Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sherry (Julian Jeffs' Acute Observations)

A venenciadora pours sherry drawn from a butt into a copita.

I.          No one has the right to tell others what they should drink, but that has never prevented them from asking.  The only possible answer is that people who drink sherry regularly generally agree about which styles suit certain occasions, and it is as well to try following their example before attempting something original .  But one’s own taste is all that matters. To be dogmatic is a form of ignorance, and it is often a manifestation of wine snobbery. Other people’s views may act as a guide, but they are only opinions, and they should be treated as such.

Gonzales-Byass's superb Del Duque amontillado sherry.  American Master of Wine Mary Ewing- Mulligan writes: "If you know Sherry, particularly amontillado, then you can get a sense of how Amontillado del Duque tastes by imagining a dryer, more concentrated amontillado than any you have tasted."  Served with olives here, I think it might be even more delicious with a biscuit (see below).

          For those who enjoy a glass of wine and a biscuit in the morning, any style of sherry is suitable, though the majority prefer a dry wine when the weather is hot and a sweeter wine when it is cold.  Likewise a wine that tastes too sweet as an aperitif before lunch may be acceptable before dinner in the cool of the evening.  Very dry sherry has an unaccountable snob appeal, but habitual wine drinkers do generally prefer such sherries as aperitifs;  others, who wish to appear knowledgeable, ape them, and often drink very dry sherries at the most improbable times.   My own preference is certainly for a wine without the least trace of sweetness, save in the depth of winter, when the sugar in a slightly abocado sherry is very comforting.

Professor George Saintsbury (1845-1933), author of the classic Notes on a Cellar-Book (1920)  and professor of English literature and rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh photographed in 1910 by James Lafayette.  A remarkable man.

Manuel-Maria Gonzales statue near the east end of the Jerez cathedral.  Gonzales founded the sherry firm that makes Tio Pepe fino sherry in 1835.  The sculpture is contemporary, however (1997).

        The great Professor Saintsbury suggested a meal with a different sherry for each course, and it is surprising that more people have not tried it.  Sherry is generally at its best with food.  In Spain, it is taken with a tapa.  The word means a lid, or cover, and  it is said to be derived from the old Spanish custom of putting a plate with a morsel of food on top of the sherry glass.  Bars in Spain compete with one another to provide good tapas, and the choice includes such things as cheese, prawns, fish, small steaks, tomatoes, olives, potato salad, chips, pate, fried squid, fancy sausages, egg, meat balls, salt cod, ham and a multitude of specialties.  Such tapas should be served more often in Britain; they are delightful in themselves and show the wine off to the best advantage.

Outside a tapas establishment in Barcelona.

Croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes) -- my very favorite tapa.  There are really no words sufficient to describe the lightness and subtlety of these when they are properly prepared.

II.        Fino sherries are particularly good with food and my own favourite working lunch is a large glass of fino sherry with a salad or with more easily portable food such as a slice of quiche or a well-filled sandwich.

An Andalusian mount at the feria in Jerez-de-la-Frontera, the city from which sherry takes its name.

Feria in Jerez-de-la-Frontera at night.

III.       While the second edition of this book was in the press, I got married and I proudly took my wife to the vintage feast in Jerez.  Soon after midnight the two of us, walking with a sherry-shipping friend in the feria, began to feel the need for dinner.  We were passing by a stand where they were spit-roasting chickens, basted with oil and flavoured with the most delicious herbs.  I ordered a chicken and a bottle of fino.  ‘A whole bottle for three?’ Deborah asked, aghast.  But she did not bat an eyelid when I ordered the second.  It is, after all, not so very much stronger than any table wines and one drinks more with impunity when well exercised and in the air of Andalusia.

The sea wall in Cadiz, near Jerez, during the day.   You can almost taste the tang of the sea, which reminds  you of sherry.  I wish I were in this photo right now.

IV.          There is a dictum of Robert Benchley that ‘Drinking makes such fools of people and the people are such fools to begin with, it’s compounding a felony.’  A man who drinks fine wine because he enjoys it will never become a drunkard:  wine stops being a pleasure long before it becomes a danger.  Taken the right way, it is wholly good.  During the Great Plague, only Dr Hedges, of all the London doctors, escaped contagion:  he drank a few glasses of Sherris-Sack every day and wrote in his memoirs:  ‘Such practice not only protected me against contamination, but instilled in me the optimism which my patients much needed.’  There is a legend that many years ago there lived an archbishop of Seville who so far exceeded the decent complement of years laid down in Holy Writ as to reach the age of a hundred and twenty-five.  He was a man of regular habits and drank a bottle of sherry with his dinner every day, save when he was feeling at all unwell; then he drank two bottles.

