The title of Ben Howkins new book, ‘Sherry - Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent’ sums up the facets of the image problem that sherry is currently experiencing. Last weekend I got round to reading the final chapters of Ian Maxwell Campbell’s memoir of a life in the wine trade, ‘The Wayward Tendrils of the Vine’ published in 1948. The one but last chapter is titled ‘Sherry at Home’ and in it the author writes:
‘Sherry needs no acclaiming from the housetops today, with its popularity so well assured… but it spent nearly forty years in the wilderness of fashionable neglect and disfavour, from the eighteen-eighties to the nineteen-twenties.’
It does seem that we are again in the middle of an era of fashionable neglect and disfavour. I know very few people these days who regularly drink sherry and I count myself among a band of infrequent sherry imbibers, however, after this tasting, I am sure that is going to change.
The book launch
Steven Spurrier introduced the launch at 67 Pall Mall on behalf of the Academie Du Vin Library publishing house which is essentially a small boutique publisher whose raison d’etre is to ensure that the very best wine writing of the past and the present is able to survive the passage of time. This is their third book launched and one that seems to straddle a nostalgia for a time when sherry was revered, with the need today for a revival.
Tasting the Treasures of the Bodegas
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The book launch aspect of this event was short-lived as we quickly moved into the aptly named tasting, ‘The Treasures of the Bodegas’. Ben Howkins passed the baton on to Beltrån Domecq, President of the Consejo Regulador de Jerez, who led us to a sensorial place where these rare wines really took over the show.
We started with a Tradición Old Fino, a very pale translucent amber hue, green cooking apple aroma with nutty and yeastiness. Super dry in the mouth but with a long almondy finish that is perfectly satisfying. What I enjoyed about this experience was allowing the aromas and flavours to permeate the senses in an intoxicating way. There is something elegant and magical about this kind of quality Fino.
Gonzalez Byass Single Cask Amontillado En Rama (raw)
With an average ageing in cask of 12 years, the colour moves to a more oxidised deeper yellow pale amber. The nose is pungent green apple that is pursued onto the tastebuds by a very attractive hazelnuttiness.
There is an amazing sensation when the nutty characteristics take over both sense of taste and smell, crowding the mind with pleasure. I noticed a similar sensation recently tasting 20year old Quinta do Noval Tawny Port in the Douro Valley. It is, for me, one of the highlights of tasting these incredible wines and I was very interested to hear Beltrán Domecq reference the sensation calling it retro-nasal effect. The terminology perfectly suits the experience of breathing the flavour while having the residual flavour in the mouth.
These treasures reached their apex when we reached the Barbadillo, Single Private cask Amontillado. The solera method of ageing the wine by continually adding a percentage of the new vintage to the blend over 100 years, adds a huge complexity and layers of aroma and flavour. The beautiful bronze colour with hints of dried fig, old club chesterfield, panatella, a saltiness, nuttiness, great length, life and concentration. This was my Numero Uno of the line-up, although it was not the last.
Next, we were treated to Alonso single cask Amontillado from a solera that began in 1818. With an age of more than 150 years old and zero bottles produced, this was a rarity indeed. Incredible soft dried fruit with leathery tertiary character but with vibrancy, freshness and complexity. This was a great way to end this masterclass tasting.
Takeaways on sherry
It is probably true to say that I arrived at the venue ripe for conversion but in my defence, I would say, with good reason. The Academie Du Vin are promoting a book about sherry by an author who really has a grasp of history, culture and nuances of his subject. For many newcomers who discover these wines, there is no underestimating the value and pleasure of becoming immersed in a subject whilst simultaneously experiencing the sensations of taste that sherry can provide.
There is something amiss when the wider world of food and drink claim to be seeking new heights of pleasure through flavour and taste and yet it is these old classics that actually deliver on the goods.
Perhaps too many people's memories of taking a sherry with granny are tainted by misconception? Whatever it is, sherry is one of those drinks that is ready for a fashionable and favourable revival.
Ben Howkins book, ‘Sherry - Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent’ can be purchased online here. https://academieduvinlibrary.com/product/sherry/
It took around 30 minutes to walk from my office on Bankside to Passo, an Italian restaurant by Old Street station and by the time I arrived I was certainly in the mood for refreshment. This was a small roundtable affair led by young consultant sommelier and educator, Emily Harman.
Having spent a month in the Veneto two summers ago, I was able to make several sorties up to the premium quality and visually beautiful regions of Valdobbiadene and Cartizze. The vineyards bumpily roll off the Dolomites down onto the plains of the Veneto towards Venice and the Adriatic.
