A short ramble, mainly about the world’s most under-priced wine
One of my favourite exhanges in one of my favourite films, Withnail and I, is the following, between Uncle Monty and his nephew's friend, known to us only as 'I':
Uncle Monty: Sherry?
Uncle Monty: Sherry.
I once tried to quote it in a piece I was writing when I was with The Irish Times but the subs got to it and, possibly believing that it would puzzle much of the readership, excised it completely. I knew then that it was no longer the newspaper it once had been, if you follow me.
(Recalling my favourite single line from Withnail and I, namely “Of course he’s the fucking farmer!”, reminds me that I got the word “fucking” into The Sunday Tribune - where it had long been banned by Vincent Browne - on no fewer than two occasions).
This is all rather a roundabout way of introducing my sermon for the week which is on the virtues of sherry in general, the seasonal appropriateness of fino and manzanilla, and the question, which must be on many lips, “what the hell does en rama mean” when applied to the latter?
Sherry is on a bit of a roll these days, having been consigned to the spittoon of history only a couple of decades ago as the world embraced Chardonnay and Shiraz. (I have a vision of Uncle Monty saying, with a sadness and a slightly curled lip: “We live in a world of spritzers and Prosecco…”)
When I was a callow young postgraduate I enjoyed the odd glass of medium amontillado when visiting Charles Guinness and his mother Kitty at Tibradden (Charles’s niece, Selina Guinness, lives there now and has written a splendid memoir called The Crocodile by the Door).
Charles had been an assistant master at Eton before returning to Dublin to teach at St Columba’s** in Rathfarnham which is where I first met him. I don’t know if it still happens, but thirty years ago members of the sixth form at Eton would be entertained to dry sherry by their house tutor, one of whom told me that this was to encourage “civilised and convivial” conversation, which seems like a very good idea. The tradition was known then as "private business”.
Sherry did not loom large, or indeed, at all, at Belvedere in my day. However, the parents of a friend of mine there (Seán Moran, now GAA correspondent of The Irish Times) introduced me to Tio Pepe, the most famous fino of them all, around about my seventeenth birthday. Somewhat later, Carol and Michael Moran – whom God preserve – introduced me to gin and tonic (Gordon’s in the old green bottle and Schweppes) which struck my youthful palate as considerably less austere.
It took me some time to return to Tio Pepe but on the first occasion my future mother-in-law entertained me to lunch, she offered me a glass of it. Room temperature, admittedly, from rather heavy old Waterford sherry glasses, but very pleasant all the same.
Dry sherry was a tradition in Johann’s family. Her uncle, the late Telford McKeever, a delightful man, used to take us to lunch in the RIAC on Dawson Street. His daily ritual, in which we shared on occasion, was to ask Nancy, the formidable lady behind the bar, for a glass of chilled San Patricio, the fino from Garvey’s, a firm of Irish origin, named in honour of our patron saint.
In those days, thirty something years ago, sherry was distinctly fogeyish. At Trinity, the committees of The Hist and The Phil, would imbibe sweet sherry before debates but I don’t think we enjoyed it very much. There was a sherry heist when I was the Censor (moi?) of The Hist and rumour had it that the haul ended up in rooms in the Rubrics which were occupied by a couple of Foundation Scholars who went on to great distinction. But we should draw a veil over that, perhaps.
Anyway, rumours of the death of sherry were much exaggerated. By the turn of this century, the kind of restaurants that take local produce seriously and write their menus like telegrams all in lower case (“duck egg, black pudding, dandelion, fermented daikon”) were urging customers to try a glass of dry sherry.
It would be heartening to think that this was because the restaurateurs were missionaries of good taste, reviving a fashion because it deserved to be revived. No doubt that was part of the motivation, but some of it was down to wanting to know about something that other people didn’t know about. I think it may have been a case of People Like Us like sherry and part of the reason is because only PLU are on the inside track.
Whatever. It doesn’t matter, because the revival took off and is still working. I can’t say I’ve often seen people drinking sherry in public (apart from in Barrafina on Frith Street in Soho) but sales are up from a dribble to a trickle and now a steadily increasing drip. And that’s huge progress.
If you are a sherry afficionado, you will probably want to tune out now as I add my ha’porth to the missionary work and you will know all about this stuff anyway.
Just a few facts to bear in mind. All sherry starts life dry. Dry as a bone. It’s made from the Palomino grape. The other main grape here around Jerez (from which we get the English corruption “sherry”) is called Pedro Ximenez, usually abbreviated PX. It makes an intensely sweet, treacly wine which is used to sweeten the dry Palomino wines. It’s sometimes drunk pure but is so unbalanced, it just cloys. PX, however, is very good poured over high quality ice cream as a kind of alcoholic gravy.
Fino and manzanilla are, basically, the same wine but produced in bodegas in Jerez and Sanlucar respectively. The only difference is that manzanilla has a salty tang which the romantics believe is down to Sanlucar’s marine climate. Who knows? (Amontillado is, essentially, aged fino or manzanilla, but that’s another day’s work).
Both wines grow a layer of yeast cells on the surface. This protective topping, called flor, helps to minimise oxidation while also imparting a certain yeasty character to the wine. Think hot bread straight from the oven. A bit like that.
They are designed to be drunk very young and in order to stabilise them and keep them crystal clear in the bottle there’s a great deal of filtration and cold stabilisation involved. This strips out quite a lot of the immediacy of the sherry’s flavour and character but needs must.
However, in recent years (very recent, considering the history of sherry), the better sort of producer has been releasing bottlings of their fino and manzanilla described as en rama or, literally (I’m told) “on the branch”, by which they mean “raw”.
Raw, as in unfiltered and straight from the cask into the bottle and - great heavens! - you can taste the difference. (Actually, there is some very gentle filtration; there has to be for stability, but nothing like there is for the normal bottlings).
The first bodega to bottle en rama was the outstanding Barbadillo in Sanlucar. Gonzalez Byass, producers of Tio Pepe, launched their first en rama in 2010. Some bodegas will release such wines in several batches throughout the year in order to ensure freshness; maximum lifespan in the bottle is about 3 to 4 months.
Johann and I got our first Tio Pepe En Rama this year from Lea & Sandeman on Kensington Church Street and, having the car with us, took rather more than my usual couple of bottles collected after the Chelsea Flower Show.
In Ireland, at the time of writing (mid-June 2016), Barry & Fitzwilliam in Cork have just taken delivery of the first batch for Ireland and it is now available in Bradley’s of Cork, Redmond’s of Ranelagh and online through WinesOfTheWorld.ie (a new one on me).
When you open it, bear in mind that it needs to be treated like a table wine, so don’t keep it for more than 24 to 36 hours at most, otherwise it will oxidise and flatten out. However, with olives, good Iberico ham and maybe some roasted chorizo, three or four people will get through a bottle without a problem.
**On the off chance that there might be some Old Columbans or friends of the school reading this I thought I might share a wonderful quote from a piece written for the school magazine by the late David Caird (DJC) about the 1971 Leps cricket season. I am very grateful to Julian Girdham for this.
We underrated Headfort, omitted some key players, and were beaten by six wickets. We travelled to Kells in a van lent to us by Mr. Beamish. Somewhere near Navan, Thompson mi fell out through the back door; probably he was pushed. We had to reverse a long way to pick him up. Thompson was a regular member of the side but scored only one run all season. He did not bowl and was a poorish fielder, so from a cricketing point of view he would not have been greatly missed.
- From The Columban 1976