The Magazine

The Accidental Wine Tourist

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By RICHARD STARR
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The poet Delmore Schwartz famously joked that existentialism means "no one else can take a bath for you." Let me propose a corollary: No one else can drink a glass of wine for you.

I've enjoyed many a glass in my day, but I can't say I have enjoyed reading about wine. The tasting notes baffle me: I read about mouth-watering acidity and hints of tobacco, the aroma of orange blossoms and richness of ripe cherries, but I'm rarely able to replicate these experiences with my own taste buds or nose. What I usually detect--if I slow down long enough to analyze it--is a strong suggestion of fermented grape juice in my mouth and, if I stick my nose in the glass, a cauterizing whiff of alcohol. Rule one for aspiring wine-critics is apparently: Develop an awesomely rococo descriptive vocabulary, so that you never, ever have to describe wine as tasting like grapes.

I guess this marks me as a wine philistine. Or perhaps I was just born with a defective tongue, with the taster's equivalent of color-blindness and tone-deafness. But I'm not undiscriminating. I can tell sweet from dry, red from white. I'm crazy about some wines (expensive ones, alas) and abominate others. Still, the precision of Robert Parker's 100-point rating system astonishes me. My rating system at the end of the day is binary: like or don't-like.

What I really like makes me an eccentric nowadays: sherry. It's the Rodney Dangerfield of wines: It gets no respect. Nonetheless, I have been known to push my favorite potion on dinner guests, one of whom was kind enough to recommend me to the good folks of the Sherry Council of America (Washington has a lobby for everything), which is how I found myself spending a lovely mid-September week touring the sherry-producing region of Spain, a small triangle in the southwest corner of Andalusia, itself the southernmost region of Spain.

The triangle--famous among other arts for its flamenco and dancing horses--is anchored by the city of Jerez de la Frontera. (Two smaller towns--Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria--complete the three sides.) The frontera in question is the one that once divided Christians from Moors--the DMZ of the 13th century. The English word sherry is derived from Jerez, bearing about the same degree of resemblance to the local pronunciation (hair-eth) as Leghorn does to Livorno, or Wipers to Ypres.

I was the odd man out in a group of food and wine writers. Our hosts from the Sherry Council are interested in promoting consumption of this badly misunderstood wine. (It's fortified, but not that alcoholic; it should be drunk with meals, not just as an aperitif; Harvey's bottles some fantastic sherries, but Bristol Cream, the dominant seller, isn't one of them.) But the council also has a regulatory agenda, comparable to that of the Champagne makers--they want to eliminate the use of "sherry" as a generic term on labels. In other words, no more "California sherry" in your supermarket aisles. The term would be reserved for vino de Jerez--wine from the historic sherry-producing region of Spain.

Well, I'm on board with that--I'm a great believer in truth-in-labeling--but the sad truth is that unpopularity is the real problem for the wine-makers of Jerez. They should be so lucky as to have unscrupulous competitors clamoring to horn in on their trade. Instead they have to contend with an unfortunate reputation for being the favorite, cloyingly sweet tipple of great-aunts and university professors reliving the glory days of their junior year abroad in Cambridge, and the drink of choice of very few other people.

There are, as it happens, some great sweet sherries. People I respect swear by the dark, sugary Pedro Ximenez as a topping for ice cream. But the neglected classics are the finos and manzanillas--dry white wines made from the Palomino grape that thrives in the chalky soil of the Andalusian hilltops, aged in oak barrels under a protective layer of yeasts unique to the Jerez triangle. The barrels are stacked in vast cathedral-like bodegas, built to capture the sea-breezes that fine-tune the temperature and humidity to the liking of the yeast. The new wines go into the top row of barrels; the wine for bottling is removed from the bottom row; each row is replenished from the one above. The result is a blend of many vintages, with a great consistency in the final product from year to year. If the viticultural is the political, conservatives especially should be sherry fans: Each bottle contains decades of tradition enlivened with small amounts of novelty.

A recommendation for beginners: a glass of chilled fino with some Spanish olives, almonds, and perhaps some fried fish. I won't try to tell you what it tastes like. But I think you'll like it.

RICHARD STARR