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I have been stewing over this post and then putting aside and then picking it back up for a couple of months now.

Wouldn’t you know it: just as I get ready to post, the Globe does a piece on sherries. And then my friend Tammy tells me yesterday that the Vintages site is featuring Spain and some sherries, so it looks like we’re all on the same page, as it were — looking at ways to pair food and sherry because it’s such a great idea.

This is how it started.

At the Terroir Symposium at Hart House last March, I found myself sitting next to sommelier Tammy Dopson. Before long we were on the subject of Spanish wines, which we both love, when she pipes up, What a shame about sherry. They are so great, but they’re so hard to sell, because people just don’t understand them.

That’s when the light bulb went on. Wouldn’t it be great to do a meal matching food to sherries? she says. a natural thing to done. And that’s exactly what we did.

We set the date for mid April, wrote the menu, sent out invites, and Tammy went shopping for sherries. It is actually quite hard to find good sherries in Toronto. She scoured the far reaches, but at the end, there it was — the city’s best collection of sherries, in my refrigerator, thanks to brilliant sleuthing by Tammy, and here is how it all went down.

Tasting and paring notes by Tammy Dopson of Wine Seller Services.

Canapés

  • Japanese soba noodles, greens & miso dressing
  • Ginger shrimp dumplings
  • Annatto roasted pork tenderloin & corn salsa

Our first was the El Maestro Sierra Fino (with a whopping 16% alcohol) and the Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada. The nutty, aromatic fino worked with all the delicate flavours of the canapes. However, the salty Manzanilla brought more to the table by amplifying the taste of each ingredient. Both matched well for different reasons, but the overall impression was that the Manzanilla accentuated the positive in all of these canapés.

The main meal

King mushroom, petit pois, asparagus & manzanilla* oil dressing

(To avoid confusion, manzanilla in this case refers to fresh organic chamomile from my in-laws  garden. I infused the leaves and buds for five weeks in extra virgin olive to pair it up with this dish.)

We chose Bailen Dry Oloroso from Osbourne because the tasting notes cite mushroom and almond, and we weren’tt disappointed. Going to this oloroso from the lighter sherries we paired to the canapes seemed to make every bite much more fulfilling. This very solid, good value wine harmonized all elements of this course. We also went back to see how the Manzanilla would do with this course . As much as the flavours were a bang-on match, the overall mouth feel didn’t have the same impact as the oloroso.

Duck confit w/sweet potato & caramelized onions

Anticipating sweet notes, we moved onto another oloroso, which boasted its own caramelized accents but had extreme dryness in the finish. The Asuncion Oloroso by Alvear (weighing in at 19% alcohol) was a slam-dunk in how it meshed with the sweet potatoes and onions. The duck was brought into the fold as the sherry wrapped it in layer of tropical nut flavours and citrus notes.

Calamari and chorizo w/ fennel, sweet peppers & lemon

With the move toward some spice, we decided to temper the mild flame with some less dry sherry styles. We cracked open the very rare 20-year-old Dos Cortados Palo, and Nutty Solera Oloroso, a perennial favourite. Eyes were smiling around the table as we discovered the duel nature of the Palo Cortado. It starts out like a fino and morphs into an oloroso, giving us the best of both worlds, catering to all palates. The fleeting caramel notes, intense dry finish and balanced acidity made this course more delightful than it already was. The Nutty Solera also did very well. The nose was intriguing, and the spice and fruit notes welded themselves to the proteins in this plate. This is the best value on the market for sherry.

Lobster raviolo & cilantro-lime emulsion

This course called on the two wines form the previous course. The Solera’s nuttiness emphasized the shellfish flavours beautifully, but Andrew [as in Andrew Gardener, General Manager of Reds, a guest and fellow wine-lover] and I had a retro moment, flipping back to the Sierra Fino for this dish, since fino is hailed as a classic match with lobster. We were glad we did, because the fino took the mild lobster flavour and made it sublime, despite feeling lighter on our already besotted palates.

Spanish queso fresco, membrillo, pistachio

We started with the medium dry Del Principe Amontillado Muy Viejo. The cheese and the crisp nature of the amontillado were a great match here, so that neither food nor wine overwhelmed the other. The wine chocolate and almond notes played out well enough, but not fabulously with this dish. We decided to revisit this wine with dessert. The Palo Cortado was tried again, with continuing raves about how well it went with everything. Then we decided to revisit the drier Oloroso Gran Barquero —not technically considered a sherry because it is not from Jerez region. The tasting notes on this wine mentioned pistachios, and the smoky, full-bodied wine did not disappoint and offered proof of how easy sherry’s food-compatibility was. It is big on nuts, but the tactile cohesion of the dish and the oily yet crisp wine were a fine marriage.

Vanilla-roasted pears, pressed yogurt & Mexican honey

The medium-dry amontillado impressed but not nearly as well as the Royal Cream Sherry from Real Tesoro. I think we all have memories of our grannies hoarding the sweet stuff in their pantries. But that became history as the sweet wine cut through the dairy creaminess and matched the pear and honey flavours with chocolate and caramel.

I brought chocolate covered pretzels for some fun, and we had them with the cream sherry and a rare but exquisite Oloroso Dulce Matusalem Muy Viejo from Gonzalez Byass, which was not cheap, hard to find and only to be shared with those who get’s it. And I think we forgot all our troubles at that moment, extolling the virtues of this sweet nectar and how it finished our night on a high. This sexy 30-year- old dulce has been described as Christmas in a bottle. Looks like it came a little early this year.

Thanks Tammy, for having such a great idea, helping me to make it happen, running around town for these gems and taking us on a tasting tour.

::

And this, of course begs the question: Who’s pouring great sherries in Toronto?

Top of my list is Casa Barcelona, with over 40 to try. Cava is easily a strong second. Torito is strong in third place and a personal favourite. Owner Veronica Laudes is working on adding even more sherries to her list. Also look to Embrujo Flamenco on the Danforth, covering the east end of town.

The master list of that evening’s sherries, with notes:

El Maestro Sierra Fino from El Maestro
Penetrating grass, olive brine and almost floral

Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada from Bodegas Hidalgo
Rich, exotic, aged, fresh-baked apples, apricots

Bailen Dry Oloroso from Osbourne Y Cia
Almond, dried stone fruits, spicy, mushroom, almond, sea salt, white pepper, long finish

Asuncion Oloroso from Alvear
Dry, medium body, caramel, nut and marmalade nose

Dos Cortados 20 Year Old Rare Old Dry Palo Cortado from Bodegas Williams & Humbert
Simultaneously full bodied and very dry, intense nuttiness, creamy caramel character

Nutty Solera Oloroso from Gonzalez Byass & Co.
Raisin nose, marmalade, toasted nuts, cinnamon, well rounded and medium dry

Del Principe Amontillado Muy Viejo
Medium sweet, chocolate, cherry, fig, almond

Gran Barquero Oloroso from Perez Barquero
Dry, smoky caramel, pistachio, almonds

Royal Cream Sherry from Marqus del Real Tesoro
Chocolate, caramel, nutty tones, medium sweet

Oloroso Dulce Matusalem Muy Viejo from Gonzalez Byass
Fruit cake, molasses, marmalade, pecan, pine needles

Three more sherries to praise …

Lustau, Solera Reserva
Rare amontillado, dry, rich, subtle, remarkable character

Aranda Cream, Sherry de Jerez
Very rich, fruity, with the flavour of an old oloroso

Suret de Picar, Toro Atravesado
Very dark, strong smell and full bouquet

Yours in good food and great sherries,

Carlos

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*Spanish for: "Mmm. Wow. That's good!"