Sherry and Cigars: A Versatile Pairing
These endless winter days and the ongoing gloom in the world can wear one down. It can be somewhat edifying to reflect, think back to more pleasant times, and look forward to their imminent return. Andalucia, the sun-drenched south-west corner of Spain provides this escape. It is also the home of sherry, the subject of this article.
3 towns define the perimeter of the ‘Sherry Triangle’. The top-most point is Jerez, the namesake capital of sherry; bottom right is Sanlucar de Barrameda, located on the south west Atlantic coastline; and bottom left El Puerto de Santa Maria. This little corner of Spain is the only place where sherry is made.
Sherry production is fiendishly complicated, but for the neophyte, there are only 2 elements to consider: Flor and the Solera system.
Flor yeast (or its absence) is the defining characteristic of sherry. Flor-based sherries - such as Fino or Manzanilla - are biologically aged (e.g. under a protective layer of yeast), yielding a light, bready, citrus freshness. Non-flor-based sherries - such as Oloroso - are oxidatively aged (e.g. in the absence of this layer), yielding a richer, nuttier aroma and palate.
Left: Mornings in Jerez. Right: Bodegas Williams & Humbert - The Cathedral Style.
The Solera system is a unique ageing system which allows maturation. The barrels in a solera are arranged in tiers, known as criaderas, which contain wine of the same age. Young wine is added to the top tier, the oldest wine in the bottom tier is ready to be bottled. As wine is removed from barrels in the oldest criadera, the barrels are duly filled from the second criadera and so on. The micro variances in these criaderas allow the cellar-master to manage multiple permutations reflecting both the style requirements of the desired sherry and the constraints of the vintage.
With this context, think of sherry types as occupying a continuum of flavours, from light to full bodied. Let me briefly outline the various sherries within this continuum:
Fino (15% ABV):
This is the archetype when people think of sherry. Fino – derived from the Palomino grape - is aged entirely under a layer of flor, which as stated above impedes contact with oxygen. This process yields a drink which has a flavour profile unlike any other wine. The colour is pale yellow. Its aroma evokes citrus, bread, almonds, even herbs. It is a marvellous, elegant aperitif.
Manzanilla (15% ABV):
This is exclusively produced in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. The cooler temperatures and higher humidity yield a thicker layer of flor. This flor lends itself to a lighter, more delicate variant of Fino, while the coastline imparts maritime characteristics such as saline and sea-spray. Clearer in colour than Fino, Manzanilla is bracing, precise yet delicate. In the relentless summer heat of Andalucia, Manzanilla – served ice cold - has no equal.
Oloroso (circa 20%-24% ABV):
Oloroso is distinct from Fino and Manzanilla in that it is produced without flor. This is achieved by using a higher concentration of alcohol, which prevents the flor from naturally occurring. The wine is therefore exposed to oxygen which yields a different flavour profile entirely. Oloroso expresses nutty aromas, combining dried fruits, balsamic notes, even tobacco. These traditionally dry sherries are typically enjoyed with meat or strong cheese. It is not uncommon in Andalucia to order Oloroso with your main course, but approach with caution!
Amontillado (circa 16%-20% ABV):
Amontillado is a hybrid of Fino and Oloroso. It begins as a Fino with the flor layer intact. After 3-4 years, the cellar-master adds further grape alcohol which eliminates the flor layer, allowing oxygen to reach the wine. This process yields an intriguing hybrid of the 2 sherry types, with hints of yeast and citrus offset by nutty and dried fruit notes. It is a marvellous drink and a sophisticated pairing at the early stages of a dinner, say with a mushroom or game consommé.
