On a biting cold night when a thick blanket of snow lay on the ground, I went on a tapas-bar crawl as a guest of the Tortilla Club, a group of Spanish food and wine aficionados. Starting off at Fino, my first surprise was at how many tapas bars there are in London's Charlotte Street area. My next surprise was how much I found myself enjoying sherry with just about everything consumed that night. I enjoy fino and manzanilla as refreshing summery aperitifs, but their warm full-body and appetisingly tangy flavours made them good winter drinks too.
One of our merry band that night was Richard Bigg, the owner of Camino who recently opened Pepito, a sherry bar in Varnisher's Yard opposite King's Cross station. Pepito offers top-notch sherries from Hildalgo, Lustau and Fernando de Castilla, among others. Mr Bigg, as we must call him, has described sherry as "the best-value wine on the planet" and it would be hard to disagree. Unlike most wine, sherry is not so much made in the vineyard (the palomino grape on its own is nothing to write home about) as in the cellar. The creation of "flor", the snow-white veil of yeast on the surface, for fino and manzanilla, is unique, and the blending and ageing in cask of sherry's manifold styles take time and know-how.
The sherry that re-kindled my enthusiasm for fino this summer was Tio Pepe's En Rama Fino. Made to celebrate Gonzalez Byass' 175th anniversary, it was a first-ever bottling of a lightly filtered, unclarified Tio Pepe taken from the middle of the cask during spring, when the flor growth is at its thickest. Unfortunately, only 175 cases of this appetising sherry were made and it was drunk as quickly as it was sold. Its very popularity showed that perhaps the old prejudices based on sweet and sickly so-called "cream sherry" are starting to break down. Pity, then, that the sherry industry has queered its pitch by ganging together to maintain prices, even if high stocks and low prices make life tough for growers.
The growing popularity of tapas bars like Casa Brindisa, Barrafina and Barcelona Tapas offers great opportunities for sherry to show how well its mouthwatering qualities go with food of various kinds, whether shellfish, winter warming soups or a classic tortilla de patatas or plate of Iberico ham. En Rama sadly is no more, not for this year at least, but if you want to try a terrific lighter sherry, go for the Marmitey flavour and refreshing bite of Marks & Spencer's Fino Sherry, £5.99, from Williams & Humbert, or their tangy Manzanilla Alegria, £4.99, half-bottle, Cambridge Wine Merchants (01223 568993), or refreshingly yeasty-savoury Fernando de Castilla Classic Manzanilla, around £11.75, Define Food & Wine, Cheshire (01606 882101), WoodWinters, Bridge of Allan (01786 834 894).
For a nuttier style of sherry that has lost its flor, the Taste the Difference 12-year-old Dry Amontillado Sherry, £6.86 in a handy half-litre, Sainsbury's, is deliciously endowed with smoky undertones of caramel and coffee, yet finishes delightfully dry. Fuller and richer, Lustau's Dry Oloroso, half-bottle, £8.99, Laithwaites, is intensely aromatic with notes of caramel and butterscotch and a tantalising dried apricot fruitiness. For sheer complexity, few sherries can beat Hidalgo's 30 Years Old, Palo Cortado, Wellington VORS, £23.12, Christopher Piper Wines, Devon (01404 814139), a richly concentrated liquid elixir whose flavours and nutty dry finish are spellbinding.Reuse content