Sherry Tasting with Cesar Saldaña & Steve Olson at No. 9 Park
Within minutes of entering No. 9 Park last Friday at noon, I was floating on a sherry high. The room was alight with the aromas of yeast and brine and barrel. All the minerals I had offered up minutes earlier during my hot yoga class were being replenished by Javier Hidalgo’s Manzanilla La Gitana, which is the best choice for rehydration as it is light, focused, and fervently mineral.
Cat Silirie and Melody Reynolds, who will be referred to as The Angels of Food and Wine Pairing from this point on, beckoned us to the table so that the tasting could begin. A passionate introduction was given by Steve Olson, president and owner of A.K.A. Wine Geeks, the company charged with the grand task of promoting Jerez. Steve explained how in order to truly catapult Jerez back into the forefront of the serious wine-drinking world, he needed to “bring it back to cool again.” Cesar Saldaña, Director of the Regulating Council of Jerez, beamed unabashedly at his sherry-smitten disciple. Olson is articulate, clever, and tireless, and has contributed enormously to how indescribably cool sherry is indeed today.
Be proud, my Taberna servers, we’ve been serving and drinking sherry since looooong before it was cool. If anyone asks, we had 9 sherries on our list back in 1998, all by Emilio Lustau. We featured one from each genre, a showcase that was clear and educational as well as delicious: manzanilla, fino, amontillado, almacenista amontillado, dry oloroso, sweet oloroso, almacenista oloroso, Pedro Ximénez, and tintilla de Rota. (The things we love now, pasadas, en ramas, and limited bottlings were still a decade away from Boston). There the collection stayed until I became rather un-cool-ly obsessed in about 2012, and now our list is at 62 sherries. And counting...
Back to the tasting at No. 9 Park. Cesar guided us through each of 21 sherries, carefully grouped into four thoughtful flights. His immeasurable love for sherry rang clear with every articulate and educational explanation he gave. it was thrilling for me to listen to 3 hours of discussion on one of my favorite topics in the world, sherry, and I’d like to share it with you.
Lunch began with a plate of branzino crudo that was both stark and sexy, and as I tore at those pieces of fish, decorated with grapefruit, castelvetrano olives, and purslane, I was struck with how melodious grapefruit is with manzanilla and fino! In Spain they don’t really cook with grapefruit, so it was a new sensation for me to drink my La Guita, a rich and romantic style of manzanilla that I’ve loved since the ‘80s, with the pluck of grapefruit. La Guita is made by Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín, purchased by the Grupo Estévez back in 2007, and still the best-selling manzanilla in southern Spain. Its sapid tang puts me right every time. Do recommend it to any guests who appear wan or disengaged!
The Lustau Fino Puerto Fino was as petrol-scented and nervy as ever. A manly fino, it feels like an offering from beach’s oldest and deepest sands. This is the fino we love to pair with jamón ibérico at Taberna. TheGonzalez Byass Tio Pepe, a fino that Cesar said was “like milk in his house growing up” (why didn’t I live there???), had the elegant almond lilt that I love now, and adored back in Madrid because it was the brand that always available even in the randomest of bars. It is a 4-5 year old fino, with depth and a history that is palpable on the palate. The brand dates back to 1844! It, too, was delightful with the delicate fish and bitter grapefruit.
There was another Gonzalez Byass fino in this flight, one I hope, dear servers, to offer very soon on our ever-expanding list. Called Dos Palmas Fino, it is a sherry blessed with a particularly vigorous flor (surviving 7-8 years!) to create a wine of unusual finesse. The word palmas refers to the symbol written in chalk on the cask, a little palm tree-like figure. Two palmas are better than one - more elegance and complexity. This finohad pretty notes of oxidation, traces of light fruit, and flowers slowly drying but still beautiful. Soon, I promise!