The Prosecco DOC region is just beneath these regions and comprises 9 Provinces that include Vicenza, Podova, Venezia and Trieste. What a relief on a hot summers day in Venice, falling off the busy main canals into a creaking bar, to clasp a glass of fresh prosecco and wet the whistle. After a couple of restorative glasses, taking a siesta in the warm sun, lying next to the water's edge with the tip tap of the gondola’s yard, like a metronome, in the background… take me back!
Beyond the romance are some impressive figures. Prosecco DOC produces a staggering 464 million bottles per year, 83.3% of which are sparkling with 16% semi-sparkling. The UK is actually the biggest export market with Germany a close second.
Trends and aspirations
There is a growing trend in Britain towards vegetarianism, veganism, coupled with a desire for more organically produced goods. What was clear from the three wines presented at this tasting was that marketing minds in Prosecco are listening and responding. Each bottle was very clearly labelled as Vegan and Organic.
In the past, it has been common to hear producers state that their wines are organic or biodynamic but that they don’t put it on the label because the wine should speak for itself. At the Prosecco range price points, where people have a value expectation as much as a taste expectation (especially where drinking is seen as a socially relaxing past-time as opposed to a journey into flavour), not labelling clearly is definitely a form of self-harming.
Sustainability - what does it mean?
With every region now rightly scrambling to get their sustainability stories into a consumer-friendly format, the opportunity for companies to use greenwash techniques widens. This literally means ‘green on the outside, dirty on the inside’. So with this in mind, we have to ask ourselves about what we mean by sustainability?
These are on the surface pretty straight forward. We start with minimalising impact on the land and providing corridors of biodiversity large enough for nature to thrive. Water management is a key as is having a detailed audit of your business's carbon footprint and a plan for reducing it at least to zero. But these all seem relatively obvious. Are they enough?
To hell in our shopping basket?
From meetings in climate change that I have been to, there has been a growing concern that we are missing our climate change targets by a long long way and to quote one eminent climate scientist, “I’d say we are going to hell in a handbasket!”
So in terms of considering sustainability, I would add a few more thoughts for consideration. Firstly, how do we go much further than carbon neutral to set ourselves on a path towards being carbon negative? This is clearly needed if we are to preserve a climate that also protects wine production.
Torres demonstrated earlier this year that they are going to start capturing emissions from fermentation and reuse this as methane to power their plant machinery. With 24.5 thousand hectares of land under vine in Prosecco DOC and 1200 winemakers producing 464million bottles, perhaps a similar ambition could prevent many thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gases being emitted and set a big example to other regions around the world? The publicity could be huge too.
Another line of thinking on the subject of sustainability is: what are my own values as a reporter and communicator? How much do I consume and what am advocating? How many long or short flights do I take to wine regions to seek knowledge, or career advantage, or whatever? Can I halve my own carbon footprint in a year? This is not a finger-pointing exercise as much as a meditative one but if I am to talk up sustainability, then do my own values and actions matter?
Overall a thought-provoking evening and very encouraging to see such a large region take positive action to communicate that they are on the journey of grappling with the need for sustainable processes in the face of ever-worsening impacts of climate change.
Tasting notes and reflections
47 Anno Domini Prosecco DOC Extra Dry Organic Vegan Millesimato - a frizzante wine, meaning it has less pressure in the bottle. The sweet peach fruit and gentle bubbles are pleasing. I would agree with Emily that this would make a very nice wine to have after a meal.
Very stylishly packaged and clearly labelled as vegan and organic. At around £10 retail the general consensus was positive.
La Jara Prosecco DOC Brut Organic - Again presented in a very smart bottle. The overt vegan and organic dog-style tags are maybe a little over the top. Is the producer implying that these are safe wines more than good wines? That said, this spumante has more bubbles for the bucks with overt peach and dried pleasing finish. Good quality at a slightly higher retail price of £13.99
Perlage Prosecco DOC Extra Dry Organic “Sgajo” - Again, very smartly produced, justifiably indicating a quality product. This extra dry lower dosage style had a bit of tension between the restrained fruit sweetness and dry fresh mouthfeel. A very good quality prosecco retailing ~£15.
I have had a couple of brushes with the concept of Japanese wine this year but little or no experience of the real thing. The first brush was meeting and interviewing wine writer and author Anthony Rose to discuss his book ‘Sake & The Wines of Japan’ (the interview I will post here soon in audio and transcript version) and the second was in speaking to award-winning sommelier Kelvin McCabe following his return from Japan. Despite this, my palate remained dry.
