I picked up "Port & Sherry: The Story of Two Fine Wines" by Patrick Sandeman. It was written in 1955, which makes it somewhat outdated, but I figured it would be a good introduction to Port and Sherry since I had no idea what either was about. I also thought that the production processes hadn't changed much since then, mostly because these methods are usually passed down through the generations, and they work.
Sandeman has been in business for about 200 years. Impressive, but easy for a company dealing in alcohol, in my opinion. My dad went on a trip to Spain and Portugal some time ago, specifically to pick up these beverages, and it kind of piqued my interest in the subjects.
The story of Port and Sherry reminds me of Champagne - only the sparkling wines that come from that region of France can label them as "Champagne". They have a monopoly on the name. The same goes for Port and Sherry.
Port comes from the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. It gets its characteristics mainly from the geographical region, the soil, and the weather. The soil is particularly rich in a soft foliated stone called schist.
The grapes are trodden in stone tanks and left to ferment for various periods of time. Fermentation turns the sugar in the wine to alcohol, so the longer it is allowed to ferment, the drier and less sweet it becomes. The fermentation process is stopped with the addition of neutral wine, also known as brandy.
One thing I found interesting is the color change factor in Port. When it is very young and new, it will have a rich purple color and is known as "Red Port". From this point on, it loses it color and becomes Ruby, Light Ruby, Medium Tawny and Tawny. The purple color disappears within a few years.
The book goes on to distinguish between Port from the Wood and Vintage Ports, how to serve, etc. I was just looking for some basic info so I pretty much skipped over that!
Then it came to Sherry. Sherry is from the Andalusian town of Jerez-de-la-Frontera. The name has been changed a lot over the years (called Shera by the Greeks and Sheris by the Arabs) and today is known as Jerez (pronounced "Herreth" - gotta love their accent).
Sherry is grown in three types of soils: albariza (chalk, magnesium and clay), barro (clay), and arenas (sandy soil). The quality of the grapes is best when grown in the albariza soil but does not yield as much as the barro and arenas soils. The vines grow and fall down the ground, so structures are needed to hold them up. Apparently, the grapes are so delicious that they must be protected. Lookout structures are called Bien-te-veo which roughly translates to "I can see you well", and guards preside over the vineyards here. Cool! The grapes grown here are Palomino, Mantúo Castellano and Pedro Ximénez. Sherry gets its distinct flavors from the distinctive and exclusive characteristics of the soil.
The special Pedro Ximénez is called "P.X." these days, and is incredible, or so I've heard! These grapes are sunned until they are almost like raisins, so the sugar concentration is extremely high! When they are pressed, a thick sweet syrup is produced which is then combined with brandy so that the sweetness is retained.
At the end of the Sherry section of the book, the author suggests using it in several cooking applications. My favorite was this:
"You will, we think, find also that a glass of rich "Brown Bang" Sherry with a slice of really fruity cake taken at mid-morning will tend to brighten the rest of the day."
Really, Mr. Sandeman?! Sherry in the mid-morning? Haha!
The books ends with this quote from Thackeray:
"Grudge myself good wine?As soon grudge my horse corn . . ."