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Richard Mark James' wine and travel blog

09 June 2016

Spain: Sherry and Jamón Ibérico



This sherry-and-ham-pairing piece stems from a fascinating 'masterclass' held in Dublin by embassy export body Wines & Foods from Spain; the words, jamón and sherries will be just as tasty now as they were then. Presented by César Saldana, Director of the Vinos de Jerez governing association, and Mario Hiraldo, master-carver and general Jamón Ibérico expert, which is arguably Spain's finest cured ham delicacy. The scrummy photo above was downloaded from actualidadgastronomica.es where there's an article (in Spanish) about it; and this site is good too, in English: www.jamon.com/iberico.

To start with, here are a few comments about the four different, and equally delicious sherries (all made from 100% Palomino fino variety) that were picked to match the various cuts of mouth-meltingly succulent Ibérico...

La Guita Manzanilla Bodega Hijos de Rainera Pérez Martín (15% abv) - Quite fresh and light with pungent yeast and chamomile notes vs tangy roasted salted almond flavours, very dry and refreshing.
Tio Pepe Fino 'en rama' González Byass (15% abv) - An 'unfiltered' version of the popular fino brand, this was a tad darker than the above with more intense yeasty and nutty characters, yet more rounded and fuller too with long intense yeasty and crisp finish.
Antique Palo Cortado Fernando de Castilla (20% abv) - "Made in the oloroso way using fino wines," was how César described this more obscure sherry style. More oxidised nose with walnut and 'varnish', intense and toasty with lingering pecan nut flavours vs crisp dry and structured.
Don Zoilo Oloroso 12 Years Williams & Humbert (19% abv) - Less dark than the above actually ("They top the barrels right up," so less / slower oxidation), fierier nose with hazelnut/walnut and 'furniture polish'(!), promises to be sweet but it isn't, smooth and rounded mouth-feel vs tangy and concentrated. Lovely.

Without rehashing the entire sherry production process, I've summarised a few key points from what César explained relating to how these classic styles are made. Fino is fortified to 15% (alcohol by volume), as it was discovered to be the perfect strength for the flor (the natural yeast that grows on top of the wine giving it much of its character) to survive and continue developing. 17% abv (or higher) kills flor so this is only done for wines that are already darker in colour and then classified as oloroso. He continued: "Fino is only possible because it isn't static: the young wines give it nutrients to survive." These wines from the latest harvest are called sobretabla and are fed into the top level of criadera ageing barrels used in the solera maturation process, where the wines at different stages are periodically drawn off and 'down' one level. Solera comes from the word for 'floor', as the bottom row contains wines that are ready for bottling; a maximum of one-third of these are drawn off at a time. "The flor also consumes glycerol (naturally present in wine, it gives a rounder 'sweeter' feel) giving (fino and manzanilla) drier flavour," César added.

"Ibérico pigs only come from the south-west of Spain... Serrano (ham) is from a cross-breed of European pigs," Mario enlightened us proudly, since that's where he's from. He explained how free-range the rearing of these pigs is - for the best Jamón Ibérico de Bellota or acorn fed ham - by pointing to St. Stephen's Green across the road: "Two pigs would have that much space!" These magnificent animals can grow up to 180 kg in weight but with "very thin legs," feeding on (lots of) organic encina acorns - this variety of evergreen oak or holly oak acorn tastes a little like chestnuts and contains "74% oleic acid," (the predominant unsaturated fat in olive oil).
This is why "the fat (on the ham) is good quality, because of the healthy pigs and acorn acids," Mario continued. "There are less calories in 100 grams of Ibérico than a can of diet coke!" he joked; you can see his point though, for a man who says he eats some of this sensational ham "every day," he is indeed slim. "And Ibérico is never the same from one producer to another." The ham he carved for us that day had been maturing for three and a half years (only salt is added, no artificial preservatives like most other hams) - "It gets darker and more intense as you go up the leg," remembering it's hung upside-down. "The different shapes and marbling give different flavours," he added.
The first cut - called La Caña - is from the 'top', i.e. the lowest part of the upper leg where there's less salt (this slowly travels down, or rather up through the leg as it ages), which tasted soft and melt-in-the-mouth and seemed to match the Fino and Manzanilla well. The second - Babilla from the rump end - where the fat actually melts on your hand at room temperature - tasted more intense with chunkier texture. The Contramaza was delicious with the Oloroso, a sweeter meatier and 'fattier' cut but not fatty tasting; and the Maza or Jarrete is the thickest driest and meatiest piece. La Punta, the hip, is the most intensely flavoured and saltier with lovely mature cheese type aromas.
I checked the facts, spellings and which cut was which as best I could - any Ibérico experts reading this, feel free to correct me if not...

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