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The Prague Post December 2006

Be merry with sherry: Spanish speciality warms and rewards discerning oenophiles

Dipsomaniacs' delight (as edited by "ed")

For the upcoming festive season, people should treat themselves to something a little special - and rather more fortifying, too.

Sherry must surely be every dipsomaniac's delight: a winter warmer that can double as a festive aperitif. And, according to wine experts such as Hugh Johnson, it offers the best value for money. Especially when you consider the investment required for the years it spends lying in stately cellars, an old Oloroso is far more "cost-effective" than its Bordeaux equivalent. For the price of an average New World Chardonnay, you can buy a Fino that will knock your socks off.

Vines have been grown in the region around Jerez in southwest Spain since long before the lengthy and highly civilizing Arab occupation of Andalusia, when the town was known as Seris (pronounced "Sherish"). The region began exporting wines to England as early as the 14th century, where they earned the unusual sobriquet of "sack."

Modern sherry comes in two basic styles - Fino and Oloroso - and much of its development is a matter of luck. As soon as the initial fermentation has finished, the wines in all the individual casks (or butts, as they're called in the sherry trade) are tasted by the capataz (cellarmaster to you and me), who decides into which style each one will be developed. At this stage, a thin film of a yeasty substance called flor grows on the surface, protecting the wine from oxidation.

Butts chosen to become Finos are encouraged with a 15.5 percent addition of neutral grape spirit, the optimum strength for the flor to function. For those destined to become Olorosos, the fortification will be much higher so as to kill off the yeast.

A further division occurs during this maturation process in which the Fino becomes either a very dry Fino or an Amontillado, while Oloroso sherries divide between Oloroso proper or Cream. Yet another style is made from Pedro Ximénez grapes that have been laid out to dry in the baking sun, making a sweet, almost-black and chocolate-tasting lip-smacker known by the name of the variety, or PX for short.

Since sherry is not sold by vintage but by brand name, consistency is all-important. To achieve this, younger wines are forever being added to older ones in what is known as the solera system. This basically involves a row of casks containing progressively older wines. When a quantity of wine is drawn from the final cask for bottling, it will be replaced by the same amount from the preceding one and so on.

Although often dismissed as a tipple for the older generation, sherry has undergone something of a renaissance of late. As part of an initiative by the Andalusian board of trade, a symposium was recently held in Jerez aimed at creating a number of sherry educators to explain in simple terms what can often seem a deeply bewildering, not to say arcane, production process and range of styles.

The two delegates from the Czech Republic, Drs. Martin and Petra Kří­stek from Ostrava, completed the course with flying colors and held their first seminar in Prague last month. They will continue their mission with a number of sessions nationwide over the coming months. For more information, check www.wine.cz/kahan.

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