Our final fino in the flight was the Valdespino Ynocente , an astonishing specimen made from grapes exclusively from the prized and chalky Macharnudo vineyard, that is an average of 10 years old when bottled! As you know, it is also the last remaining fino to be fermented in oak cask. (By the way, the Tio Diego Amontillado is made from a parallel solera, under flor for 8 years, and then aged oxidatively for another 7-8 years).
The Angels chose for our next flight a dish of 4 different squashes, each exquisitely and uniquely prepared, garnished with speck, burrata, and marjoram. Although I could eat this for breakfast daily from September to January, it was truly THE thing with the rare sherries we tasted. Not tea. First was a Manzanilla en Rama by Barbadillo called Solear, a wildly popular brand in southern Spain. It smelled of focaccia dough with pungent chrysanthemum notes and mellow dried apple. Ten years old and unfiltered, the golden beams of acidity were still bright. Chalk and limestone shone through the chamomile. Terribly torturous since we don’t have it in Boston, but I will see who I have to nudge to get it for us.
Also absent from our market and impressive for its gravitas was the Fernando de Castilla Antique Fino. Ten years old, it was subtly oxidized, with notes of French bread crust, light petrol, and groovy minerals. The next wine is one we love to sell at Taberna de Haro, the Viña AB Amontillado. It is more fino thanamontillado, spending 4 years under flor followed by a long, slow natural dying off of said flor rather than the traditional, quick death-by-fortification of 17º alcohol. It spends another 4 years aging oxidatively, and ends up at 16.5% alcohol, which is low for amontillado. It is unique and redolent of orange, still attached to its finofirst family in every way - tangy, pungent, and relatively light. It is simply dreamy with our lemony roasted chicken.
Still savoring my squash still-life, I swooned over the Napoleon Amontillado by Hidalgo. Made with the La Gitana solera, it still bristles with its minerally manzanilla past-life while blossoming with dried apricots and toasted pecans. Heady and gorgeous stuff. It shared a space in my heart with the Principe Amontillado by Barbadillo, a 20 year old amontillado (from their manzanilla pasada solera). Glorious, silky, and redolent of cepes, it was a lovely end to the flight. Barbadillo is another brand we must bring to Taberna, ¡¡cuanto antes!!
The Pairing Angels, and their chef de cuisine Ben Weissberger, prepared a third course of Colorado lamb with artichokes, anchovy, and olive to be enjoyed with three Palos Cortados and three Olorosos. The Leonor Palo Cortado by Gonzalez Byass was bitter and edgy in an exhilarating way, but the loving touch of glycerine on the tongue balanced the mouth-feel beautifully. I could feel its happiness as it mixed it up with the artichoke! The Obispo Gascon Palo Cortado by Barbadillo was a more sensual affair. There were wild, stony, and yeasty notes buried in the heart of the rich nuttiness and spiced wood. Very round, with an interminable finish. (Remember, anything made by Barbadillo derives from manzanilla as the winery is located in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Amontillados and palos cortados made there begin life as manzanillas, under robust flor, while the olorosos come from the second pressing of the palomino grapes so they have more tannin and structure, and do not spend time under flor, except for the minimal amount in the sobretablaswine, the new wine waiting to be put into the solera system). The final Palo Cortado was by Williams & Humbert, called Dos Cortados VOS. (VOS is Vinum Optimum Signatum, or Very Old Sherry, averaging 20 years of age while VORS is Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum, Very Old Rare Sherry, averaging 30 years of age). It was very rich, with nut butter and orange zest flavors, with dark notes of muscovado sugar in an otherwise light and vibrant wine.
I adore palo cortado. As mysterious and intriguing as it is on the palate, so it is on the intellect. No one truly defines it well. “It falls between an amontillado and an oloroso.” Or, “There’s a moment in the sherry’s life when the capataz decides it should be a palo cortado because of its aromas and structure.” And, “Palos cortados just happen. Certain barrels take on special characteristics distinct from the others in the solera, so they get labeled with the ‘cut stick’ - palo cortado- symbol.” These are lovely, provocative statements that have spawned many a spirited conversation and increased consumption at my table. Lovely, maybe, but neither precise nor helpful.
