A group of wine lovers from the Wine Pages forum used to partake in dinners we called “Fizz & Chips”, combining that traditional English stalwart, fish & chips, with sparkling wine (okay, to be honest it was most often very fine Champagne). One of the earliest venues for these events was what is arguably London’s finest fish & chip shop, Masters on the Waterloo Road, a short walk from the station.
We were back there on Friday to try a different pairing, “Fish-n-Fino“. Well, we also had a few Manzanillas, the odd dry Pedro-Ximenez, and a couple of Palo Cortados to round things off, in place of dessert, but you get the idea. Most of us chose the simple option of cod and chips, both delicious and fresh. The more adventurous added a side order of mushy peas. Thirteen wines were to accompany, almost all hitting 15% alcohol. I didn’t see anyone stumble out at 3.30pm, but I can’t in all honesty say that my own liver was feeling on top form by the time I got home, not drunk but feeling a touch tired.
But the serious part of the event, to see whether this wine style is a good accompaniment to this food, was a resounding success. First, I think we were all quite surprised at just how different to each other pretty much all the wines proved to be. Second, we were thrilled (but not surprised) at the very high quality of the wines. Sherry never needs to prove itself to most wine lovers once they have got to know it, yet one can’t fail to be very pleased when such a large bunch of wines perform so exceptionally well. And finally, not only did the wines, taking out the two Cortados we saved for post-prandial conversation, prove a great match for the food, I think most of us would say that they provide a better match for fish & chips than Champagne does.
The thirteen wines we drank are listed below. How to write something interesting about each one is always difficult without sounding dull (I really must write on the death of the tasting note), but I’m sure you’d like to see which wines were brought along by the participants. I have a suspicion we shall repeat this later in the year, though I’m in favour of limiting us to one bottle per person next time. Buy these wines with confidence, unless you just can’t get on with the style.
1. Gonzalez Palacios Solo Palomino 2013 – A dry table wine to begin with, unfortified at 13.5% alcohol. It comes from the town of Lebrija, one of the outlying towns still within the Marco de Jerez (about 30km north of Jerez itself). Lebrija is known as the capital of Flamenco, so I’m told, more than for Sherry production, but the wines from here do often show a distinctive style. Palomino table wines have improved to the point where they are worth seeking out. If you can’t find Equipo Navazos’ Florpower series, this wine is a more restrained example, less complex but refreshing.
2. Bodegas Malaga Virgen Fino Lagar de Benavides – Malaga Virgen is the bodega. This comes from Montilla-Moriles (not Malaga), is 100% Pedro-Ximenez (for which Montilla is best known), and spent eight years in solera. This wine registers 15% alcohol, yet it is unfortified, and a good example of dry PX, something which seems to have almost disappeared from the UK market except in specialists. Montilla being generally warmer than Jerez, and PX being a variety which ripens easily, this is the reason these wines do not require fortification. It is what makes them unique in comparison to Jerez finos, and therefore well worth trying to find.
3. Valdespino Inocente Fino – This was probably the first fino I began buying regularly. It comes from one of Jerez’s great historical firms. There’s evidence of the family making wine as far back as 1430, though Valdespino is now owned by the equally important (for the future of Sherry) Grupo Estévez. Inocente is reputedly the last Sherry to undergo cask fermentation. The great chalky flavours of the Macharnudo vineyard northwest of the town combine with the wine’s rich, yeasty character to produce something quite unique. I could think of fanciful comparisons of the type often used for winey Champagnes, but I’m sure most readers know this wine. If you don’t, then try it now.
4. Lustau Puerto Fino – Lustau was formed in 1896, but its fame is more recent, perhaps dating from the 1990s when their Almacenista range gained fame and popularity in the UK and USA. This Puerto Fino hails from what has, to some, become the other Sherry town, El Puerto de Santa Maria. It’s certainly reminiscent of the sea, with a real iodine note, crisp, light and elegant. Some people attribute Riesling-like qualities. This bottle was a perfect example, and although it doesn’t always top lists of the finest wines of the region, it was an excellent match for the battered cod. Quite fortuitous that this is the photo with the food in the background.
5. Bodegas Tradicion Fino – You don’t often find these wines in the UK, but it’s a sort of secret that London’s upper class grocer, Fortnum & Mason, uses Tradicion for its own label range (indeed, the whole of their own label range uses some highly distinctive producers). This wine has a much bigger, rounder, nose than the Lustau, and although we all said that the former went so well with the cod, we agreed that this one needs food. Tradicion’s wines are all released with twenty years age, at least, and it shows. Though the irony, given the name, is that this bodega has only been releasing wine for a dozen years. A true wine of personality, but then aren’t they all!
