True sherry from vineyard region of Jerez may gain well-deserved popularity

March 06, 1994|By William Rice | William Rice,Chicago Tribune

The English writer Jan Read makes the case for sherry concisely and persuasively when he writes: "A glass of chilled fino remains the most satisfactory preliminary to a meal and the least likely to interfere with what follows."

Though a few champagne lovers might quibble, sherry does refresh and stimulate the palate and the appetite very effectively. But even in this period of unprecedented experimentation by consumers of wine and spirits, sherry -- which can be light or dark and dry or sweet -- remains underappreciated and misunderstood.

That is due to the relative paucity of Spanish restaurants in this country (sherry is indigenous to Spain) as well as the disservice done sherry by mass-market producers who supply bartenders with dull sherries of indifferent quality under a confusing array of names. Consumers might also allow a partially empty bottle of fino, the most delicate of sherries, to wither at room temperature. (Once open, a fino should be stored in a refrigerator, served chilled and not be allowed to linger.)

But things are changing. The increasing popularity of light and informal dining in this country has created a demand for tapas, the snack foods customarily served in Spanish bars and taverns, and an opportunity to sell sherry or other Spanish wines to accompany them.

Before ordering, however, the uninitiated will benefit from knowing some sherry lore and the various forms the wine takes.

True sherry comes from a vineyard region in southwest Spain near Cadiz and centered on the town of Jerez de la Frontera, or Jerez (Anglicized into "sherry") for short. The region's two dominant grapes are both white: the palomino (for dry sherries) and the Pedro Ximenez (for sweet sherries). Initial vinification of both is standard, as for white wines. Their transformation into sherry begins with the addition of a spirit to raise the alcohol level from the normal 12 to 14 degrees to 16 to 18. It is aged in contact with the air, a process that would quickly ruin most other wines. But instead of oxidizing, the palomino wines form a protective layer of yeast called a flor. More strongly fortified, the Pedro Ximenez wines form less flor and take on a darker color and deeper flavor.

Another distinction is that the barrels of sherry are stored in a tiered configuration called a solera. The oldest wines are on the bottom, with barrels of progressively younger wines stored above them. Sherry for bottling is drawn from only the bottom barrel. This bottom barrel is refilled from the barrel above it, and that barrel in turn is refilled from the one above it, and so on. Thus there are no vintage sherries because every barrel -- except those in the most recent, or topmost, tier of a solera -- contains a mix from various years.

Sherries are also classified according to sweetness. Fino ("fine") is very dry and relatively light. Amontillado (from the town of Montilla) is dry or semidry and is fuller, golden brown and notably nutty. These two categories go well with soups and appetizers as well as with tapas. And oloroso ("fragrant") is dark, rich and sweet (with a few exceptions, intended for connoisseurs) and provides the cream sherries served with or after dessert.

In addition to the sherries available in Spanish restaurants, Printer's Row restaurant in Chicago has been matching appetizers with several sherries, and chef Allen Sternweiler has created a recipe that pairs sherry with scallops.

Scallops poached with sherry and saffron

Makes 2 appetizer servings

1/3 pound (5 ounces) sea scallops

salt (kosher is preferred) and freshly ground pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons couscous, cooked by package directions

1 cup medium-dry oloroso sherry

1/2 cup chicken broth

2 pinches saffron

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 plum tomato, seeded and chopped

1 cooked artichoke heart, quartered

1 tablespoon chopped black olives

6 orange segments

1 teaspoon chopped marjoram

1 teaspoon chopped parsley

1/4 roasted red bell pepper, cut in julienne strips

1 1/2 ounces prosciutto, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

Allow scallops to come to room temperature, pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Divide couscous between two soup bowls and keep warm in the oven.

In a small saucepan, combine sherry, broth, saffron, garlic, tomato, artichoke quarters and olives. Bring wine to a simmer, add scallops and, when wine returns to a simmer, cover pan and poach scallops for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes or until they're cooked medium-rare or medium.

Remove cover and stir in orange segments, marjoram, parsley, roasted pepper, prosciutto and olive oil. Simmer 1 minute, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon into bowls and serve immediately with the sherry used for cooking or a fresh, fruity, young red wine.

Blue cheese with sherry

Makes 12 to 16 servings

1 tablespoon oloroso sherry

1/2 pound blue-veined cheese, Spanish cabrales preferred, at room temperature

several grinds of pepper

12 to 16 thin slices of French bread, toasted, or cheese crackers

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