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Sherry goes East

The varied cuisines of Japan, China, India, Vietnam and Thailand offer plenty of pairing potential for Sherries. Natasha Hughes MW asked top sommeliers for their essential tips on matching asian flavours with different styles of Sherry.

We tend towards an innate conservatism when considering dishes to match our wines. The first place we usually look for a happy culinary marriage is in the gastronomic traditions of a wine’s region of production, and we’re rarely tempted to push beyond those boundaries. As a result, the default option for Sherry is to reference either tapas or seafood, and then to explore no further.

The truth is that Sherry, with its diversity of styles and flavour profiles, is actually a far more versatile ‘food wine’ than the obvious pairings might suggest. Nowhere is that made clearer than when you consider its ability to keep pace with the dishes of Asia, a continent whose complex, varied flavours will challenge the imagination of most wine lovers.

A taste of Japan

Take fino and manzanilla. These biologically aged Sherries (those matured under flor) have long been acknowledged as the perfect partners for all kinds of Spanish seafood, so by extension they should be a match for Japan’s sushi and sashimi. Be aware, though, that to perfectionist Japanese palates, there is no one-size solution.

Raku Oda, currently at The Fat Duck (Heston Blumenthal’s three-star Michelin restaurant in Bray, Berkshire), was formerly head sommelier at Yashin Ocean House, one of London’s premier sushi destinations. He enthusiastically endorses the match between Spanish Sherries and Japanese raw fish dishes: ‘The slight saltiness of fino and manzanilla, as well as the green apple character, works particularly well with delicate white fish. If, on the other hand, you have sushi made with aged tuna (particularly if the rice is seasoned with a more robust red vinegar), you need to match it with an amontillado. The richer, more complex flavours of the sushi need the weight and intensity of amontillado for perfect balance.’

Momoko Izumi, who works at Tokyo’s Sherry Club (which has one of the broadest Sherry lists in the world), is also a fan of pairing Sherries with sushi, claiming that they are ‘even better than saké’ at bringing out the umami of the ingredients and cleansing the palate.

Although she agrees that finos and manzanillas work well with most types of fish, she strongly recommends pairing palo cortado with sea urchin. ‘The rich taste of sea urchin is balanced perfectly by these Sherries, which combine the delicacy of amontillado with the rich flavours of oloroso,’ she says.

Izumi also advocates matching grilled eel nigiri with oloroso. ‘The salty-sweet sauce used to flavour juicy roast eel goes so well with the oxidative flavours and the rounded glycerol palate typical of oloroso,’ she explains, pointing out that oloroso is also a terrific partner for glazed yakitori skewers – whose ‘tare’ sauce has a similar sweet/savoury richness to the sauce used for the eel nigiri.

Sherry can be used to cut through the fattiness of deep-fried dishes, too. Izumi suggests that the dry salinity of fino and manzanilla can act like a squeeze of lemon, offsetting the slight oiliness of tempura batter. Oda agrees but believes that the kind of Sherry you should pair with tempura changes with the seasons. ‘Chilled fino or lighter amontillado works well with fresh vegetables and fish, but when the seasons turn to autumn and you’re deep-frying rich sweet potato or mushrooms, oloroso works better,’ he explains.

Jan Konetzki Four Seasons

Jan Konetzki, Four Seasons Hotel, Ten Trinity Square, London

Chinese cuisine

The ability of Sherry to act as a foil for rich flavours doesn’t stop with Japanese dishes. ‘Fino enhances the flavour of dim sum in the same way as a little pinch of salt makes flavours pop,’ observes Jan Konetzki, director of wine at the Four Seasons Hotel at Ten Trinity Square in London’s Tower Hill, where he oversees the wine list for Mei Ume – a restaurant that unites Japanese and Chinese flavours on its menu.

