Monday, December 26, 2011

Memorable Pairings of 2011

Well, of the last few months anyway. There have been a few truly memorable drinks and eats in the past months that I never found a way to write about here. So I'll compile them in a best-of-the-unposted list from the last part of 2011.

I was in Jerez in October, and one night I had dinner at La Carbona with Peter Liem and Eduardo Ojeda, the cellar master at La Guita and Valdespino. Eduardo brought several ridiculous bottles to this dinner, one of which was a bottle of La Guita Manzanilla Pasada...but from the mid 1970's! That's right, a Manzanilla Pasada that had spent the past 40 years in bottle. I'm telling you, the idea that Fino wines cannot age is simply wrong. When they are well made and stored properly they can be wonderful. This wine was stunning in its complexity, and also in its freshness.

We drank it with a perfectly grilled bone-in strip steak (I think that's the cut, anyway - you butchers out there can correct me based on the photo if need be). This steak would fare well against anything served at steak temples in NYC - seriously. And La Carbona is by not even a steakhouse. The pairing was fantastic - the umami depth of the wine complimented the meat and the freshness of the wine enlivened and cleansed the palate. An experience I must repeat at some point.

And more Sherry...Joe Salamone was also in Jerez in October, and he returned with a very fine bottle that as of now is unavailable in the States, a special Palo Cortado from Gutierrez Colosía, the very fine producer in El Puerto de Santa María. The average age of these wines is at least 40 years and the wine is a complexly concentrated elegant thing of finesse and beauty.

We drank this wine with home-cooking style Japanese food. It was great with everything, but drinking it with these fried oysters with miso and seaweed was among the most thrilling and delicious pairings I experienced all year. Savory briny sweet complex harmony.

I ate dinner with a few friends at Prune in the fall, and one of them drove in from Rhode Island with several absurd bottles in tow, one of which was the 1972 Leroy Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Lavaut St Jacques. The wine was closed down hard at first, not so unusual for a wine that's been under cork for the past 40 years. But it opened up and showed beautifully, with savory earthy tones and even a bit of very gently stewed fruit. Such a great treat, to be able to drink a majestic old wine like this. We ate all sorts of good things at Prune, and I am not sure, but I think we drank this wine with lamb sausages and all of us were swooning.

Peter generously brought a bottle of Selosse Champagne from France for my birthday in the fall. It is a new release called La Bout du Clos, a wine made entirely from that same vineyard in Ambonnay, from the 2004 vintage. This wine was a bit more quiet than other bottles of Selosse that I've experienced, the oxidative streak not as strong, the supple fruit and saline minerality of the wine doing the talking. It was a special treat.

Peter made a lovely dish of Champignon mushrooms and daikon radish simmered in dashi to go with it - a perfect harmony of savory flavors and aromas. And a concrete reminder, if we needed one, that Champagne is a great table wine.

Why, on Christmas eve my friend Dan Melia opened an absolutely gorgeous bottle of 2006 Marie-Noëlle Ledru Saignée Rosé, and we drank it with excellent grilled cheese sandwiches and various pickles. An unusual pairing, maybe, but Champagne is great with fried food, and the pickles didn't intrude at all. Ledru's Saignée is so very vinous, it's like drinking red wine that happens to have a few bubbles. The wine unfolded slowly and gracefully and was best right as it vanished, a compelling merging of fruit and mineral concentration with textural finesse and grace. Note to self: buy everything Marie-Noëlle Ledru makes before she stops making Champagne.

I've never had Violane before, the sans-soufre cuvée by Benoît Lahaye. This bottle comes entirely from 2008 and is a blend of equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I love Lahaye's wines, I love their clarity and focus, their delicate yet powerful expression of Pinot Noir from Bouzy. I loved this wine too, although it is definitely different from the other Lahaye wines I've had. First of all, there is no sulfur, and the wine shows an oxidative undertone that frankly reminded me of some of the Selosse wines I've had (yes, the wine is that good). There is an intense concentration of fruit aroma and flavor and the finish never really ends. We drank this wine on its own, and it was a wonderful pairing. I am drinking the dregs on day two as I write this, and gnawing on a piece of country wheat bread, and it is good.

