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If your knee-jerk response is ‘No, thanks’, you’re missing out. Spain’s signature fortified wine – and fino, in particular – is enjoying a renaissance. Chris Losh joined a tasting at Moro to put it through its paces
Hinge and Bracket have a lot to answer for. During the Eighties, the sight of the two dragged-up old dears trilling, ‘Sherry, dear?’, at each other across an antimacassar-adorned sitting room was the final nail in the coffin for the drink’s reputation in the UK.
It was an unjust fate for what is one of Spain’s greatest gifts to the wine world. And, despite those in the industry (sommeliers, wine buyers and journalists among them) having kept faith with this classic wine during its wilderness years, a significant portion of the British public has been more hesitant, worried that ordering it might be a faux pas on a par with turning up at Nobu dressed head-to-toe in Millets.
Happily, it looks like the tide is finally starting to turn, particularly when it comes to fino. The driest and palest of all types of sherry, it’s slowly gaining ground among more adventurous drinkers, whose tastebuds have outgrown the one-dimensional New World wines that have dominated the wine scene for a while. In their search for something with more complexity, they’ve realised that a good, properly chilled fino can more than deliver.
At the forefront of this stealthy sherry renaissance is Moro, one of London’s best modern Spanish restaurants. The owners, Sam and Samantha Clark, have had dozens of sherries on their list since opening in 1997, all of them available by the glass, and all of them served in the authentic Spanish way: in a copita, a glass whose tapering neck concentrates the drink’s aroma. Although most customers order it as an aperitif, the Clarks reckon it is capable of much more than that, its versatility making it perfect for tapas. And so it was to Exmouth Market, Moro’s location, that the panel headed to put Tio Pepe, Spain’s leading brand of fino, to a gastro-test, pairing it with a multi-course tasting menu.
First up was a typical line-up of Spanish bar-counter nibbles: paprika-dusted salted almonds, picos (crunchy little bullets of baked bread) and slices of manchego cheese. Admittedly, the ease with which the fino partnered the nuts wasn’t a huge surprise: it’s a classic flavour match. But the manchego was a revelation, the tang of the sherry cut through the richness of the cheese, overlaying it with a savoury, aromatic character.
Next came the real challenge: could Tio Pepe move from ‘stand up at the bar’ to ‘sit down at the table’? The first dish was clams cooked in a garlic and fino sauce with salsa verde and artichoke hearts. Received wisdom has it that it’s impossible to match wine with artichokes – they’re too bitter, knocking the fruit out of a wine to leave it tasting thin and metallic. But, as fino doesn’t have any fruit notes, it nimbly dodges that problem. Christine Parkinson sums up the panel’s response: ‘Tried with a mouthful of the clams, it’s polished and mannered. But, with the artichoke, it ditches the bow tie in favour of a biker jacket – it’s much more muscular, and tones down the artichoke’s bitterness.’ It’s near impossible to find a conventional wine match, so it’s not stretching things to say that a fino like Tio Pepe really was the only viable option.
So why don’t more people take the leap? It’s possible that the unlovely word ‘fortified’ might be one reason. ‘As sherry is a fortified wine, people shy away from it because they think it has a really high alcohol content,’ says Danny McSorley. ‘But it’s not true. It’s 15 per cent abv.’ Indeed, the alcohol wasn’t noticeable in either of these first two matches. Could the fino keep up the high score rate with the pan-fried wild mushrooms (again cooked in fino) and chopped almonds served on toast drizzled with olive oil? Certainly it did a good job of cutting through the oiliness, as well as leavening its richness and saltiness. The panel agreed that maybe a dry amontillado would have been more of a five-star match with the mushrooms but, the fino did a more than acceptable job.
The arrival of some croquetas – crisp parcels of ham, chicken and béchamel – moved the menu firmly back into conventional tapas territory, but Sam Clark had included them for a reason – to demonstrate that ‘you can transform quite ordinary food by drinking it with fino’. He was right – the sherry lifted this simple dish into something rather more elegant. Finally we arrived at what was possibly the most challenging dish: charcoal-grilled sardines with Moroccan chilli harissa on the side. Spices are notoriously hard to match, the alcohol often exaggerating the heat. But not this time – the fino cut through the oil, which in turn subdued the chillis. This was not so much a match as three big-flavoured components all slugging it out on equal terms, and it worked very well. No mean feat, insisted Jeremy Rockett. ‘When a dish’s flavours are so big, a good wine match is tricky to pull off.’
The final challenge was seeing how the wine coped with a luscious pork fillet, overlaid with a strip of pata negra ham and a roasted padron pepper. Hopes for this match weren’t high (fino is traditionally much more of a seafood pairing) but, in fact, it was excellent with the pork, reasonable with the ham and failed only with the vegetal green pepper.
El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià has gone on the record as saying that fino is the one drink that goes reasonably well with almost everything, and our panel weren’t about to contradict him. ‘The thing with tapas is that not every match has to be perfect,’ says Sam Clark. ‘Each new dish changes the wine, and even if you don’t love every combination, you can still get by with it.’ Christine Parkinson agrees: ‘Tio Pepe showed real versatility.’ So, if you’re looking for a multi-tasking wine to go with tapas, then this should be it. Time to bin the Hinge and Bracket factor once and for all.
Paprika-dusted salted almonds, picos and slices of manchego cheese
Clams in a garlic and fino sauce with salsa verde and artichoke hearts
Pan-fried wild mushrooms and chopped almonds on toast
Ham and chicken croquetas
Charcoal-grilled sardines with chilli harissa
Fillet of pork with pata negra ham and roasted padron pepper
All of the dishes featured can be tried with Tio Pepe at Moro. Sam and Sam Clark’s new book, Moro East, is published by Ebury Press on 1 November at £25.
34-36 Exmouth Market, EC1. 020 7833 8336
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2007