When a decent sherry was just the job

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Sherry wines formed an essential part of the provisions for all vessels sailing to the New World.

Wine columnist RICHARD CALVER gets a trifle nostalgic about sherry. 

DID I already tell you my déjà vu joke? I am feeling nostalgic about the trifle that features in the now deceased Keith Floyd’s “A Feast of Floyd” published in 1989. 

Richard Calver.

I haven’t made that dessert in about a decade. Not because the law isn’t concerned with trifles, only just desserts, but because even I baulk at using the amount of cream the recipe calls for. 

In fact, I got out the cookbook to make his moussaka, which is excellent and found myself looking aimlessly at the recipes I no longer make, including the trifle. 

Not only is cooking with the amount of butter and cream Floyd prescribes out of fashion but there it was, in the trifle recipe, a reminder of a similarly out-of-fashion wine. The trifle recipe calls for the addition of up to 100ml of a “decent sherry” that you use to douse the sponge cake base.

The word “sherry” is an anglicisation of Jerez, an area of Spain where the white grapes traditionally used to make the drink are grown. 

It is a fortified wine, like port. That means neutral grape spirit is added to the wine to increase its alcohol content and which acts as a preservative. I went to the cupboard where I keep my spirits and, lo, in the back there are two bottles of sherry that I recall were both purchased for cooking purposes. 

One is from Spain and so can carry that nomenclature: it is a Valdespino Pedro Ximenez sherry at 17 per cent alcohol by volume and costs around $25 a bottle. 

It is mahogany in colour, sweet and dense and goes well in puddings: perhaps the “decent sherry” of which Floyd speaks. But from 2011 “sherry” produced in Australia cannot be called “sherry” but can be called “cream, crusted/crusting and solera fortified”. 

It is also possible for Australian wine-makers to invent their own descriptor or trademark, which surely you would do rather than name a wine “crusty”, a description that evokes my idea of a fictional dog food. 

My other bottle shows that McWilliams exercised that option and this “Royal Reserve” is simply described as “Dry”. It might also soon be described as “rare” because, unfortunately in January this year McWilliams went into administration after more than 140 years as a family business. 

Sherry reached its popularity peak about 40 years ago. One source tells me that in the late 1970s roughly twice as much was exported from the south of Spain than is exported today. 

The closest I could come to a similar statistic for Australia was Wine Australia telling me that all: “Fortified wine currently accounts for two per cent Australian wine sold globally. Back in 1950, it accounted for 86 per cent of Australian beverage wine production, then fortunes faded for fortified wine when preferences switched to table wines in the 1960s.” 

Let’s face it, sherry is a drink we associate with our parents or grandparents. For example, Bridget Jones’s mother drinks it in Helen Fielding’s 1990s novel bearing Bridget’s name. My parents would often drink it as an aperitif and at least one NZ restaurant where I served in my early twenties had a cream of mushroom soup paired with an Oloroso sherry. 

But one of the things that changes fashion is economics. Sherry and its Australian equivalents are very good value for money, especially having regard to the high level of alcohol content they contain: you get a bigger bang for your buck even when buying the refined and delicious sherries. 

Roy Morgan research recently estimated that 3.92 million Australians (27.4 per cent of the workforce) are unemployed or under-employed. Given that in the depths of winter a fortified wine is warming, perhaps a penchant for sherry with our soup could return? Even without the soup. 


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Richard Calver
Richard Calver walks, talks, thinks, drinks and writes passionately about wine, especially the wines of the Canberra region.

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