I haven't had a wine from Santorini in over a year now, as after an initial love affair, I had a group of wines that showed too much sulfur and not enough deliciousness, and I kind of retreated. Not sure what I will do now, after this wine. Peter and I were trying to decide what to drink the other night with a dinner of breaded and fried veal cutlets, cauliflower with cumin, king oyster mushrooms, and garlicky greens. He saw a bottle of 2007 Sigalas Barrel Fermented Assyrtiko in my wine fridge and asked that we open it. I would never have picked that wine, and wow, was it a great pairing.

We decanted the wine about two hours before drinking it, and it was fantastic. The aromas were clear and fresh, vibrant. The wine has a unique aromatic profile, and now that it is maturing, it is articulate and detailed. For me the primary aroma is pumice - the volcanic rock. There is citrus fruit too, something floral, a Burgundian barrel-influenced sweetness, and all infused with this lovely slightly smoky savory-ness. Great freshness and acidity on the palate, balanced, and expressive. Simply delicious wine, and seems like its only beginning to grow into itself. The wine went so well with the veal cutlets, which I topped with a little deglaze of butter, lemon and chopped salted capers. It worked with the earthy cumin notes of the cauliflower and the savour of the mushrooms too. It was surprising to me how this wine offered enough richness to pair with everything on the plate, but also the brightness and refreshment to balance the meal.

This last one reminds me, as a new year approaches, of the value of being open minded, of welcoming new experiences, of being informed by and considerate of what I've learned to be true, but also of wanting to be wrong about things - of learning continuously. I hope that your 2011 ends in a lovely way, and that our 2012 is filled with happiness and learning and many exciting new pairings.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Babyback Ribs - Made Easy

Some recipes and techniques I like to keep to myself. I have to have something to impress you with if you come over for dinner, right? But some are so simple and so great that it becomes my civic duty to share. Here is one, a new one for me - a technique for cooking babyback ribs without a smoker or a grill. Honestly, it's as simple as it gets and total time is under two hours. Please address appreciative correspondence to:

The technique is this: because you are not going to cook the ribs in a smoker, or otherwise low and slow to tenderize the meat, you need an alternative for tenderizing. Boiling. Yes, boiling the ribs first. I was quite skeptical at first too. When I think of boiled meat I think of my great-uncle's holiday dinner in the Gulag. But boiling is merely to tenderize here, the ribs are finished in the oven, preferably with a glaze of some sort. Here's how:

Start with good quality ribs. I've tried both spare ribs and babyback and both come out great, but my kids can handle the smaller babybacks more easily, so that's what I go with.

Put the ribs in a pot and just cover with water. You are going to bring the water to a boil and then cover and reduce to a simmer for at least 45 minutes. This will tenderize the meat, and I like to think that some of the fat is removed too. I find that the smell is not appealing, so I add a little soy sauce to the water, and some aromatics like garlic, star anise, and black peppercorns. Honestly, I don't think this makes a bit of difference as far as the flavor of the meat, but it does make the house smell savory and spicy, instead of porky.

You can put the boiled ribs in the fridge until you're ready to use them, or glaze them and put them in the oven immediately. Glaze...whatever you like works. I've been enjoying a Chinese-style glaze of Chinkiang vinegar, soy sauce, honey, and a bit of chili paste. You can do anything you like here for a glaze, though. I want to try a ponzu glaze, and some sort of BBQ sauce. I imagine that in a pinch, you could use BBQ sauce from a jar, although you would first have to shave your beard and take off your worn-looking wool cap.

If you glaze and put in the oven right after simmering, as little as 20 minutes in a 325 oven is fine. But I've found that I get the texture I'm looking for after about an hour. I take the ribs out of the oven and apply more glaze every 20 minutes or so.

