez, at a tapas bar, we tried some old sherries. Old, that is, in the sense in which we usually speak of “old” wines: aged in the bottle. The conventional wisdom these days is that bottle age for sherry is pretty irrelevant, and even damaging for fino and manzanilla which, the producers and many commentators say, should be drunk as early as possible after bottling.
Not at all, say some great experts. The person who had organised my trip to these parts, Jesùs Barquin as finishing off a book on sherry together with the American wine writer Peter Liem, who was also here. They are pretty insistent in the book, apparently (it’s due out later this year) that good fino and manzanilla will benefit from at least a few years in the bottle, like any good wine. The older, more complex styles like amontillado and palo cortado, and fine oloroso, will grown in complexity even more, over many more years. In the old days of sherry’s greatest renown it was apparently taken for granted, but, like many other great traditions involved in the production and presentation of this wonderful wine, this has been forgotten or neglected.
What I really can’t get my head around, however, is just how many olive trees there are in Spain.