Pedro Ximenez (12% ABV):
Pedro Ximenez is quite different from the other sherries which rely on the Palomino grape. The Pedro Ximenez grapes - with their characteristically high levels of acidity and sugar – are harvested then dried in the sun on straw mats. This process causes the water to evaporate, concentrating the sugars. The product is typically fermented for 3-5 years and the resulting drink is extremely sweet and concentrated, balanced by high levels of acidity. It has intense dark colour with aromas and palate of figs, dates, coffee and liquorice. Chilling Pedro Ximenez offsets the sweetness somewhat, making for an intriguing digestif.
SUGGESTED CIGAR PAIRINGS:
These sherries can then be seen to follow the arc of a meal: as an aperitif, an accompaniment and / or conclusion to a lunch or dinner. A few suggestions then with this sequence in mind:
Consider a shorter, lighter vitola for your Fino or Manzanilla. The Perla format (102mm, 40 ring gauge) provides an enjoyable 20-minute smoke.
A Rafael Gonzalez Perla serves this purpose very well. Despite its reputation as one of the lighter flavoured brands, this little cigar packs plenty of punch with oaky, earthy flavours.
Alternatively, one can reach for a Cohiba Siglo I. The Siglo I is a classic from the Linea 1492 selection, whose triple fermentation ensures a refined, integrated smoke. A delightful smoke with flavours of coffee, cream and sweetness.
As you move into your meal, the fruit and nuttiness of an Oloroso would pair very nicely with a cigar in the classic Corona family which would provide 30-40 minutes of smoking pleasure. I would suggest a mild to medium cigar which offer a complementary flavour profile.
Consider for example the Trinidad Coloniales (132mm, 44 ring), with its elegant construction and pig’s tail cap. This beautiful cigar is one of the ‘new classics’ introduced in 2003 when Trinidad became more widely available to the general public. Coffee, light earth and cedar.
H. Upmann Magnum 46 (143mm, 46 ring) is the Corona Gorda vitola from the long-lived H. Upmann brand. The Magnum 46 is a light-medium cigar, combining sweet notes of cinnamon with delightful earthy, toasted tobacco aromas.
Pedro Ximenez will likely mark the conclusion of your meal. It can be enjoyed with a coffee and is a splendid foil for a full-flavoured cigar. Enter the Piramide.
The highly anticipated Partagas Serie P No. 2 (156mm, 52 ring) was introduced in 2005 and has been extremely successful since this time. Its 52-gauge girth provides copious volumes of smoke. Flavour is full, with spicy, decadent and rich characteristics.
A Bolivar Belicoso Fino (140mm, 52 ring) is not a trivial undertaking given the reputation of the Bolivar brand in general, and this Campana vitola specifically. Nevertheless, this cigar will reward with rich, smooth and earthy flavours which you will taste for hours. A short lie-down won’t go amiss after one of these.
Post-Prandial Smoke in Sanlucar
POSTSCRIPT: JEREZ AND SANLUCAR DE BARRAMEDA
If this article stimulates any deeper interest in the subject, I would urge the reader to continue his / her post-lockdown explorations in Andalucia itself.
For the sherry explorer, Jerez is an excellent place from which to start one’s investigations. It is a charming, elegant, anglophile town which somehow avoids the crowds heading for Cadiz or the resorts along the Mediterranean coast. In Jerez, sherry is omnipresent. The bodegas (Gonzlez Byass, Sandemann, Williams and Humbert etc) are dotted throughout the town and the sweet smell of the sherry must can be perceived on every street corner. Lazy days are punctuated by long siestas in the afternoon, and aperitifs start anywhere from 7-9pm. Of note is Bar Juanito, an absolute classic drinking spot, adjacent to Plaza del Arenal.
If time permits, drive to Sanlucar de Barrameda, home to several important bodegas including La Gitana, Barbadillo and Hidalgo. The main drag running along the estuary - Caja de Guion – offers some of the best seafood in the region. Casa Bigote is the most esteemed of the restaurants along Caja de Guion. Call ahead, book a table overlooking the waterfront, get a bottle of ice-cold Manzanilla and order liberally from the menu. The langoustines are exquisite.