Amontillado: Symphony in Amber

Frasier was right about one thing.

Outside of serving as a fiendish prop in a great Edgar Allen Poe story, sherry has suffered a horrible rap. If the humiliation of Harvey's Bristol Cream, that old bottle you used to catch Grandma sipping from, counts as the first dent in sherry's reputation, the final blow was rung by its favored-drink status for the most annoying fictional character—and Seattleite—ever to grace television. Oh, Frasier Crane, you embodied everyone's ultimate vision of the wine snob (though I admit I've seen worse). So who would ever want to drink sherry, with only Grandma and Kelsey Grammer to recommend it?Shame, shame, shame. Seattle counts as one of the largest port markets in the country; it follows that we should enjoy sherry, or at least the richer, nuttier varieties of this Spanish fortified wine. Sherry styles range from razor-sharp, almost salty whites to motor-oil-thick browns richer than caramel. I want to focus on a not-so-sweet spot along the continuum, where things start to go a little nutty and a lot complicated: amontillado.The all-you-need-to-know version of sherry production: Wines from the palomino grape—and sometimes another varietal called Pedro Ximenez—go all the way through fermentation until they are completely dry. The style of sherry is determined by what happens to the dry wine after that point. It's a sort of choose-your-own-adventure that begins with the winemaker's choice of how much brandy to add to the wine. Thus fortified, it is then left to oxidize. Other choices that determine a sherry's style: how much of a natural yeast called flor develops during this second aging, how long the sherry is left to age, and how much sweetener wineries choose to add in the end.An "amontillado" label means that the sherry has developed a little cap of flor, which helps create the complex flavors in fino (the driest style of sherry) and amontillado; if there's not enough of the yeast cap, the winemaker lets the wine oxidize more toward amontillado. Amontillado thus develops a beautiful amber color and the nutty aroma of a tawny port. Underneath that fragrance, though, are the light herbal, almost bitter hints of the light white wine the sherry used to be, which is what makes it so versatile with food.Think how complicated a process this is for a bottle of great wine that you can find for as little as $9—a bottle from which you'll probably only drink a few sips at a time. The Harvest Vine (2701 E. Madison St., 320-9771) deserves a nod as the first place in Seattle to really pay attention to sherry, stocking a wide variety of bottles and selling enough so customers are assured a high-quality taste.Chef Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez's food, too, demonstrates the power of a solid amontillado, which combines the best pairing abilities of dry white wine, Scotch, and tawny. Order the restaurant's blood sausage, the mussels, and a beet salad, and your glass of amontillado will strike a different delicious pose with each dish. Amontillado is able to cut through a rich meat yet highlight the fresh garden flavor of a sweet, earthy beet.Sherries have so much to say on their own, which is why they're traditionally a before- and after-dinner drink, but a glass of sherry can come off as far more complex than your average glass of wine. Just try an amontillado with a filet and buttered mushrooms sometime.I prefer Lustau brand sherries because every variety comes in full- and half-sized bottles. Its "Los Arcos" amontillado leans toward the dry side; every sip brings out a nuttier flavor. Sherry will keep much of its flavor for three weeks to a month. Refrigeration isn't necessary—just keep it away from heat. Keeping a half bottle of amontillado in the house has made me appreciate the value of a little nip of sherry, making a new habit out of an old cliché

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