Diego Velasquez, Portrait of Gaspar de Borja y Velasco, Cardinal and Archbishop of Seville (1590-1645), Museo de Arte de Ponce (Puerto Rico).  Probably not the archbishop mentioned above.

V.          When a Jerezano opens a bottle of sherry, he throws a little on the floor before filling his glass.  There is good reason for this, as it gets rid of the wine that may have been corrupted by contact with the cork.  But it is also a ritual – a sacrifice to the earth that gave the wine its being.  Then he does the really important thing and drinks the rest of the bottle.  But he bears in mind the rule of St. Gildas, the Wise:

                          "If any monk through drinking too freely gets thick of speech so that he cannot join in the psalmody, he is to be deprived of his supper."

St. Gildas, the Wise (500-570), British cleric and author of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.  Renowned for his learning and literary style.  Fragments of letters he wrote reveal that he composed a Rule for monastic life that was somewhat less austere than the Rule written by his contemporary, Saint David, and set suitable penances for its breach.


Julian Jeffs recording notes at what appears to be a sherry  tasting.

I-V excerpted taken from:  Julian Jeffs, Sherry.  London, Faber & Faber, 1982 (3rd edition).

West facade of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona.  Climbing and walking within its walls is a very good way to test one's susceptibility to vertigo.

Reader Note:  Of all the books I've ever read concerning food and wine (there have probably been far too many), I think Julian Jeffs'  Sherry is the very best.  A former member of the sherry trade turned patent lawyer (Jeffs took his Cambridge undergraduate degree in science), Jeffs's book gives a concise, but complete and detailed account of sherry's history and manufacture, also weaving in the social history of this profound and important wine, which implicates deeply both Spain and England.   

Jeffs' Sherry has a special place in my mind and heart because it reminds me of the annual visits to Spain that Caroline and I used to make when we were much younger and Spain was incredibly affordable and welcoming to Americans -- especially Americans who tried their best to speak in Spanish and showed their enthusiasm for the country.  I will never forget an afternoon spent in Barcelona climbing through the walls of Gaudi's unfinished Sagrada Familia church.  Afterwards, we we stopped in at the closest cafe for a refreshment of fino sherry, served of course in the elegant glass called the copita, and presented with the traditional accompaniments of toasted almonds and green olives served in small bowls.  

I had always detested olives but, because I was in Spain and generally had near the front of my mind  my mother's oft-repeated advice to continue occasionally to try well-loved, popular foods for which  I had not yet acquired a taste, I decided I should give olives another try.  I then experienced one of those "eureka!" moments, leading to a happy olive-filled adulthood (well, the olive part, at least).  

A sherry cask with one transparent end showing the naturally occurring growth of the yeast "flor" on the wine.  Flor generation occurs with finos and amontillado sherries (not olorosos) and accounts in part for the specific character of these wines.

The top of Pedro Domecq headquarters in Jerez.  Domecq's La Ina flagship fino wine is always wonderful.  As with non-vintage champagnes, the fractional "solera" blending method, combining wines of many different vintages, yields very consistent levels of quality on a year-to-year basis.

Aging sherry casks of different vintages for fractional "solera" blending.

Jose-Ignacio Domecq.  One of the great men of the 20th century sherry business, a trade that combines art, business and science.  He always took a dramatic and distinguished photograph.

I find the sight of a copita filled with fino uplifting and filled with incredible promise.

Official coat of arms (escudo) of Andalusia.

Flag of Spain


  1. I share your admiration for sherry, which in fact led me to discover your blog. I knew Julian Jeffs slightly at the Bar - he led me in a small case just when he was about to retire. I bought his Reports of Patent Cases from him.

  2. Good afternoon (evening for you) Thomas. I really love Jeffs' Sherry book. That whole Faber & Faber series is very good, but Jeffs' book is the standout for me. Sitting here at the moment, having wrenched my back badly earlier today (while on a short beach weekend in connection with my wife's high school reunion), I could use a sherry, but don't have any in the house. It will have to be vodka and rest, I guess. By the way, I am also a lawyer. Mostly I've acted as in-house counsel for various companies, mainly in entertainment and media. The last was a firm called Deluxe, which was owned by a UK company, Rank Group plc. After Rank sold its non-gambling related businesses, we moved from our home in New York back to the Philadelphia area, where my wife grew up. We met in college here at a school called Swarthmore. Currently, I'm in private practice, advising both media and non-media clients. We greatly enjoyed your royal wedding festivities and wish tomorrow was a bank holiday for us. You can't have everything, I guess. Best regards, Curtis

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