Ribs are rich and fatty. I like to serve mine with lots of greens, hopefully involving vinegar. This is not a new idea - this is the same idea behind cole slaw. Tatsoi is a healthy and very delicious green vegetable that does well cooked quickly in a wok. I did mine this time with a little Sherry vinegar and garlic.

On this night, my kids and I rolled some vinegared sushi rice in nori and that completed our plates. These ribs are delicious, and anyone who eats meat will love them. It's hard to describe the delight a parent feels when their young kids go to town on some protein, and that's exactly what happens every time I make this dish.

Beer would be good, Riesling, Sherry, there are many nice options. As crazy as it sounds, on this night I drank red wine with these ribs. Michel Lafarge makes one of my favorite Bourgognes. It is a regional wine, but it is very serious stuff. It comes from vines that were formerly classified as Volnay villages, and the wine typically needs a few years to fully express itself. The 2008 is in a place now where the meatiness and richness of the fruit is strong, but so is the sense of stoney minerality. The structure is firm but the texture is velvet - this is such a lovely vintage for this wine. And it was great with the Chinkiang-glazed ribs.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

You be the Sommelier

I thought it would be fun to do one more of these before the year ends. The other night, after picking up my kids and bringing them home to begin their week with me, I made a simple and quick dinner that we could eat together before bed time. Hamburgers, mashed potatoes, a few vegetables.

I like to use ground turkey when I make hamburgers, but ground turkey that has plenty of dark meat in it, meat that stays juicy and rich. The daughters' burgers were topped with cheddar, mine with Jasper Hills Bayley Hazen blue cheese, my favorite blue cheese. Mashed potatoes were made with russets, butter, cream, and salt - that's it. Orange bell peppers and Persian cucumbers marinated in a bit of Sherry vinegar finished everyone's plate. This is one of those dinners that makes everyone happy - kids and grownups alike.

What would you open with this meal? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and I'll leave a comment in a few days telling what I drank (and my younger daughter took a tiny sip of) with our dinner.

Friday, December 09, 2011

In Defense of Red Wine

I've been having a hard time with red wine lately. Okay, I never have a problem with mature Burgundy, or mature red wine in general. But when I'm alone and I feel like opening something to drink with dinner, or to just have a glass, I almost always reach for white wine these days. White wine is so much more versatile with food, so much easier to drink on its own. I'm speaking in broad terms, obviously, but I looked through what I've been drinking for the past few months and it's almost always white wine, unless some sort of special mature red is involved.

There could be many reasons for my bias. I did just go to Jerez, and I have been drinking a lot of Sherry. But I think it's more than that. I think that it's about easy drinking - I want to drink wines that clearly say what they are about, where they are from, that do not distract me with excess fruit or tannin, or any kind of excess. Lately, white wine just makes this happen for me far more often than red.

But of course there are red wines that continue to fit the bill. I've noticed that there are a few things that unite the everyday red wines that I reach for lately. They are lighter wines, wines that achieve balance above all else, and also express themselves with finesse and grace. Here are a few current favorites:

2007 Muhr-van de Niepoort Carnuntum Blaufrankisch, $20, Imported by Martine's Wines. This is definitely a wine that showcases ripe dark fruit, but that's only a part of the package. There is an unmistakable white pepper scent (I guess white pepper is more about Austrian soils than it is about Gruner Veltliner), and the nose is entirely graceful and expressive. The wine is perfectly balanced and feels great in the mouth. It satisfies on many levels - there is fruit, soil and mineral, and a pleasant leafy undertone. I must say, I've not been as impressed with a red wine in a while, as far as quality-to-price ratio goes. This is absolutely top notch wine, I bet it would improve with time in the cellar, and it sells for $20 before a mixed case discount. It isn't too hard to find in NYC (Blanc y Rouge in Brooklyn, Chambers Street Wines in Manhattan, among others), but if you're having trouble, try a wine by Moric - more expensive, but also great.

