When Cauli met Monti: sherry and food matching

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The time has come to take sherry out of its comfort zone. Fiona Beckett and a crack team of somms head to the ultra-modern Root in Bristol to see how fino, amontillado et al get on with beetroot, cauliflower and ox heart


Sherry, as we all know, is on a bit of a roll, but it’s still hard to convince the public that it’s a natural partner for food – or, if they’ve got that message, that there are appropriate pairings beyond tapas.

We decided to take it out of its habitual comfort zone with a trip to Root in Bristol, an innovative restaurant that showcases vegetables rather than meat and fish, which are only offered as specials and sides.

The aim was to run a wide range of dry and medium-dry sherries through their paces from the freshest, crispest manzanillas to complex 30yo amontillados and olorosos.

How it worked

The sherries were provided by The Sherry Institute, the aim being to focus on specific styles rather than a complete gamut of bodegas and brands. We tasted the sherries first, scoring them for a ‘stand alone’ score, before putting them to the test with the dish we thought was most likely to complement each one.

The panel

Fiona Beckett, Guardian wine writer and publisher of matchingfoodandwine.com; Elly Curshen, The Pear Café; Owen Morgan, 44 group; Lionel Periner, sommelier and wine consultant, Manuel Ribeiro, Bybrook at Manor House Hotel; Peter Sanchez-Iglesias, Casamia and Paco Tapas

The wines

MANZANILLA

82 Williams & Humbert, Alegria Manzanilla

Opinions differed on whether this crisp manzanilla was showing at its best. ‘Saline, fresh and bright,’ EC. ‘Slightly oxidised, nutty and almondy – more like a fino,’ FB. ‘Open nose on white fruit, green apple, raw almond. Palate is dry, medium bodied. Finish is dry with a touch of minerality,’ LP.

£3.52/37.5cl, Ehrmanns, 020 3227 0700

79 Hidalgo, Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana

More complex than a basic manzanilla, this aged sherry from family-owned Hidalgo has a deeper colour and more nutty flavour than its younger counterparts. ‘Less full in the mouth than expected, but clean, restrained, and excellent for a seafood starter,’ OM. ‘Dry, citric, fresh and salty. Would probably recommend pairing with sea bream,’ MR.

£9.30/75cl, Mentzendorff, 020 7840 3600

77  Delgado Zuleta, Goya XL Manzanilla en Rama

En rama sherries are bottled without fining or filtration, which accentuates the olive notes in this manzanilla. ‘Deeper in colour than the previous two, and aged for 10 years. Mineral, long finish,’ OM. ‘Pale yellow, green apple, mineral. Palate is round, dry, grassy,’ LP.

POA/50cl, C&D Wines, 020 8778 1711  

FINO

85 Lustau, Solera Reserva Puerto Fino

Aged in El Puerto de Santa Maria, the third town in the sherry triangle, the others being Jerez and Sanlúcar. Classic El Puerto de Santa Maria nose – petroleum and yeast overload, citrus on the palate, orange zest, almond. ‘Very distinctive, but clean,’ OM. ‘Open nose with good minerality. Green apple, floral. Palate is clean and dry,’ LP. Probably the panel’s favourite fino, but not our top choice with the tartare.

£11.30/75cl, FMV, 020 7819 0360

84 González Byass,Tio Pepe Fino en Rama

Another sherry to get the ‘en rama’ treatment – and one of the first to pioneer the style. A limited edition that ideally needs to be drunk within three months of bottling to enjoy it at its best. Super fresh nose, deeper amber colour, and minimal filtration. ‘For an en rama, it’s pretty sophisticated, floral and rounded,’ OM. ‘Fresh, light, nutty, dry citrus peel – best with bream,’ MR.

£16.99/75cl, González Byass, 01707 274 790

80 Valdespino, Fino Inocente

Single vineyard and the last sherry to be fermented in cask, this well-known sherry is extraordinarily fresh for a wine that’s 10 years old. There are 10 barrel stages, or ‘criadera’, while most finos have only three. ‘Fresh, nutty and bright,’ EC. ‘Spicy, classic fino. Lovely fresh nuttiness,’ FB. ‘Clean, dry, mineral, raw almond, green tart apple; dry, mineral finish,’ LP.

