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Have Most Americans Been Asleep to the Fine Qualities of Sherry?

Times Wine Writer

The problems with Sherry are too numerous to state in a single sentence.

It is perceived as a drink for “little old ladies” who sip it before going to bed, to help them get to sleep (a technique that apparently works quite well with some, it might be added). It is therefore the “wrong” thing for a man to order at a bar (it has this wimpy image), and certainly is not what a liberated woman orders.

Moreover, it is “out” for wine lovers who find it to be far less classy than Champagne. Some connoisseurs still feel Sherry is something winos sip in doorways, and thus it is usually considered a sweet wine, even though there are some amazingly fine dry Sherries out there.

In addition, when Sherry is served in restaurants, you usually get it in one of those little V-shaped glasses that flair at the top, preventing you from swirling it unless you’re prepared to risk sloshing it in your lap.

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And usually when a restaurant serves little Sherry, it keeps only poor quality Sherry on hand, continuing to pour from a long-ago-opened bottle. That means you’re going to get oxidized Sherry at that.

Since such Sherry is unattractive, diners stop ordering it, and the failure to sell it encourages restaurateurs to remove it from their lists entirely. All this means that few Sherries are available in the United States.

Those that are available in retail shops usually are not accorded much attention by wine shop operators, except for a select few people.

All of which indicates why few in the American market do much in the way of Sherry experimentation. No one looks for new ways to serve it, market it and expose its greatness to the public.

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George Sandeman, son of the proprietor of the house of Sandeman that makes grand Sherry as well as Port, rolled through Los Angeles last week and we chatted about the problems he has marketing the best Sherries in his line, three dry-styled wines of remarkable balance and complexity. (Sandeman actually works for Chateau and Estates, the wine importing division of Seagram, and markets the wines his family’s company makes in Spain and Portugal.)

I recently recommended the best of the three new Sandeman Sherries, Fine Dry Palo Cortado ($18), as one of the most exciting wines of its type I have tasted. That perked up sales for about 11 minutes. Such is the state of Sherry interest in the United States.

The fact is that so little of this rare wine can be made each year that Sandeman is just as happy if it doesn’t sell out rapidly because he could never supply a greater demand.

The Palo Cortado is a rare wine because it is an accident when it’s made. A barrel lot of wine that is supposed to turn into Fino Sherry does not. Instead of turning into the more richly scented Amontillado, it becomes the more delicate Palo Cortado.

The dry form is even rarer than you might think since so many producers sweeten their Palo Cortado. And in this form, the wine is a fantastic accompaniment to rich soups. I find that a tablespoon in a bowl of soup often helps to flavor the soup and make it match better with the Sherry.

One evening last week, George and I sat around after dinner sipping a glass of Sandeman Fine Dry Oloroso. I had asked that it be served after dinner, even though such a dry wine is usually thought of as a before-dinner aperitif or with the soup.

“I’m surprised at how good this is after dinner, in place of the sweeter Sherry,” said Sandeman. “The only problem is that the aroma is a bit masked, being in this small glass.”

We asked the waiter to bring snifters, those bowl-shaped, small-stemmed glasses usually used for brandy or Cognac. Into those we poured the Sherry and voila! One swirl and out came a most amazingly floral, nutty and slightly brandied aroma. It was a revelation: a new way to serve dry Oloroso.

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The Fine Dry Oloroso from Sandeman sells for about $15 a bottle, but it is so complex and richly textured that only an ounce or so in a snifter can be enjoyed for a half hour. The floral quality of the wine comes from the grapes, the nuttiness from the solera barrels in which it was aged (an average of 18 years in cask), and the brandied aroma from the small amount of brandy added to fortify the wine.

Since you can get about 20 pours from a bottle, this means a glass will cost you about 75 cents.

But the end of an evening can be right for such sybaritic treatment. And in fact studies indicate that wine before bedtime really can help one sleep. Those “little old ladies” who take a sip of Sherry before bedtime may be following some homespun solution for insomnia, but it appears to have a basis in science.

An amino acid found in wine, gamma-amino-butyric acid (known as GABA), helps to calm the nervous system, creating a condition leading to sleep, according to Dr. Robert Kastenbaum, professor of gerontology at Arizona State University.

In a number of tests on older adults conducted by Kastenbaum, he said it was found that persons who had a hard time getting to sleep were helped by a glass of wine at bedtime. He said GABA acts like tryptophan to help calm the individual and can induce sleep.

In an interview, Kastenbaum said he tested moderate wine use in a number of nursing homes, where insomnia is a major problem. He said subjects generally said they got to sleep faster after a glass of wine than those patients who had had no wine.

“And wherever we did our research in a nursing home, the home continued to keep wine available after the study was over,” he said.

Sherry in all of its forms is underused in fine dining. Some of my most enjoyable wine/food pairings have been fine soups with Sherry--a consomme with a pale, bone-dry Fino; a marvelous Greek-style yogurt/cucumber/walnut soup with a dry Oloroso; appetizers with Amontillado.

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Sandeman’s line starts with the driest wine, a delicate Fino, designated Don Fino ($9.25), a pale, dry and fragrant wine that should be served chilled, preferably with appetizers, or by itself as a premeal sipper. (For the record, I prefer Ivison Fino Superior, which sells for $8.50, but the Sandeman is excellent.)

Sandeman also makes a Sherry called Character ($10.75) that is a slightly off-dry Oloroso--an almost perfect match for hearty soups and after-dinner sipping if you don’t want the dry wines already mentioned, either because of austerity or price. The Character Sherry is very rich and complex without being heavy.

Among the sweeter wines, the best and most expansive--and expensive--is called Imperial Corregidor, a truly amazing, Port-like dessert-style Oloroso that sells for $30 a bottle. It’s worth it.

Sandeman is one of the few producers to make a wine like this (though for some people Harvey’s Bristol Cream is perfectly fine at half that price). The Sandeman wine is, however, among the very best ever made in this style.

Single-cask and special designation wines of this type are occasionally made available by Corti Bros. in Sacramento, a retail chain that imports them. Also, you may see some of the Sherries from the house of Emilio Lustau made in sweet and dry Oloroso styles. Those designated Almacenistra are excellent.

Pedro Domecq also makes a few of these rare, concentrated and drier wines, and Gonzales Byass once had a marvelous wine in its line, called Alfonso Oloroso Seco. This is no longer imported, unfortunately.

But the Sandeman wines have wide distribution, and thus are easier to find.

Be aware, however, that for the Fine Dry Palo Cortado, Fine Dry Oloroso and Bone Dry Amontillado ($15), the entire allotment for all of Southern California was about 10 cases of each, and there was a total of only 200 cases of all three wines produced.

Wine of the Week: 1986 Gan Eden Cabernet Sauvignon (about $15) -- This wine won’t be released until Dec. 1, but it’s worth looking for, or asking a wine merchant to order. Lovely cherry and toasted vanilla elements in the aroma open to reveal very complex cedar and spice notes. The finish is lush and complete, with ample tannins for aging, but no rough astringency of so many young wines.

Wine maker Craig Winchell, who makes only kosher wines, used grapes from the Alexander Valley and aged the wine in a combination of French and toasted American oak barrels. Some 3,800 cases were produced. I discovered this wine two weeks ago while judging at the American Wine Competition/Cabernet Sauvignon event at Snowbird Resort in Utah. Results of the event (242 wines were reviewed by 28 judges) will be published in the January issue of International Wine Review. For a copy of that issue, send $2 to International Wine Review, P.O. Box 285, Ithaca, N.Y. 14851.


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