2008 Julien Labet Côtes du Jura, $36, Imported by Fruit of the Vines. Joe Salamone at Crush brings this wine to NYC and it's worth asking about. Objectively speaking, I think that Overnoy/Houillon's is the finest Poulsard out there, but that wine is basically impossible to find and it's gotten quite expensive. Labet's is excellent too. So light and graceful that it seems strange how well structured it is. This wine smacks of dried leaves and blood oranges and herbs and it's completely delicious. But what moves me about it now is how impossibly weightless and light it is, and still how clearly and pungently it expresses itself. If Labet's Poulsard proves to be too hard to find, there are several others out there. They should all be similar in their graceful delivery of Jura-ness.

2010 Clos de Tue-Boeuf Cheverny, $19, Louis/Dressner Selections. Red wines from Cheverny in the Loire Valley can include a variety of grapes. This one is made of Gamay and Pinot Noir. It is a lovely wine - high toned and bright red in fruit, a bit of forest underneath and a genuine crackle of energy that can be mistaken for effervescence - decant or otherwise aerate the wine and the energy is still there. This wine isn't for everyone - it's light and bright and flirts with volatility, and it doesn't offer anything in the way of power. It's not really about fruit either, although there most certainly is fruit. It's a refreshing and light wine that really is an expression of this place and this winemaker. If you try it, aerate the wine before you drink it.

2010 Domaine Guion Bourgueil Cuvée Domaine, $12, Imported by Fruit of the Vines. David Lillie at Chambers Street Wines is responsible for bringing this wine to NYC. This is the lighter of the two Guion Bourgueils, and I prefer it to the Prestige Cuvée, in general. The 2010 is a wine that I really like, although again, it's not for everyone. It is not a fruity wine, except for the first 10 minutes or so after opening. It's only $12 but it is a complete wine - a perfect balance of iron minerals, bloody dark fruit, and acidity, and the structure is firm but doesn't intrude in any way. This is an easy drinking wine that I think faithfully expresses terroir.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Matt Kramer's Making Sense of Burgundy - Some Quotes

I had a birthday in November and a friend gave me a fantastic gift - Matt Kramer's "Making Sense of Burgundy." This book was published in 1990 and it continues to be on most shortlists of great wine books. I actually have read almost no wine books, so my entire list is a short list. But I must say, this book is wonderful. It offers plenty of fun for the obsessive among us, listing every owner of every Grand and 1er Cru vineyard in the Côte d'Or, as of the late '80s, anyway. There is apparently no other published source of this information. Kramer also describes in matter-of-fact prose the characteristics of these vineyards and the wines they are capable of producing. There are discussions of value in Burgundy and the relative achievements of individual producers (and it's fascinating to compare his predictions about rising stars with the producers today who are making waves).

The section of the book that I find myself thinking abut the most, so far, is the chapter called "The Notion of Terroir." Kramer talks about all sorts of things here - you'll read about acupuncture, abstract expressionist painting, and the feudal ages in Europe, among other things. In this chapter are several passages that have really captured my attention and I find myself reading them over and over. Kramer shares his thoughts on terroir, and it's as compelling as anything I've read on that rather wide subject.

From page 39-40:

"Although it is derived from soil or land (terre), terroir is not just an investigation of soil and subsoil. It is everything that contributes to the distinction of a vineyard plot. As such, it also embraces 'microclimate': precipitation, air and water drainage, elevation, sunlight, and temperature. But terroir holds yet another dimension: It sanctions what cannot be measured, yet still located and savored. Terroir prospects for differences. In this it is at odds with science, which demand proof by replication rather than in shining uniqueness."

Hard to imagine a simpler and more effective notion of terroir, no?

And how about this, from page 42-43:

"The supreme concern of Burgundy is - or should be - making terroir manifest. In outline, this is easily accomplished: small berried clones; low yields, selective sorting of the grapes; and, trickiest of all, fermenting and cellaring the wine in such a way as to allow the terroir to come through with no distracting stylistic flourishes. This is where terroir comes smack up against ego, the modern demand for self-expression at any cost, which, too often, has come at the expense of terroir."

