Sherry (“Xerez” in Spanish) is made in the region of the same name on the southern tip of Spain near Gibraltar. There, Palomino grapes are grown on chalky soils called albariza. The grapes are fermented into dry wines, then fortified and placed into large, 500L oak barrels. Some of these barrels develop a thick layer of yeast called flor (literally “flower”).
Flor is naturally occurring, unpredictable, and can’t be induced or controlled once it occurs! When it does form, the wine ages underneath without oxidizing, resulting in what is known as a fino Sherry. If the flor forms, but then dies off or doesn’t develop, the wine, if deemed rich and robust enough, is fortified a bit more and then allowed to slowly oxidize and become an amontillado. If a flor does not form at all, the wine will be fortified further and will be aged in wooden barrels to become a richer and darker oloroso Sherry. In the case of amontillado and oloroso styles of Sherry, exposure to oxygen turns the wine a coppery color, and encourages the development of toasty, nutty aromas. Yum.
El Maestro Sierra is a small Sherry house, founded in 1832 by a master barrel-maker named José Antonio Sierra. The current owner, Pilar Pla Pechovierto, is the widow of one of Sierra’s direct descendants. The current cellar master or capataz is Juan Clarijo. He grew up around the winery and has lived there his whole life. As the capataz, Juan decides which wines will become finos and which amontillados. Because they can see the Atlantic Ocean from their property, there is an uninterrupted path for the winds from the sea to reach their cellar, ensuring that the flor develops easily all year round.
There are two major flavors you can’t escape when you taste this lovely 12-year aged Sherry: almonds and sea salt. Our domestic cheese buyer, Sarah, has been steadily tasting through all of our Sherry offerings, and this amontillado from El Maestro Sierra is her favorite. It makes a lovely aperitif (especially in the afternoon) with a simple plate of salty cheese, almonds and olives. It’s also a traditional pairing with a soup course. For all of you film buffs – in Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, an amontillado Sherry is served with the turtle soup!
A side note about “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe:
“The Cask of Amontillado” is the story of Montresor’s revenge on his former friend Fortunato, in which Fortunato is lured into the catacombs by the promise of a rare amontillado. The story takes place in an unnamed Italian town, but Poe’s inspiration for the tale came from right here in Boston. Poe heard of a similar event that had taken place in the dungeons under the fort on Castle Island in South Boston while he was stationed there during his stint in the army in 1827. Sherry was not specifically involved in the original scenario, but we think it makes a nice touch!
Julie Cappellano is the General Manager and wine buyer at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.
Following our post, we received this message from a reader:
I enjoyed reading your story on sherry.
When growing up in Chicago many years ago, we would occasionally go to the Cape Cod Room in the Drake Hotel for a very special dinner.
They served their version of Bookbinder soup along with some (fino?) sherry on the side. The link below takes you to the recipe.