Tag Archives: sherry

Drink Like a Founding Father this Independence Day

Back in the early days of  America, when water wasn’t always safe to drink due to lack of proper sanitation, our Founding Fathers needed to find some way to stay hydrated. Ingeniously, those clever men who brought us the Declaration of Independence also came up with a foolproof way to consume liquids without the risk of water-borne disease: alcohol. It was widely understood that alcohol killed bacterial contaminants, and while it came with its own set of risks, it was deemed much safer (and much more fun) to drink.

While distilled spirits and beer were popular choices, our Founding Fathers (especially noted connoisseur Thomas Jefferson) often turned to wine as their beverage of choice. Early attempts at planting grapes in the New World were unsuccessful, as the European grape varieties brought over by colonists were not suitable for surviving American pests and vine diseases. Therefore, imported wines were widely preferred. In honor of Independence Day, raise a glass of one of the following wines to our Founding Fathers:


While today we think of this sweet, fortified Portuguese wine as an after-dinner drink, our Founding Fathers would often consume Port alongside the meal itself. If you prefer bright, fresh red fruit flavors, try a Ruby Port. For more complex notes of caramel, nuts, and dried fruits, turn to a Tawny style.


Like Port, Sherry was also frequently drank with dinner. This fortified wine from Jerez, Spain comes in a wide variety of styles ranging from bone-dry to sticky-sweet, but the sweet-toothed  colonists tended to have a preference for the sugary stuff. Dry styles, like Fino, Amontillado, and Oloroso, can pair beautifully with a meal, while sweeter styles like Pedro Ximénez and Cream Sherry are perfect for dessert.


You won’t find Scuppernong in many wine shops today, but in colonial times this was one of the few Native American grape varieties to be planted successfully with appealing results. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was so fond of it that he planted it at his Monticello estate. It is still produced by some wineries in North Carolina, where it is the official state fruit.


This French import which is associated with class and quality today has maintained that stature since the days of our founders, when it was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams. Back then, Bordeaux was also known as “Claret” – named as such for the pale color it took on in the early days of its production (the word is derived from the latin for “clear”). By the Colonial Era, it had come to resemble the deep red hue we know today, but the name stuck, and is still commonly used in the British wine trade.


While Madeira’s heyday in America has long since passed, it was actually one of the most important alcoholic beverages in the days of our Founding Fathers. So important, in fact, that it was used to toast both the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. George Washington is said to have drank a pint of Madeira every day with dinner. And with good reason—that stuff is delicious. Whether you prefer the searing acidity of the Sercial style or the candied sweetness of Malmsey, this intentionally oxidized and cooked fortified wine from the eponymous Portuguese island deserves to make a comeback. Why not give it a try this July 4th?

Off the Beaten Path: Spanish Finos

Leaving Madrid on a Southbound train, Europe’s highest capital city scales down to scattered suburbs before disappearing entirely. Olive trees step in and take the place of buildings. Beautiful and then monotonous, the scenery is one continuous stream of thousands of olive trees on thousands of white rolling hills. My recent trip to Spain lasted only nine days, just enough time for me to explore Andalucia’s historical treasures and discover the Montilla-Moriles wine region, located 30 km south of Cordoba.

Cordoba itself is famous for its rich history as a Roman city and then a Moorish capital until its reconquest by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1236. Hundreds of years of Moorish rule produced the architectural jewel, the Mezquita. Recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, the Mezquita is a rare architectural example of two of the worlds greatest religions occupying the same space and time. A single visit allows one to see a 8th century mosque and a 13th century cathedral. Moving to say the least and a bit like meeting a celebrity for history buffs like me.

As usually happens wherever Roman roads lead, vineyards follow. Less famous than it’s popular big brother, Jerez, the Montilla-Moriles region is a collection of small towns connected by the swathes of olive trees and vineyards. The earth here is poor in organic nutrients but high in calcium carbonate, a result of a rich concentration of ancient seashells. In fact, if one looks closely at Cordoba’s many city walls, one see’s hundreds of fino picintact seashells. Calcium carbonate helps retain moisture in this hot, arid region.