And this too, from page 45:

"The ideal is to amplify terroir without distorting it. Terroir should be transmitted as free as possible of extraneous elements of style or taste. Ideally, one should not be able to find the hand of the wine-maker. That said, it must be acknowledged that some signature always can be detected, although it can be very faint indeed when you reach the level of Robert Chevillon in Nuits-Saint-Georges; Bernard Serveau in Morey-Saint-Denis; or the marquis d'Angerville or Gérard Potel, both in Volnay, to name a few. The self-effacement of these producers in their wines is very nearly Zen-like: their signature is an absence of signature."

Fascinating ideas, I would say. So many things to think about in there. I wonder about some of the ideas in the final quote. Is it physically possible for there to be no signature? Wine is made, after all, and this handling of grapes leaves some trace behind. Or does it? And who is this Bernard Serveau, and I feel like a schmuck for never having tasted one of his wines. What do you think about when you read the above quotes? Were you as blown away as I am when you first read Making Sense of Burgundy?

I think I should read some more about wine. So, what are some of your favorite wine books? Not novels, I mean. Reference books, books that offer this sort of illumination about a place or certain wines.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Noël Verset Wine Dinner

Not too long ago I was fortunate enough to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Noël Verset. The company was great, and so were the food and the wines. But this was truly a special experience because Noël Verset's wines are no longer being made - they are quite rare, and are increasingly expensive when they can be found. To enjoy a dinner at which 10 different vintages are served...this is not something that can easily be repeated. Jaime Wolff of Chambers Street Wines hosted, and he and David Bowler organized the wines, mostly. The rest of us brought along a bottle and we cobbled together a vertical that spanned 10 vintages between 1988 - 2004.

Noël Verset made wines in Cornas that for many people define the potential greatness of the Northern Rhône and of Syrah. I cannot give you a scientific treatise on why Noël Verset's wines are so great, but I can share a bit with you of what I've learned from reading the interwebs and listening to educated people. Verset owned several choice plots of very old vines (some approaching 100 years old) in the best vineyards of Cornas, the tiny appellation in the southern-most edge of the Northern Rhône. He grew an old Syrah clone called La Petite Syrah, a clone known for aromatic complexity. He worked the vines himself until he was over 80 years old, and these are steep terraces, not easy. He began working in the vineyards of Cornas when he was 12 years old in the 1930's, so he knew a little something about growing grapes in this place. Verset did not de-stem the grapes and supposedly crushed them by foot. He was exacting in the vineyards and intelligent in the winery.

Verset made one wine and one wine only, combining the grapes from all of his parcels into one Cornas. I think it's interesting to think about that. We tend to value the idea of vinifying individual plots separately, as in Burgundy, and increasingly now in Champagne. Thierry Allemand makes vineyard specific Cornas, Auguste Clape made several wines from vines of different ages. Not Verset - everything that he selected in a given year went into his one wine.

Jamie was a truly gracious host, and made an excellent dinner, as usual. Stirring risotto makes him happy.

Could it really be that simple - great terroir, old vines, great plant material, good vineyard work, intelligent wine making? Maybe, maybe not, but Verset's wines stand apart from the black sea of ultra-concentrated, false Northern Rhône wines that make up the majority of what's available today. Verset's wines smell and taste right, like the essence of Syrah from that part of the world - Meaty, savory, funky, darkly fruited, olive-y, and vibrant with minerality and acidity. I love how the best bottles show an incredible intensity and focus while retaining every aspect of definition and clarity - these are big wines, and they are graceful and articulate too.

Jamie made, um, white truffle risotto. We drank the older vintages with it. It might seem strange, but I really enjoyed this.

Jamie made some delicious things to eat with these wines, and he and David did something that surprised me, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. They served the oldest wines first. In my (limited) experience, people tend to begin with the young wines and serve the oldest wines last. Young, tannic, acidic Northern Rhône Syrah might be best served after the more delicate and gentle mature wines.

