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Let's Raise a Glass to Sweet History of Sherry, Madeira

By Jim Hammond
Of the Journal
    The end of the holiday season has come too swiftly once again, but what can we do to keep warm in January's wintry grasp? Along with port wines discussed last month, two other fortified wines are available to help take the nip out of the air.
    Sherry from Spain and Madeira from the island of the same name are good choices, but they differ significantly from the production methods that create port.
    Sherry is made around the town of Jerez, where wine has been made since 1100 B.C. That's a heck of a long tradition. The "sherry triangle" includes the southern tip of Spain with Jerez as its most significant city. All grapes must come from this area to qualify as sherry, and they are regulated by strict guidelines.
    The Moors conquered the region in 711 A.D. and introduced distillation, which led to brandy and fortified wines. The Arab name Seris (pronounced Sherish) formed the English word sherry and the Spanish xerez.
    According to the Quran, consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited, but that didn't stop them from selling it. In A.D. 966, Caliph Al-Hakam II ordered the destruction of the vineyards. Fortunately, some level-headed souls claimed that the vineyards also provided raisins for the empire's soldiers and averted what would surely have been a disaster for sherry drinkers everywhere. Whether the raisins were any good, no one knows.
From dry to dark
    There are many types of sherry. Most are dry compared to port. Fino and manzanilla sherry are the driest and palest. Amontillado is darker and sweeter, a more approachable wine that doesn't overpower the palate. Oloroso is aged oxidatively and is darker and richer.
    The Palomino grape is the principal grape for all the dry sherries, while the Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel (Muscat) grapes are used for the sweeter sherries or blended with the dry sherries to produce a range of sweeter wines that include the popular cream sherries.
    Once the wine has fermented it is placed in large oak barrels or "botas" where the flor, a creamy head of yeasts that aid in the maturation of the wine, is formed. The barrel is only partially filled, leaving a volume of air "two fists high." (Yes, but whose fists are we using, and do they have to be "on hand" each time the wine is racked?)
    Those wines that will be classified as fino or amontillado have the wine-distillate added to bring the alcohol up to 15 percent. Wine classified as oloroso will have an alcohol level of 17 percent, which will prevent the flor from forming. This will increase the oxidation of the wine. Amontillado wines are created when the flor dissolves early, naturally or as a decision of the winemaker, and oxidation completes the maturation of the sherry.
    The solera system, Spain's age-old blending and maturation winemaking style, consists of tiers of wine in three to four levels, with the oldest wine on the bottom. Wine is drawn off from the lowest level and replaced with wine from the level above and so on until the top level is replenished. Thus some of the oldest wine is present in each bottling.
    I suggest starting with an amontillado and work up or down the range based on what your palate prefers. Try it with baklava, but keep your sticky fingers off the bottle.
Whimsy of Malmsey
    Madeira is a fortified wine from Madeira Island off the coast of Portugal. Prince Henry the Navigator— not a wine merchant— is credited with the discovery of the island, and its potential as a vineyard island. He imported Malvasia vines, which the Venetians employed to create a high-demand sweet wine. Once production was going, the English switched to the more economical Madeira, which they called Malmsey.
    Madeira figures heavily in our early history. John Hancock's sloop, the Liberty, was seized after 3,150 gallons of Madeira were unloaded on the Boston docks. A dispute arose over import duties, which led to riots in the streets. Going to war over a tea tax I don't get, but over Madeira, now that makes sense.
    There are four types of Madeira: Malvasia, Boal, Verdelho and Sercial. Malmsey (Malvasia) also appears in English literature: Shakespeare had the Duke of Clarence drowned in a butt of Malmsey. I prefer my wine is smaller quantities. Salut!
    Jim Hammond has been exploring wines in North America, Europe and Australia for more than 20 years. A published author, he includes information about wine in every book. You can reach Jim at jim@jim-hammond.com.