I gleefully arrived at 67 Pall mall on Wednesday morning for this tasting focussing on the various methods of production and styles that can be achieved. Sarah’s selection was focussed on the Koshu grape variety from the Yamanashi region and showed a good deal of versatility from an artisanal approach that many producers are adopting.
Acidity and delicate flavours
One of the most striking observations for me was the vibrant resonating acidity in many of the Koshu wines tasted. The dry white wines have a very fine citrus fruit element that is carefully preserved by the winemakers. The gastronomic potential was realised in the decision to provide small servings of sushi styled seafood which really showed them off well.
Orange wines in Japan
2018 Prestige Class Orange Koshu
Another very interesting aspect of this tasting was the orange wine served. The two in the masterclass were really delicious. What emerged is that there are strong links between Georgia and Japan, something that is weirdly illustrated in that the current Sumo wrestling champion, Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi, is from Mtskheta, Georgia. Beyond sumo though, there are also a great deal of qvevri (earthenware vessels used for storing and ageing wine buried in the ground) in use. I particularly liked the Prestige Class, Orange Koshu 2018 from Chateau Lumiere.
Japanese Koshu thriving
Although Koshu has an unknown origin (rumoured to be from the vicinity of the Caucasus) it has been growing in Katsunuma, Yamanashi for at least a thousand years, taken to Japan, allegedly, by traders along the silk roads. Japan has a notoriously challenging climate for wine growth and growers resort to all kinds of meticulous tactics to protect fruit, such as placing little covers over the bunches on the vine as cover from the rain. That said, the Koshu grape has obviously thrived here and is well worth tasting now that exports are growing and appearances on winelists becoming more common.
Koshu masterclass wine tasting notes
Sparkling Koshu - Château Lumiere (11% alc.)
Slight pink tinge, Brut Nature (zero dosage) traditional method - Bright citrus, slightly tropical, biscuit aroma. Great acidity, very refreshing and vibrant. Leaves the mouth clean and dry. Would pair beautifully with full-flavoured shellfish.
Yamanashi Koshu Chateau Mercian 2018
Fermented in steel, 18-20°C for 14days - Aged in steel and oak barrel. Slight citrus, apple aroma. That gorgeous acidity again that resonates in the mouth. Obvious food pairing wine. My mind conjured crab, sea bass. Retail from £14.75
Haramo Koshu 2017 (11.5% alc.)
Aged on lees for 5 months. Fermented in enamel tank with selected dry yeast. Flinty, floral, much rounder and textured with more vegetal character. Long.
Delicious with the yellow tuna tartare, yuzu dressing, avocado mousse on plain top crisp.
4 Sol Lucet Koshu, Kurambon Wine.
Winemaker to watch: Takahiko Nozawa trained in Beaune, converted domain to Biodynamic production. Embraced sustainability. Very hands-on. Concentrating on canopy management.
Slightly sweet fruity aroma. Really lovely sweet ripe fruit flavour with balanced attractive acidity. Really nice texture and length. £24.90
5 Traditional Rich Taste Koshu, 2018, Soryu
Set up in 1899, vineyards on well-drained soils on banks of Hikawa River. Hiromi Suzuki (4th generation). Lees aged. Restrained citrus aroma. Textured, full umami flavour, nice acidity with clean finish after a big start. Like this.
6 Grace Private Reserve Koshu - Grace Wine
Uplifting citrus aroma, mineral, aromatic character. Lovely acidity, vibrant in the mouth with a persistence that is welcome.
Aruba Branca Pipa Koshu, 2016 - Katsunuma winery (11.5% alc.)
Fermented in barrel, aged for 2 months. 22% new oak. More golden colour, more apple, calvados aroma, nice balanced use of oak. Really succulent mouth-coating wine. Goes really well with the loch Duart salmon tartare with capers and créme fraiche. They both stand up to each other and are complementary in length and flavour.
Feufuki Koshi Gris de Gris 2018- Chateau Mercian - orange wine
Beautiful orange colour - Fermented in oak, punched down and pressed, thermo maceration.
Tangy mandarin skin, zingy in the mouth, dry finish from the firm but light touch tannin.
Prestige Class Orange Koshu 2018 - Château Lumiere
100% Koshu fermented by carbonic maceration with 2 weeks skin contact.
Founded in 1885 by Tokugi Furiya.
5th gen Shigeki Kida in charge
Apricot aroma, orange zest,
Wow, really beautiful impression in the mouth. Rich but earthy apricot and zest.
2018 Barrel Aged Muscat Bailey A - Soryu (Dry)
Sourced from Hosaka, prized for this variety.
Bright sour cherry, strawberry, lavender, Beaujolais character, translucent red/purple. Very balanced and smooth - spicy oriental duck perhaps?