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Exploring Iberia
Exploring Iberia

I recently had the chance to visit Porto in Portugal for the second time, as well as Jerez in Spain for the first.

The trip had a number of purposes: For one, the Center for Wine Origins wants to make sure American writers know what makes Port and sherry special and why wineries in other regions shouldn’t call their wines “Port” and “sherry.”

I didn’t need any convincing of that — and I’m sure few Napa vintners would disagree, particularly knowing that a Chinese winery brands its wines “Napa.” But it was a good chance to learn more about the wines; when I visited Portugal before to learn about corks, it was on a holiday and the wineries were closed.

The famed fortified wines from Porto come from vineyards in the Douro Valley, a steep river valley where you wonder how they can even tend some of the vines. More than 80 indigenous varieties are allowed, but most of the wines are Touriga Nacional and four other varieties.

As with other areas of the world, the grapes grow in specific conditions and even the few wineries elsewhere that use these varieties can’t duplicate the climatic conditions and soil.

As is well known to most wine lovers, the wineries add un-aged brandy (grape alcohol) to the musts to stop fermentation at a point depending on how sweet a wine they want to produce.

Most are red, of course, but they also make white Port that we were served with tonic water and a lemon, a refreshing drink that combines bitter and sweet flavors like Campari.

Basically, there are two types of Port — those aged in wood (tawny) and those only aged in wood for a year and then in glass (ruby and vintage). The casks are big, but the tawny Ports definitely pick up color and taste from the wood. They can be good with some foods, especially appetizers and soups.

The sweeter Ports are obviously better with — or instead of — dessert.

Surprisingly, France is the biggest market for Port, not England, though old British Portuguese families dominate the trade. Among others, we met and dined with George Sandeman, Rupert Symington and David Fonseca, and all seemed as British as possible, though their families have lived in Portugal for generations.

The heart of the Douro Valley is about two hours drive away from the city of Porto, and the best way to visit is probably by train or cruise boats that make the trip.

Porto is an interesting, attractive city. It lies on the broad Douro at the Atlantic Ocean, with the Port aging and tasting rooms across an impressive double-decker high and low bridge.

The waterfront features many restaurants, mostly specializing in superb seafood. Some are pretty touristy, but locals will tell you which.

The city has about 1 million people — it’s the country’s second largest — and it’s very steep and hilly with picturesque areas great for strolling — or climbing.

Portugal, like Spain, sat out World War II (Remember “Casablanca”?) so the downtown area is still fairly historic, though there was much tasteful renovation, particularly during the long reign of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932 to 1968.

The city recently completed a modern Muni-like subway but has kept a historic streetcar line for tourists. As in San Francisco, there’s a clamor for the return of other tram lines on the narrow streets.

On to Jerez for sherry

The name sherry comes from the old Arabic name for Jerez, Sherish, and Jerez in Spain is completely unlike Porto.

A prosperous city about  half an hour from the Atlantic in southern Spain, it’s flat and dry. The soil is unusual chalky clay that absorbs water during the wet winter and slowly releases it to the vines over the dry summer. No irrigation is allowed.

Three grape varieties are used for sherry, but the wines are overwhelmingly Palomino, which makes great sherry but insipid white table wine.

Surprising to me, sherry in Spain is primarily dry: Fino, Amontillado and Oloroso. Unlike in Porto, the alcohol is added to fully fermented wines for these wines.

The difference: Fino is fermented dry to 11 to 12.5 percent alcohol, then fortified to 15 percent. It ages under a special oxygen-protective flor yeast in partially filled barrels, giving it a nutty flavor. (Manzanilla is a fino from the seaside town of Sanlucar).

Oloroso is fortified immediately to 17 to 18 percent, which kills the yeast. The wine oxidizes for a distinct flavor.

Amontillado is a mixture of the techniques; the wine ferments under flor, then alcohol is added, which kills the yeast and the wine then oxidizes slightly.

The wines are aged in the famous soleras, the name referring to the soil (suelo), not the sun (solar). The oldest wines are in the bottom (solera) barrels, and when those are partially emptied, wines from earlier vintages replace them. The same is true of the barrels above.

As a result, the wines are all blends of a number of years (There is also rare vintage sherry called Añada made from one year).

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Another grape, Pedro Ximénez, is picked very ripe, then dried on mats to produce exceptionally sweet wines sometimes drunk on their own, but more often blended with the drier wines to make the sweet sherries most popular here.

Some PX’s are 40 percent sugar; obviously, their alcohol is almost all from added brandy as yeasts can’t do much with a mixture that sweet.

The PX wine I tasted had a distinctive raisin or dried fig taste reflected in the finished sweetened wines; I understand it’s legal to use simple sweet must from undried PX, which would make a cleaner wine, but that’s not the taste preferred.

The Moscatel grape is also used much like Pedro Ximénez. Harvey’s Bristol Cream is a very sweet blend of fino, amontillado and oloroso, sweetened with sun-dried Pedro Ximénez wine to 14 percent sugar.

Other producers make equivalent products, but I’ve found that most in the market are slightly (“medium” or “medium dry”) or noticeably sweet.

The Spanish typically don’t drink unless they’re also eating, and in the south that’s often dry sherry. It’s not normally called sherry — it’s just a glass of fino or “wine” but natural with tapas and meals.

These dry wines are quite good with many main courses, including shellfish and fish. They also complement many soups and salads that would fight with other wine.

The medium sweet/dry wines are excellent with many cheeses, while the sweet wines, of course, are best as dessert. The 40 percent sugar Pedo Ximénez is beyond me, however.

There are so many aspects of sherry that it’s difficult to understand why any producers outside the region try to make the wine — and in truth, it has lost popularity until recently.

What American companies sell as American “sherry” is typically baked, sometimes in the sun through a misunderstanding of what solera means, to try to get the nutty flavor. The real sherries aren’t that expensive anyway.

By the way, the sherry producers have three other good businesses: excellent brandies, superb vinegar — and barrels.

Sherry is overwhelming aged in American oak barrels; Scotch whisky is traditionally aged in used sherry barrels, and because the producers keep the barrels a long time, they now create used barrels by aging substandard sherry in new barrels. The woody wine is used for brandy or vinegar.   

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