£13.20/75cl, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

AMONTILLADO 

91 Barbadillo, Príncipe Amontillado 30yo VORS

One of the oldest sherries in the tasting, this extraordinarily complex VORS (Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum or ‘very old rare sherry’) comes from Sanlúcar. ‘Deep amber, almost mahogany in appearance. Rich and viscous in the mouth,’ OM. ‘Salted caramel, grilled toast, almonds, walnuts, raisins, with a yeasty finish,’ MR. ‘Blown away by this one,’ FB.

£66.57/75cl, Fells, 01442 870 900

90 Fernando de Castilla, Antique Amontillado

A superb amontillado from a highly regarded bodega, which happens to be run by the Norwegian Jan Pettersen, who used to work for the sherry house Osborne. It spends eight years as a fino, then a further 12 years in an amontillado solera. ‘Nutty – almond, hazelnut – vanilla, toffee, truffle. Dry, salty long finish,’ MR. ‘Elegant nose, caramel, roasted hazelnut, citrus on the palate,’ OM.

£23.60/50cl, Boutinot, 0161 908 1300

 83 Delgado Zuleta, Zuleta Amontillado

Started life as a manzanilla, and aged for seven to eight years. ‘Deep amber colour, polished toasted nuts. Nice mild sweetness/glycerin in the mouth. Combined very well with blackberry and hazelnuts in the beetroot dish,’ OM. ‘Nice, nutty flavour coming through. Round palate with just a hint of spice,’ LP.

POA, C&D Wines, 020 8778 1711 

81 González Byass, Viña AB 12yo Amontillado

Lighter than the other amontillados, this 12yo wine from González Byass is a comparatively young, dry amontillado, with delicate almond and hazelnut flavours. Definitely the freshest of these four. ‘Elegant, citrusy, as well as a classic caramelly nose,’ OM. ‘Nutty, toffee, citric. Dry salty finish,’ MR.

£13.99/75cl, González Byass, 01707 274 790

PALO CORTADO

88 González Byass, Leonor 12yo Palo Cortado

Palo cortado traditionally starts its life as a fino, then is selected for further fortification and ageing to become a sort of hybrid cross between an amontillado and dry oloroso (see p.86 for more on palo cortados). This well-known example is aged for 12 years. ‘Slight sweetness on the nose, elegant, rich and smooth,’ OM. ‘Caramel, honey, spice, chocolate, coffee, toast, dry, spicy and nutty,’ MR.

£14.99/75cl, González Byass, 01707 274 790

85 Harveys, Very Old Palo Cortado 30yo VORS

Sweeter than most palo cortados, this complex wine is blended from sherries that have been aged for over 30 years. ‘Clean, caramel, nutty – good balance of oxidative character and acidity,’ MR. Toasted, well-rounded, rich. Better suited to a rich cheeseboard or bittersweet style of dessert,’ OM.

£25/50cl, Whyte & Mackay, 0141 248 5771

79 Urium, Palo Cortado VORS

Urium started as a new bodega back in 2009, but had access to a supply of old sherry stocks, which this is an example of. Not a favourite, however, among our panel, with LP and FB finding it disappointing. OM and MR were more enthusiastic. ‘Deep, rich, more powerful than Leonor, but not quite as balanced,’ OM.

£35/50cl, Sherry Boutique, 07768 023719

OLOROSO

93 Osborne, Sibarita Oloroso 30yo VORS

From a very old solera belonging to Domecq, some of the wines date back to 1792. Deep mahogany colour, rich, medium-bodied to full. ‘Good level of glycerin and moreish,’ OM. ‘Deep, toasted caramel, candied nuts, hazelnut, walnut spice, clove, cumin,’ MR. ‘Extraordinarily spicy and complex,’ FB.

£22.30/50cl, Master of Malt, 0800 033 7949

83 Fernando de Castilla, Antique Oloroso

A decidedly drier sibling of the amontillado tasted above, this dry oloroso boasts quite an astonishing array of flavours. ‘Amber-coloured, an oxidative style, with spice, liquorice, salted caramel, mushroom, toffee and toasted nuts,’ MR. ‘Molasses on the nose, vanilla and caramel, intense but elegant, and well rounded,’ OM.