First a bit about the word "Sherry." I bring this up because one finds wines from Montilla-Moriles labeled as "Sherries" at restaurants or wine shops. Like "Champagne," true "Sherry" comes only from Jerez region. Jerez employs the Solera process for making its famed wines. Now zip over to Montilla-Morilles which also employs the Solera process. Using similar techniques produces similar wines, these similarities cause them to be lumped together into the "Sherry" category. There are many types of "sherries" but the one explained here is the Fino. Difficult to find and underappreciated, the Fino has escaped the notice of the American market. However, these wonderful wines can forever change one’s notion of what wine tastes like. These are delicate, dry wines, lacking fruity aromas. Instead they display salty and nutty aromas. Fino’s are incredibly popular in Spain and enjoyed with or without food. Given their rarity, I was extremely pleased to find a little time to explore at least one Bodega and see the Fino winemaking process in-person.

We arrived in the white-walled town of Montilla without any plan, map or reservation, risky in a region that enjoys very long siestas. Thankfully, the city provided signs pointing the way to its many Bodegas. We attempted to find the tourist station but gave up after seeing so many signs pointing the way. Getting a bit lost landed us at the door steps of Bodegas Cruz-Conde.

Our guide explained that, unlike Jerez, where the primary grape is the Palomino grape, here the primary grape, Pedro Ximenez, serves as the base for all for all of its wines. While Jerez is situated near the Atlantic, Montilla is about 5 hours inland and experiences very hot and dry conditions. This desert climate relies on a high concentration of calcium carbonate to maintain soil moisture. The vines here are not trellised and grow small and gnarled. With pride, our guide told us that grapes grown here ripen fully in the intense heat and consequently achieve higher sugar levels. This is critical because higher sugar levels allow for higher alcohol levels. So high, in fact, that these wines are not fortified at all at reach and reach fifteen-percent alcohol! This is huge difference from Jerez wines because, in Jerez, the grapes are unable to reach high sugar levels and must be fortified with brandy to increase the alcohol content to roughly fifteen-percent. Consequently, wines from Montilla-Moriles exhibit much lighter bodies and more delicate and subtle aromas.

We were guided into the wine cellar where the wine is barrel aged after fermentation. The barrels were stacked in layers up to 4 barrels high (and go higher where space permits). The ground level layer of barrels is called the "Solera" and derives from the the word "suelo" meaning "floor". The layers stacked on top are the crianzas. The Solera level barrels contain the oldest wine, the next layer up contains slightly younger wine, and so on with each layer. Logically, the youngest wine is found in the barrels stacked at the very top. Wine for bottling is taken from the solera level barrels (the oldest wine) and replenished with wine from the barrels immediately above them (slightly younger wine). Those barrels in turn are replenished with yet younger wine from the barrels stacked on top of them. Thus, younger wine is constantly filtering down to the solera level barrels. Complicated and labor intensive? You bet, but this process allows for uniformity and constant vintage blending. As a visual learner, I really needed to see it in person to appreciate the process. While traditionally unique to Spain (and a handful of other places in Europe), the use of a Solera to blend wine is now appearing in the New World.

But the real magic happens inside the barrel during the blending process. The barrels are only partially filled, creating a large air space. Within that airspace yeast thrives and creates a yellowish veil of "flor" over the surface of the wine. The flor simultaneously shields the wine from the air and imparts the major nutty and salty aromas present in these wines.

So what the heck does a "veil" of yeast on wine look like? Well, thankfully, our guide was ready with a glass-walled barrel so that we could see inside a barrel. Yup, it looks like a layer of yellow muck floating on the wine. Delicious.

So how about a barrel tasting? Because the flor layer protects the wine from the surrounding air, our guide explained, it is critical that the flor be disturbed as little as possible so that once the layer is broken and wine collected, the flor can immediately close over the hole and prevent bacteria from contaminating the wine. To do this our guide showed us a "venencia." The long flexible handle is made of baleen and at the end is a narrow cup (narrow to make a only a tiny hole in the flor). Our guide lined the venenzia up as straight as possible and dipped in and out quickly, then swung the venencia up high and poured its contents into the glass. I took a photo of myself pretending to do the same.

I took a sip and was so pleased to find the characteristic bone-dry, nutty, salty air qualities that make Fino’s so special and unique. These wines may not sound like a wine you might enjoy, but they have a mouthwatering quality about them and unexpected food friendliness that keeps Fino lover’s scouring wine lists to find them.