With Verset, you get what the vintage gives - the wines are all quite different from one another. Some of these are wines that I've had before, others not. Some seemed to be in a prime drinking window, others were very young. I thought that the 1999 was the most perfect of the wines, objectively speaking, although it was clearly not mature enough to be at its peak. But it was a complete wine, with powerful fruit, minerals, great structure, intensity, and balance. It should be a thing of incredible joy and beauty in 10 years.

The 1988 and the 1993 were both compelling and wonderful wines, and both were ready for drinking in that the harder edges of structure had melted into the wine, and both wines showed a delicate side that accentuated the clarity of mature fruit and stony base. The 1988 in particular was a terrific wine, so classy and graceful, so expressive, perfectly seamless.

My favorite wine for drinking on this night was the 1998. To me, it showed a bit of the power and intensity of the 1999 and also the grace and harmony of the more mature wines, and it was utterly delicious in a riveting way.

The 1995 was a controversial wine, at least for me. I was perhaps the only person at the dinner who did not think it as one of the top wines of the night. For me it was too powerful in its fruit and didn't have the grace and elegance that my favorite wines showed. You understand, of course, that I think the wine was great! It just wasn't stylistically the thing that I love about Verset. The 1990 also - everyone loved it and I appreciated it very much also, it's incredibly savory and autumnal tones were lovely. But I guess what turns me on most about Verset is when the wine has nothing sticking out, when everything harmonizes and it's about the sum, not the parts.

I enjoyed the 1997 and the 2000, but I have had both of these wines before and enjoyed both vintages more on those other occasions. Who knows, perhaps they just didn't shine in this illustrious company.

Jamie served roast lamb, polenta, cauliflower and kale with the young wines. Delicious.

I read that Verset sold his vines to Allemand, Clape, and a few others after the 2000 vintage, yet there is Verset wine in each of 2001-2006. Are the wines up to the usual Verset standard? Seems like it, yes. I didn't care for the 2003, although I recognize that it is well made wine. The vintage was hot and ripe, and so is this wine - hot, opulently fruited, exotic, completely different from all of the other wines. The 2004 was completely lovely, however, with clarity of fruit and mineral, and hinting at the same quiet intensity and harmony that makes some of the older wines so attractive to me.

Thank you Jaime and David, and the other Verset comrades. This was a remarkable experience, and I'm glad I was a part of it. And I'm not just talking about the risotto, I really enjoyed the wines too.

Here are my actual tasting notes, for the masochistic among you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sherry Bodega Visits - Some Highlights

Instead of trying to write about individual visits, I thought it would be fun to summarize a bit and share some highlights.

Emilio Hidalgo was my first visit to a Sherry Bodega. I find it hard to remember the details of a first visit - my senses are always so overwhelmed by the newness of it all. A few things stick out in my mind, however, when I remember the Hidalgo visit. Fernando Hidalgo was our guide, and he and Peter caught up a bit as we walked though the courtyard and into the Bodega - Peter had last been in Jerez in May. The first wine that Fernando poured for us was the very special old Fino called La Panesa, and as he was about to draw wine from a barrel he said "Wait, this is the barrel you tasted last time, Peter. We should taste another barrel."

This is impressive. There are obviously many barrels of La Panesa and to remember from which one a rather quiet journalist tasted many months prior...well, it shows an attention to detail and an immersion in one's work that I think is reflected in the wines in general. We tasted several barrels and then walked out of one Bodega and into another.

We passed these tools hanging on the wall. In order to respect Fernando's privacy, I'm not supposed to discuss here what these are actually used for, but I can tell you that it has nothing to do with making wine.*

These old barrel parts lay in a courtyard outside of another Hidalgo Bodega. Between this and the tools above, I began to feel as though I better behave myself at Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo.

In the tasting room we sampled several wines from bottle, including the miraculous old Amontillado called El Tresillo. How cool is that old label? This is one of many great wines I drank that is not available in the US, to my knowledge, a real shame.