£21.70/50cl, Boutinot, 0161 908 1300

Also tasted: Valdespino, Solera 1842 Oloroso VOS

Many thanks to the team at Root for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day.

With the food

Cured sea bream, burnt lime, fermented turnips and coriander
With its clean flavours and hint of lime, this dish was a natural for the lighter, cleaner sherries, particularly the Alegria Manzanilla and the Tio Pepe Fino en Rama, which was the star pairing with the bream and lime for OM and EC.

Beetroot, roasted, fermented and pickled, served with blackberries, hazelnuts and seaweed oil

One of the most surprising pairings, the earthy beetroot was a great foil for the amontillados, even Barbadillo’s Príncipe Amontillado. OM’s star pairing. For EC, it was the Delgado Zuleta Amontillado, which she thought ‘worked brilliantly’.

Roasted cauliflower, purée and raw salad, served with cashew milk

The caramelised notes in the dish were perfect with the palo cortado, though it would probably have gone with the dry amontillados too. For LP it was the ‘clean, dry, elegant’ Leonor that was the star. MR preferred the Urium. The Harveys was a touch too sweet for this dish.

Grilled ox heart with beef jus

Much like a steak, though with a slightly more intense flavor, this dish was surprisingly good with our two dry olorosos. The Fernando de Castilla, in particular, was just wonderful with it. ‘So simple on the plate, but the earthy, meaty flavours dance beautifully with this dry, nutty oloroso,’ OM.

Treacle sponge, almonds, fudge and milk ice cream

This extra course from the chef Rob Howell was fabulous with the medium-sweet 1842 Oloroso VOS from Valdespino – further encouragement, should you possibly need it, to try sweet sherry with treacle, caramel and toffee-based desserts.

Panel comments

Fiona Beckett, Guardian wine writer and publisher of matchingfoodandwine.com

‘A tasting that once again underlined the incredible variety and versatility of sherry, the only surprise maybe being that the pairings were as successful with vegetable-based dishes as they generally are with meat.’

Elly Curshen, Pear Café

‘I don’t think the fact the food was predominantly veggie makes any difference. It’s the perfect seasoning and interesting textures that match so well with sherry. The stand out for me was the hazelnuts in the beetroot dish, which worked particularly well with the amontillados.’

Owen Morgan, 44 group

‘The under flor styles definitely seemed to divide opinion with people, which was very interesting for me. What are people looking for in these fino and manzanilla categories? Straightforward fresh, zippy drinking, or something more complex? It was a great discussion. The en-rama styles always create lively conversation too.’

Lionel Periner, sommelier and wine consultant

‘I think more sommeliers should recommend older sherries like 30yo oloroso, and pair them with their chefs’ dishes. Yes, they tend to be expensive, but when you explain the age and spend some time detailing how they’re made they’re incredible value for money.’

Manuel Ribeiro, Bybrook at The Manor House Hotel

An outstanding tasting and very surprising in terms of pairings. I was struck by the variety of flavours in each style of sherry and how well the dry styles work with food, especially dishes with caramelisation and nuts.’

Peter Sanchez-Iglesias, Casamia and Paco Tapas

‘It was fascinating to see how different the sherries were, with and without food. You can certainly enhance the pairing by the ingredients you use.’

Conclusions

* While there was some divergence of opinion, the panel was united on the quality of the sherries in the line-up and how well they paired with the dishes. A couple maybe weren’t as fresh as we expected – a reminder that freshness is key, especially with manzanilla and fino.

* Alcohol levels and age are also factors – 15% abv is easier to play with than 20%, and food doesn’t necessarily add an extra dimension to some of the older sherries. Occasionally, our preference for a particular sherry, for example the Lustau Puerto Fino, didn’t always translate into the most successful food-pairing match.

* It would be worth working on elements that bring out the character of a particular style of sherry – the hazelnuts with the beetroot were certainly key to the pairing with the amontillado. Sherry is ideal for a small-plates scenario, which of course is what tapas is all about.

For more information about food and sherry pairing, visit Fiona’s website matchingfoodandwine.com or download her e-book 101 Great Ways to Enjoy Sherry: https://www.matchingfoodandwine.com/shop/101-great-ways-to-enjoy-sherry/

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