Golden taste of winter

Image of Harry Eyres

A couple of years ago, BBC News reported the discovery by a professor from Stanford University that “most people get happier as they get older”. On the basis of research involving men and women aged from 18-90, Dr Laura Carstensen found that “older people were far less likely than the younger to experience persistent negative moods”. This seemed both welcome and somewhat unexpected. In a similar vein, I’ve been wondering why people (including myself) don’t seem to get more gloomy as autumn gives way to winter.

The days are drawing in; the nights are lengthening; the last leaves are falling; Father Frost is up and about, rubbing his hands – but not as vigorously as the bosses of the energy companies, watching their profit curves rising as the temperature drops.

If this is not a cause for despondency, then that must represent a triumph of culture over nature. In the very earliest days, you would guess our ancestors suffered pangs of terror at the approach of winter. But deep inside the caves, in darkness lit by flickering fires, they did not succumb to paralysing dread. Perhaps it was then, close to the blackest time, that our artist-forebears drew and painted on cave walls, using memory, imagination, a few sticks and hand-made pigments. What they produced, as you can see in Werner Herzog’s eccentric and marvellous documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, were animal studies never surpassed for power and suppleness of line.

Culture has “moved on” since then (not always in the direction of beauty and clear-eyed perception of reality). But it still seems to me that culture comes into its own as nature shuts down. I rarely go to see exhibitions or watch films on light-filled summer evenings when (you probably guessed it) I’d rather be on a grass tennis court.

One particularly treasurable strand of culture developed in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Iberian peninsula, and the islands of Madeira and Sicily, through the fortunate coming together of far-sighted local landowners, entrepreneurs and administrators and intrepid, often romantic, British traders. This is the cultural tradition of fortified wines. Port may be the most romantic of them all, but the most versatile is sherry, because it comes in so many different styles. The varied styles of sherry seem to me one of the most humane ways ever discovered of shepherding human beings through the changing seasons, and especially through the hard change to winter.

No one would drink the heavier styles of sherry in Andalusian summer – summer is the time for bone-dry fino and salty manzanilla – but one recompense of encroaching autumn is the coming into their own of amontillado, palo cortado, oloroso, even the sickly-sweet Pedro Ximénez (though in my view that is best sprinkled over ice-cream).

Sherry’s versatility is the product of different styles of ageing. I’ve always considered sherry the most human and intuitive of all wines, and one sign of this is the lack of scientific precision when it comes to nomenclature and classification. Bodegueros sigh when pedantic Anglo-Saxons try to pin them down on exactly what constitutes an amontillado or, still more elusive, a palo cortado. The fact is that, traditionally at least, sherries grow up, or are brought up, rather like human beings, with respect to their uniqueness and individuality.

No two butts of sherry develop exactly alike. At different times in the wine’s life, the capataz or head foreman of a sherry bodega goes round marking the butts with a code of chalk marks: there is the basic “raya”, the “palma”, signifying a wine receptive to the benign yeast flor, destined to become fino, the “o” with a line through it which denotes oloroso (a non-flor wine with “fatness”), the “palo cortado” (a vertical line crossed with a horizontal one). The genius of the chalk mark is that it can be adjusted as the wine develops in different directions.

Amontillado is the perfect autumn sherry, a wine to bridge seasons as it suggests both the delicacy of fino and the nuttiness of the richer styles which have never seen flor. But perhaps it is a question of what kind of nut. The great sherry authority Manuel González Gordon proposed that fino suggests almonds, amontillado hazelnuts and oloroso walnuts.

As winter chill grips I find the richness of oloroso indescribably warming and satisfying. I was lucky enough the other night, as a guest at the ultra-civilised Saintsbury Club, to sample a dry oloroso from a solera originally laid down in 1806. Even the donor of the wine thought it might be so concentrated as to be almost undrinkable. In fact, for all its power and pungency, this nutty quintessence had acquired an unexpected gentleness after decades in the bottle. The good news, for the rest of us, is that fine old sherries are scandalously underpriced: even the special “raw” bottlings recently recommended by my colleague Jancis Robinson are inexpensive for the quality, while you can pick up half-litres of excellent aged amontillado and oloroso from my local Sainsbury’s for what amounts to a song.

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