Bodegas Tradición is barely over 10 years old, very new for a Sherry producer. The wines, however, are much older. An old Bodega along with wines of very high quality was purchased by a group including billionaire Joaquin Rivero Valcare. Here is a blog post that describes this story in more detail.

We walked through the facilities and I was fascinated by the guy wax-sealing the bottles.

I suppose this is something that happens at wineries all over the world, but it was nice to realize that every bottle of wine that leaves Tradición is sealed in exactly this way.

This is a paper filter. They are stacked together, separated by porous plastic, and this is what some producers use to filter their wines.

I was surprised to learn that this is among the most gentle of filtering techniques. How could that be gentle, wine having to work its way through many layers of plastic and something that feels sort of like paper mâché? Everything is relative, I guess.

Before going to the tasting room to sample the wines, we visited the museum. Yes, that's right, there is a museum in the Bodega, filled with master works owned by Mr. Rivero Valcare. The above tile painting is by Picasso at age 8.

We tasted Tradición's four Sherries, a 1975 vintage Oloroso, and their brandies too. I like these wines very much, particularly the Amontillado and the Palo Cortado - another wine that is not available in the US.

Peter already described the incredible tasting of the Palmas at González Byass. Another highlight for me at Byass was tasting a barrel of Amontillado wine of indeterminate age, but at least 100 years old. The wine was undrinkable, and Antonio Flores said as much before we tasted it. After enough time in barrel, a wine takes on so much tannin from the wood that it becomes difficult to drink. That said, this wine could be bottled and sold as perfume.

I also learned here to rid myself of preconceived notions about the value of mass produced Sherries like Tio Pepe. I'm not saying that I'm stocking up on Tio Pepe, but it is wrong to think that this is bad wine - it is not. González Byass is a grand old Bodega and they have the resources to make very high quantities of Tio Pepe, and quality is consistent. There are other basic Finos that I much prefer, but I would gladly drink Tio Pepe if those are not available, and I think it stacks up pretty well against most of the world's $12 wine.

Fernando de Castilla is a small Bodega making high end Sherries. Jan Petterson is a Norwegian who worked for decades at Osborne, and left to take over this gem of a place. I was struck by the fact that he would not pour us samples of his Antique Fino. "I am completely obsessed with flor," he said. "We are very small, and I will not disturb the flor like this. We are entering the season where flor is very delicate and I don't want it to experience any more stress than is necessary." I must say, I admire his dedication to his wines.

The wine in bottle was lovely, but a bit confusing to me. It is an old Fino, like Inocente or Panesa, and it is higher in alcohol (18%?) than any other Fino I can think of, and I felt it just a little bit on the palate. Or was it the power of suggestion? I wish I could drink it again, but none of Fernando de Castilla's wines are imported in the US. I brought home a bottle of the very special Antique Palo Cortado and I would invite you to taste it with me but alas, I already drank it.

Perhaps the highlight of this visit, for me, was tasting Fernando de Castilla's brandies from barrel. We tasted Brandy in its youngest incarnation, throughout the next decade of its life, and then the final product before it is bottled. I actually loved the youngest wine - it reminded me of eau-de-vie in its powerful and delicious fresh fruitiness - it smelled and tasted of ripe pears.

Our Barbadillo visit was also fascinating. First of all, the wine maker is a woman, which is highly unusual in this part of the wine making world.

Her name is Montse Molina and she is originally from Madrid, I believe. So in addition to being a woman, she is also an outsider in Sanlucar, which I imagine must have made it difficult for her in the beginning with the group of men she supervised and collaborated with in making Barbadillo's wines.

We tasted three barrels of Barbadillo's Manzanilla Pasada, each from a different room within one of the Bodegas. These three rooms differed in size, ventilation, and humidity - they produce entirely different wines, in other words. They are eventually blended in order to produce the Manzanilla Pasada that goes into bottle. It was fascinating to taste these three wines in succession, to get a concrete view of the impact of the environment of a Bodega on the barrels of wine it produces. Peter and I took our glasses and blended the three wines in what we thought would be an advantageous way, and it was good. Montse tasted our blend and smiled the way I sometimes smile at my two year old when she is able to get her coat off by herself.

