‘As appetiser-sharpener and flavour-enhancer, fino has no rivals’
It’s the saddest vineyard sight I’ve ever seen: swathes of empty country where vines used to grow. the gently rolling landscape, with scarcely more contours than the Médoc, fawn and grey, sometimes startlingly white, treeless but crowned here and there with white farm buildings, is bare.
there were 22,000 hectares of sherry vineyards. Now there are 6,000ha. In this booming wine world, only one ancient classic region has definitely gone into reverse and become a commercial catastrophe. You can blame cynical or silly takeovers for some of it, but the real culprit is fashion. two hundred years ago sherry and Port slugged it out for supremacy in the northern european market. In the past 30 years or so it has been sherry versus ‘light’ wines: Chardonnay at first, then the tsunami of sauvignon Blanc.
I love sherry. Most days I have a glass (a little tulip copita), usually a manzanilla. a sip before lunch and several with my food. as appetiser-sharpener and flavourenhancer, it has no rivals. It’s not a thirst-quencher; if I’m hot I’ll make a spritzer with any slightly fruity white wine and sparkling water. In my trade I instinctively fight shy of alcohol, and a copita holds very little. at 15% alcohol, modern fino has about the same as most New World Chardonnays – and you drink considerably less – far less than from those huge glasses that pubs routinely fill to near the brim.
‘sip wine; swallow water’ is my motto… or rather my practice. and if you’re going to sip, you want something with a real hit of flavour; hence fino.
Fino, I say; not sherry. sherry is too broad a category, and is still dismally marked by association with vicars and aunts, and lukewarm, semi-sweet, brown fluid from a dusty decanter. there are marvellous, even magnificent, old sherries, like mouthfuls of nuts or dates; amontillados, palo cortados, olorosos – and of course the treacly PX. You can’t blame their makers for wanting you to try them.
I argue, though, that the category is too blurred for modern use. Let ‘sherry’ be the brown stuff. Keep the precious word ‘fino’ for the pale, fresh, dustily aromatic and bone-dry wine that lives under a duvet of yeast until the day it’s bottled and rushed to your table. No wine anywhere is drier. the flor has been feeding on every molecule of sugar, converting it into savoury umami, the very essence of appetite.