Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Sherry and tapas: the perfect marriage?

I'm a huge Sherry fan. I think it's the most underrated and unappreciated wine in the world. When you say Sherry, most people think of their Grandma reaching for the Harvey's Bristol Cream at Christmas, but there's so much more to it. Sherry is the most versatile wine style. It runs the gamut of the flavour spectrum, from bone dry to treacle sweet. My favourite styles lie somewhere in between.

Sherry and food matching is an exciting arena for experimentation. So much so that culinary alchemist Heston Blumenthal wrote a foreword in a book on the topic, The Perfect Marriage: the Art of Matching Food and Sherry. Heston has been doing a great job alongside Wines of Sherry in promoting Sherry as the perfect food partner.

I went to an event he hosted at Shoreditch House just over a year ago where he'd created a special tasting menu of Sherry and food pairings. The dishes were sensational – Fino with Gruyere fondue, Amontillado with Pata Negra ham, peach and almond, Oloroso with smocked mackerel and Pale Cream with warm quails egg Scotch eggs.

It's a common misconception that you can only drink Sherry as a desert wine. According to Heston, it 'delivers in the mid-tongue acidity area making food perceptibly juicier'. Sherry literally whets the appetite and acts as a taste booster. It also contains compounds that enhance the flavour of foods rich in Umami, the elusive fifth 'savoury' taste, such as meat, fish, Parmesan cheese and shiitake mushrooms.

Last Friday I headed down to the West London Wine School for a Sherry and food pairing event hosted by my flatmate and director of the school, Jimmy Smith. Like me, Jimmy is a Sherry nut, and used the tasting as a platform to try out some exciting new pairings.

Seven wines were on show, from the salty La Gitana Manzanilla to the super sweet Gonzales Byass Nectar Pedro Ximenez NV. Following Heston's philosophy that 'the most exhilarating and enjoyable moments in food are often those when the contrast is at its greatest', Jimmy pushed the experimental envelope with his matches, pairing the Manzanilla with sardine and green apple. It worked surprisingly well. The acidity of the apple enhanced the natural acidity in the wine, giving it extra freshness and lift, while the saltiness of the sardine emulated the wine's sea air aromas on the nose and palate.

My favourite match was Amontillado and gingerbread. The two flavour profiles harmonized beautifully, weaving in and out of one another to the point where the one became indistinguishable from the other. The sweet spice of the gingerbread fused with the nuttiness of the Amontillado, creating more rounded, rich and complex flavours in the wine. It exemplified the Platonic ideal of the coming together of two perfect halves. My tastebuds were in heaven.

The Lustau 15-year-old Dry Oloroso, with its heady nose of orange peel, cinnamon and sweet spice went deliciously well with one of Jimmy's more adventurous matches: Manchego cheese and golden syrup. For his final trick, Jimmy offered up the classic Sherry and food pairing: PX and vanilla ice cream. PX is my least favourite Sherry style, as I find it a bit too sweet, but when tasted with spoonfuls of vanilla Häagen-Dazs, it takes on a more subtle flavour profile. The pairing is inspired.

The wine of the night was the Gonzales Byass Apostoles 30-year-old Palo Cortado. It had a fascinating nose unlike any of the other wines we tried. Tropical and sweet, it was almost rum-like, with vanilla and desiccated coconut taking centre stage. The unctuous palate was tangy and rich, bursting with hazelnuts, toffee and caramel. London's first Sherry bar opens next week – I'll be first in line with my tasting glass.

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