We tasted an old Amontillado and it became instantly clear to me that Amontillado made from Manzanilla is different from Amontillado made from Fino. One is not better than the other, but Manzanilla Amontillado, or at least the few that I've tasted, can have a certain saline and lemon peel brightness that I think is tremendously delicious. These are not easy to find, but worth a special search, if you're into Amontillado. I would suggest that you try Barbadillo's version, which I loved, but it is not imported in the US.

And we tasted the Reliquias. These are very old wines, relics, if you will. They are some of the most expensive and rare Sherries, and Barbadillo literally keeps the room where the Reliquias are served under lock and key. And there was some confusion about the location of the key - several workers were sent scurrying about to search for it. Finally it was located, no one was hurt, and in we went. It would be pointless to try to describe the smell and taste of wines as complex as these, but I can tell you that I have never ever tasted an Amontillado as impossibly light and pungent and balanced and beautiful as this one.

What can I say about visiting La Guita and Valdespino with Eduardo Ojeda? Anything I say will trivialize the actual experience of being there with him, listening to him discuss the wines, the Bodegas, the region. He is a passionate, intelligent, an absolutely gentlemanly and lovely person, a living treasure of the wine making tradition in Jerez and Sanlucar. If you go and visit the region, find him and visit La Guita and Valdespino.

At both La Guita and Valdespino, Eduardo wanted to show us the progression of the wines from their youth to the Solera, ready to be bottled. This was an incredible experience for me, seeing the wine in various stages of its life. At La Guita we tasted a special barrel, barrel No 3 from the 4th criadera that was just lovely - bright, saline, refreshing, intense.

We tasted the barrel that gave us La Bota No 20, and our reaction inspired Cabo, the guy in charge of the Bodega when Eduardo isn't there, to draw off a bottle for us to leave with.

We tasted a hidden barrel of Amontillado, that little one above barrel 17, something that is not bottled. This is one of the great things about visiting a Sherry Bodega - if you are lucky you will get to taste special things, wines that the cellar master cares about but that will never see the inside of a bottle. Again, Amontillado made of Manzanilla wine can be very special, and this was absolutely one of the most memorable wines of the trip for me.

At Valdespino we tasted through many of the 10 criaderas of Inocente, several criaderas of Tio Diego, and and a few other great wines. Inocente is a Fino that comes exclusively from grapes from the Marchenudo Alto vineyard, one of the "Grand Cru" sites of Jerez. Tio Diego is what happens when Inocente becomes an Amontillado - not 30 years later, but very soon after it becomes Amontillado.

What happens after Tio Diego? We walked to the section of the Bodega where a few very special wines age in barrel. There is Viejo CP, a lovely Palo Cortado that originates as Inocente, a wine that is not imported in the US. And finally, there is Cardenal, one of the great wines of Jerez, a very old Palo Cortado of which perhaps 400 half bottles are released each year. The Cardenal solera is fed by Viejo CP. As it was first described to me by Peter, "Even seasoned Sherry buffs in Spain widen their eyes if a bottle of Cardenal is served." We tasted this wine next to Coliseo, a very old Amontillado that originates as a Manzanilla, actually. Both are superb wines of astounding depth and intensity, and also great clarity and articulation, and of seemingly unending length. I calculated 47 minutes on Coliseo, but honestly I just stopped counting at that point. These glorious wines are something like the Richebourg and La Tâche of Sherry, but they can be had for a fraction of the price. I should say they could be, if they were imported to the US. I'm starting to sense a pattern here regarding importation, or lack thereof, of fine Sherry. Are you?

* Patently false. These are wine making tools. And Fernando Hidlago is an upstanding citizen who is well regarded in his community.