6. Emilio Hidalgo La Panesa Fino Especial – This was one of my favourites, a wine I’d never tried before. Round, smooth and delicious, the longest finish so far. It’s a 15-y-o fino and they work hard to keep the flor alive. It was certainly the oldest fino on the market, at least before Equipo Navazos came along. This shows in its sheer complexity. It hails from a Solera begun in 1961. Many have called this the greatest fino being made today, sitting on the outer edge of the style, not quite breaking into fino amontillado territory. It is released with no interventions (filtering or clarification). There’s little more I can say. It was a real treat. It doesn’t come cheap, but really, it’s a bargain in comparison to other fine wines.
7. Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino 54 – This hails from the Inocente solera at Valdespino, the grapes from the Macharnudo Alto vineyard. Many will have followed this Sherry negociant since they began releasing selections privately, in 2005, and later commercially. The whole purpose of the venture appears to be to highlight the wines from individually special soleras. Every wine has not only a distinctive character, but I would say that they go beyond distinctive, they stamp their personality in ways which Sherry drinkers have rarely experienced before. Some EN releases appeal to me more than others, but I have yet to try one (they now approach sixty releases under the EN label, not all traditional wines of Jerez any more) which is not world class. The 54th release is a saca of June 2014. It’s fine and precise, just showing a touch darker colour than the Innocente. A fino of genuine personality, not shy and retiring, but solid and outgoing.
8. Gonzalez Palacios Flor de Lebrija Frasquito En Rama – En Rama wines are bottled directly from the cask, unfiltered. The style is becoming increasingly popular, so much so that Gonzalez Byass now release an En Rama version of their famous Tio Pepe brand. This is another wine from Lebrija, where Bodegas Gonzalez Palacios is based. They can’t label this as a Manzanilla, but whereas Sanlucar gets the winds off the sea, this bodega, set on top of a hill, also gets the breezes which stimulate the activity of flor, and keeps it alive. This fascinating wine has a sort of savoury-sweet quality and a touch of umami.
9. Hidalgo-La Gitana Manzanilla En Rama – The first of our real Manzanillas, this one also bottles en rama, and this is the latest (2015) bottling. The straight La Gitana bottling is one of Sherry’s great success stories, yet it is a fairly young wine. One London merchant has called the en rama version “La Gitana on steroids”, though I’d argue not in the traditional sense when we usually describe wines. There’s still restraint here, and it has the classic nuts and citrus zest, plus Sanlucar’s ozone. Just amplified a bit. En Ramas are worth seeking out, and the versions of both La Gitana and Tio Pepe are very good wines. Wine experts often counsel consuming all biologically aged (under flor) styles of Sherry soon after bottling, and even more so with en rama bottlings. On the experience I have with Equipo Navazos bottlings, I would say this is not always the case by any means. But perhaps here, the freshness and lively texture is at least as attractive as any complexity which might follow with time.
10. La Medallas de Argüeso Manzanilla – This wine, averaging around four years of age, is a very high quality Manzanilla of genuine freshness. There’s both citrus and a little apple complexity, and the nose is soft. Although easy to lose when in the company of so many big personalities, it is this wine’s gentleness and freshness which you notice. I can’t help but think this would suit me on a hot summer’s evening. I also can’t help but mention the label, indicative of this 19th Century producer. It seems to mirror the wine perfectly.
11. Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla 55 – A saca of November 2014 from Miguel Sanchez Ayala, the same bodega where Jesus Barquin and Eduardo Ojeda drew their first bottling of an Amontillado which began the majestic Equipo Navazos story. The average age of the solera is 6-7 years. The colour is dark and there’s little sign of really pronounced acidity. Instead it’s mellow, complex, a little saline, certainly intense, which befits an exclusive wine. Truly beautiful, but perhaps beyond our expectations of normal Manzanilla. For me, and this is a very personal opinion based on my relationship with this wine over several bottles, Manzanilla #55 is quite profound.
12. Lustau Palo Cortado, Berry Bros & Rudd – Like Fortnums, another source of fine own label bottlings. We are into a different territory here with dark wines hinting at caramel and butterscotch, where the intense richness is balanced by still-fresh acidity. Just a slight touch of spirit. But I can’t tell you a lot about this bottling, nor its age. Berry Bros seem to be selling an own label Cortado from a different producer now. It tastes old in its complexity, but retains a certain youthfulness.
13. Pedro Domecq Sibarita Palo Cortado – This is very old Sherry, the average age of the bottled wine reputedly 60 years old. It is also rare, only fewer than 400 cases having been bottled for each year of production (I believe that this was eventually made into an oloroso brand and that it now sits in the Osborne stable, after the breakup of Pedro Domecq’s Sherry holdings). As such, it is very intense blending caramel along with orange citrus into a wine of great complexity yet genuine smoothness. There is almost something sweet about it. This bottle was so sedimented that it was not far removed from the grounds in a cup of Turkish coffee, though after the meal and all those wines I don’t think it upset anyone. Indeed, it rather made up for the lack of dessert. A fascinating finish to an enjoyable lunch.
* Of invaluable assistance in factual research for this article was Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla by Peter Liem and Jesus Barquin (Manutius, 2012). This is essential reading on these wines, a mine of information which also manages to convey the authors’ passion for the subject as well as deep scholarship.