It was an image to induce great thirst. Appearing in the Wines and Spirits edition among the legendary Time-Life series Foods of the World (1969), the picture of two Spanish farmhands each drinking bottles of ice-cold Sherry under the Andalusian sun convinced my eight-year-old mind that sherry must be good.
Four decades – and then some – have passed, and I am still looking at the photograph in that book, penned by Evelyn Waugh’s brother Alec, and still feeling the thirst take its grip, the thirst which had and still has me itching for a glass of Sherry.
It was said picture that led me to Spain in 1983. I was working for the Amorim Cork factory in Seville when a wine maker invited me to take a two-week break and help out with the harvest at the Osborne Sherry bodega, down south from Seville in Puerto de Santa Maria. I remember the train ride through blindingly white, parched vineyards, men and women and donkeys and trucks at work, and if the train has slowed down surely a few folk could be spotted glugging from Sherry bottles, just as in that photograph that had lead me to the home of a great wine.
The two weeks spent in Puerto de Santa Maria are somewhat of a blur to me. If it is 43 degrees Celsius, you are young and you are in Spain where one starts sipping fino Sherry with the bodega workers at 07:30 having left the beach night-club at 02:00, a guy does not tend to remember much outside of heady pleasure of the foreign variety.
But I do remember the Sherries drunk, as well as some aspects of the production process occurring inside the cool stone walls of the fermentation cellar and the solera rooms.
I remember having to throw buckets of white powdery gypsum onto the crushed Palomino grapes to lift the acidity. I remember the smell of the 600 litre oak barrels in which the wines were maturing, they smelt of old good furniture with a seductive muskiness. And I remember Senhor Villa-Bablora opening the bungs on the solera’s second row of barrels and shining a cheap torch into the darkness so I can see the layer of mouldy grey-green flor yeast floating on the Sherry, the sound of water dripping somewhere in the background.
Nothing brings back memory such as smell and taste, and a fine glass of sherry always awakens the nostalgia, even if nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.
The driest-of-the-dry Sherries, fino, are supposed to be the ones sherry-lovers should embrace firmest. When it comes to decadence, the black, tarry Pedro Ximenez with its motor-oil viscosity and teeth-aching sweetness make for a riveting conversation as is the case when tasting something that tastes like nothing else on earth.
During my stay at Osborne, however, my observant eye and semi-comprehension of Spanish (then) led me to have no doubts that the amontillado style of Sherry offers everything a sherry should be. It is also the wine that, not surprisingly, led the connoisseur Fortunato to follow a murderer bent on revenge into a dark, spooky space upon hearing that there is a Cask of Amontillado lying somewhere, as told in Edgar Allan Poe’s masterly short story.
The amontillado is basically a fino that has aggressively munched its flor yeast, extracting stupendous complexity and drawing structure, flavour, body and colour into the fortified wine.
It is tough to get hold of amontillado in South Africa, but I recently scored a few bottles from Gourmandium in Stellenbosch. From a fine bodega, too. Valdespino is a producer that started out in the 13th century, named after a Spanish knight who was given a wine business after helping boot-out the Moors from Andalusia.
The Cio Diego Amontillado is pretty much as good as it gets when it comes to amontillado, and I’d, sort of, also follow a serial killer into a dark cave if there was a cask of this stuff going around.
First step to getting it all from a great sherry such as this, is to cool the stuff to between 13 and 15 degrees Celsius. Next, pour a generous amount into a decent white wine glass.
The smell is overpowering, more so than on a fino or the denser oloroso-style that has had limited or no contact with the flor yeast. Amontillado has a heady aroma. Cedar wood rubbed with beeswax. Dry seaweed blowing on an empty Spanish beach. A whack of clove, and that evocative smell of an old leather jacket worn by an Andalusian flamenco dancer who has bathed in crushed grapes.
And it all tastes better than it smells. Having absorbed the aromas for a few minutes, I like to take a big mouthful as a tribute to those thirsty vineyard workers who were photographed on that hot day, all those years ago.
In the mouth, the amontillado is nutty. It has layers of dried citrus peel. There are tastes of saffron and cinnamon, too, all cloaked in an enticing and saltiness of the kind found in Brittany oysters, perspiring thighs and Kalahari biltong.
Despite hovering around 18 per cent alcohol, a good Sherry such as this is fresh, graceful and lusty with life and spirit. Wish I could take a picture. Says more than a thousand words, it does, but sometimes even that is not enough.