Enter Cesar Saldaña, whose roots go as deep into the zone as any 100- year old vine. His very DNA understands sherry, and he was born to communicate its complexities. He explained palo cortado so precisely and eloquently I felt sunbeams in my brain! Palos cortados are round and rich because they retain glycerine. This is due to their brief time under flor, usually only 2 - 4 years. Compare this with amontillado, which spends up to 7 or 8 years under flor, long enough for all the glycerine to be consumed by the hungryflor. Remember, glycerine is a nutrient key to the flor’s survival. The absence of glycerine in amontilladomakes it lean, racy, and sculpted. The presence of glycerine in palo cortado makes it voluptuous, smooth, and plumper. And how exactly is this achieved? Palo cortado is made by taking a young fino or manzanillawith particularly full-body and structure and ushering it through the oxidative aging process early in its life. In essence, you take a fino or manzanilla that excels for its big-boned nature, you fortify it up to 18% or 19%, and you let it age in those old barrels from 5 to 30 years. With amontillado, on the other hand, you push theflor to its limit, 7-8 years, and then when it is losing its vigor, you fortify the wine up to 17% and age it oxidatively in barrels. Simply wondrous, no? (I’ll be asking each of you during this week to talk to me about this, so take it all in...).
Back to the tasting where the olorosos waited patiently to be consumed with perfectly cooked lamb, a rare loin slice and a braised belly piece. Fernando de Castilla’s Antique Oloroso was dry, lean, nutty and intense while the Dry Sack 15 Year Solera Especial Oloroso was rich and layered with fig and maple. Finally, the VOS Royal Corregidor Oloroso by Sandeman was a dark and lush treat from a soleraestablished in 1894. Sweetened with Pedro Ximénez, the wine was a harmonious show of coffee and toffee.
And on we moved to Pedro Ximenez and moscatel, two grape varieties whose thin skin makes them apt for drying. After harvest, they are left to dry on straw mats in the hot Andalucían sun for 4-12 days, concentrating their sugars from about 12 to 25 beaumé. The acids are concentrated as well, which allows for such sweet wines that are also pleasing and balanced. All sugar and no acid makes Pedro a dull boy, as they say. With these sweethearts, we were served a Mexican chocolate panna cotta with cinnamon, orange pieces, and popped caramel corn. Sublime. The chocolate was focused and meaningful, not too sweet, and energized by the orange. It was perfect with all four dessert wines. First, the Emilio Lustau East India Solera, created in memory of the wines that used to travel by boat to the East Indies and sometimes back again, is made ofoloroso and Pedro Ximénez, aged separately for 10 years, blended, then aged together for 3 more. It is truffly, nutty, sweet, and lovely, and, as you know, has long been a house favorite dessert wine at Taberna de Haro. Lustau’s Emilín moscatel is a bouncy, citrusy burst of sweet sunshine, with its sandy soils showing through the orange marmalade decadence. Beautiful with the chocolate and orange, despite its 300 grams of residual sugar. I also love this wine with Payoyo cheese.
The final two wines were pure Pedro Ximénez, dark and sultry. Valdespino’s El Candado is a raisiny delight balanced by firm tea-like qualities. The Noe, a VORS Pedro Ximénez by Gonzalez Byass, caused my nose to quiver and my mind to reel with its pronounced aromas of ancho and guajillo peppers. So roasted and piquant, so obviously sweet but unique, the wine had the classic orange-tinged date and molasses characteristics, but I was thoroughly captivated by the chipotle parade wafting by. With 450 grams of residual sugar, it is the sweetest wine in the world, but divinely drinkable and not at all cloying. I’ve decided I need to create a dessert all our own at Taberna to pair with this special wine.
As always, bring on your questions and comments. How much sherry can YOU sell this fall?? Make me proud. Make the talented and brilliant Cesar Saldaña and Steve Olson proud!