Konetzki is a fully committed Sherry enthusiast when it comes to the wines’ ability to handle the often-extreme flavours of Chinese cuisine. ‘Chinese cooking can be far more dramatic than classic French or Italian cooking, with high acidity and sweetness, as well as spice from chilli or black pepper,’ he comments. ‘The fortification of Sherry makes it more robust, and an ideal bulwark against the dramatic flavours of the food.’

Reeze Choi, a Hong Kong-based sommelier and consultant, agrees, referencing oloroso’s richness and complexity when it comes to providing the perfect foil for many of China’s most renowned dishes.

‘Hairy crabs, which are in season from August through to October, are very rich and intense, with lots of umami, and we usually dip them in vinegar, too. The resulting dish, which might prove challenging to most wines, goes perfectly with oloroso, thanks to its intense flavours,’ notes Choi. ‘Come winter, we have claypot rice, studded with dried sausage and black beans. Red wine is good for it, but oloroso is even better. The intense savoury character of the cured meat, the black beans and the soy is perfectly matched by the intensely savoury Sherry.’

Michael Peng at Hunan, a long-running regional Chinese restaurant in London’s Pimlico, is a big fan of pairing palo cortado with the punchy, flavoursome dishes served in his dining room. ‘It’s a great all-rounder,’ he explains, adding that his favourite match for this style of wine is pan-fried chicken with a fermented red-bean dressing. ‘It’s a really big dish with big flavours, and the roundness and richness of palo cortado, as well as its elegance, just hits a sweet spot with its robust flavours.’

Konetzki, on the other hand, prefers to drink his palo cortado with Peking duck. ‘The hazelnut and dried plum notes you find in a great palo cortado make it an epic match for the gamey, fatty duck and sweet, rich plum sauce. The cucumber and spring onion served with the dish usually throw pairings off as they can mess around with more delicate wine flavours, but with palo cortado there is no risk that the wine will be overwhelmed.’

India and beyond

With its rich sauces and complex array of spices, the Indian sub-continent offers a different set of pairing constraints. Laurent Chaniac, wine consultant for the Cinnamon Collection group of restaurants, believes Sherry is more than capable of rising to the challenge, but he cautions that some styles of Sherry fare better than others.

‘Biologically aged Sherries are incredibly dry, with firm acidity, which raises the heat factor in Indian food – so definitely not the way to go,’ he states firmly. ‘Look instead to olorosos and palo cortados, especially those with a bit of sugar, which lends viscosity to the wines. The glycerol in these wines wraps itself around the spices in the dish, helping to soften their heat rather than raising the temperature.’

Fish Special Sea Bream at The Cinnamon Club

In addition, the core Indian spices of cumin, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns find aromatic echoes in the oxidative styles of Sherry. ‘What makes Sherry such a good match for Indian food is that it has layered flavours. The fact that there are so many things to taste in a glass of Sherry is what allows it to pair so well with complex Indian flavours, creating harmony rather than contrast,’ observes Chaniac.

Sherry’s ability to partner Asian cuisines other than those of China, Japan and India is, perhaps, less well tested. Nevertheless, Konetzki suggests that beef rendang, one of Malaysia’s classic dishes, could find a match in dry oloroso. ‘The sticky sauce, with its rich spicing and intense beef flavours would work really well with the meaty, nutty flavours you find in dry oloroso.’

In a similar way, the nutty flavours, mild spicing and smoky grilled notes in a satay dish can harmonise well with the equally nutty notes of an amontillado.

Choi points out that the fermented fish sauce nam pla that is so ubiquitous in Vietnamese and Thai dishes finds echoes in salty manzanillas.

Recent home experiments, conducted in light of his comments, suggest that manzanillas and finos do indeed work well with lighter seafood stir-fries spiked with nam pla. Be wary of pairing the Sherries with spicier Thai offerings, though, as the fiery chillies fight with the alcohol in the wines – with unpleasant consequences.

Regardless of the occasional blind alley, it’s clear that there are rich rewards awaiting anyone willing to explore beyond the safe confines of the Iberian peninsula for dishes to pair with their favourite Sherries.

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