What I Drank on my Summer Vacation

Didn't you love this back-to-school ritual, the essay on What I Did on my Summer Vacation? Here's my big girl adaptation.  

The "Aperitivo" Movement

If I were to start a movement, it would be to import the notion of the aperitf - aperitivo in Spanish - into our bustling North American lives. Too sensitive for politics and too cowardly for seismic social reform, I would prefer to have a little impact on our quality of life. Food and wine are the fodder and dew that sustain us, and if we'd just spin less and savor more, we'd be happier and healthier. The Protestant work ethic runs deep in my veins, but my recent trip to Jerez showed me how acutely we need some peace injected into our eating habits.

Before lunch and dinner, the Jerezanos, like many Europeans, enjoy an aperitivo, the little drink and nibble that precedes a meal, meant to open the appetite. They've never heard the term localvore, but they know to drink the gorgeous wine of their land, sherry. A light and dry sherry such as fino or manzanilla, cleans the palate with its sea-spray salinity and preserved-lemon acidity. The tangy and yeasty notes make it unique and satisfying. Both pair fabulously with challenging foods such as cured ham, olives, anchovies, vinaigrettes, asparagus, artichokes, and salt cod to name a few. Most wines wither and writhe when faced with such intense foods, but fino and manzanilla shine. If the day is cool, an amontillado would serve the same appetite-inducing, nosh-pairing purpose.

I have been in love with manzanilla since I lived in Madrid in the 90's. It is slightly lighter and more saline than fino, which I also adore and crave almost daily, especially since my above-mentioned trip. They are special, and here is why. After harvesting the palomino grapes and fermenting them in the usual way, the light wine is added to a set of barrels known as a solera system. The barrels are piled 3 or 4 high, and form long rows. Each year after bottling some of the sherry from the bottom barrel, (the solera barrel, named after suelo, which means floor in Spanish), the empty space is refilled with sherry from the barrel just above. This barrel is refilled with some sherry from the barrel above it, and so on. The uppermost barrel, known as the first criadera, will receive the sobretablas wine, the wine made from the most recent harvest. I love the idea that I am drinking tiny amounts of extremely old sherry, fed and flavored by the thick layer of spent yeasts on the bottom of barrels that are almost never cleaned. It feels so healthy to my system to be moistened by an enzyme-laden wine from a solera system!

A miracle happens in these barrels. A layer of bloomy white yeast forms on top of the wine in each barrel. It is called flor, and it can survive only if winemakers take great care. The humidity levels must be kept at 65% minimum, and temperatures must be maintained between 69º and 72º F, which requires much activity in the bodegas. The earthen floors are watered to keep humidity levels high, and the windows in the cathedral-like structures are opened or closed depending on the sun, the time of day, the exposure, and the season. The flor also needs to be fed with new wine every few months,which is called the riego.

The flor confers upon the sherry special qualities. It renders the wine impenetrable by oxygen, so even after years in the barrels, finos and manzanillas are a very pale color since no oxidation is happening. The flor feeds on the alcohol, which means the sherry needs further fortification (with neutral grape spirits). Finos and manzanillas have about 15.5% alcohol. The flor also feeds on glycerol, and the absence of glycerol bares the wine, leaving it lean and racy. In Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the proximity of the Atlantic keeps the temperature and humidity pretty constant, the flor stays thick and vigorous on the surface of the wine. Since Sanlúcar de Barrameda is where all manzanilla is made, manzanillas end up being the more saline, pale, and bright of the sherries. Finos, mostly reared inland where flor waxes and wanes a bit more with the seasons, tend to be ever so slightly more golden, nutty, and intense.

Both are a stunning prelude to a meal. Rich in enzymes, they offer nutrition. Bright with acidity, they start the digestive juices flowing. Complex with minerals and briny notes, they are compelling and enhance your every salty treat.

It's a relaxing, civilized habit to have an aperitivo before a meal. It's always done with friends and family, in bars and cafes, sometimes even at home. It puts a little space between the work and the feast, and allows for a real (as opposed to virtual) social opportunity. Surf less, convene more!

Jerez-Xerés-Sherry-Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda is the name of the D.O. where sherry is made. A lofty title, and worth every dash and letter, I assure you. Next week I'll write about the other sherries, also thrilling: amontillado, palo cortado, oloroso, and pedro ximénez.



Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence