Saturday, 24 January 2015

East India Sherry

This romantically-named wine is a form of sweetened Oloroso which once found great favour. The name comes from the fact that the East India Company used to carry Sherry on long journeys to the East Indies, and it was found, like Madeira to have improved en route.

The Sherry might have been cargo or used as ballast, but either way it improved. The tradition goes as far back as the early XVII century, in the days when Sherry was known as Sack. The constant movement of a ship meant that the wine also was in constant movement, and this caused slightly more transpiration and oxidation through the wood, giving a more mature, ”finished” character to it.

(Pic: historicalleys)
East India Sherry was very popular, despite its higher price, till the end of the XIX century. Charles Dickens mentions it in “David Copperfield”. The old clerk, Mr Tiffey, visited Mr Spenlow at Norwood and was given a glass of brown East India Sherry, “of a quality so precious as to make a man wink.”

In Jerez there is a saying: "Mareado el buen vino de Jerez, si valia cinco, vale diez"
                                      (Seasick, the good wine of Jerez, once worth 5 is now worth 10)

As sail gave way to steam, and wood gave way to steel, the practice slowly died out. It was also found that the conditions at sea could be approximately replicated on land. Probably the last to continue with it was the Scottish shipping company “Benline”, established by Alexander and William Thomson in Leith in 1825. The origin of this name is that they named their ships after Scottish mountains (Beinn in Gaelic, but pronounced “ben”). Nearly all their business was with the East, but their last shipment of Sherry was just after the turn of the XX century, though the company is still in buoyant good health.

East India being welcomed at Grangemouth (Pic: Scotsman Publications)
In the 1950’s, however,  they thought they might revive this idea, and a butt of Valdespino  Solera 1842 Oloroso was duly sent on a round trip of some 20,000 miles aboard the SS Benlomond.  On its return, the wine was bottled and then a tasting was held to compare the East India wine with one which had stayed at home. The experts present at the tasting (including Andre Simon) were unanimous that the wine (already excellent) had improved, being smoother and rounder, richer and with a more evolved bouquet.

Lustau East India solera (foto +Jerez)
The wine was sold by, among others, Edinburgh merchant Alastair Campbell at 19/- (19 shillings - or 95 pence in current money) a bottle, and was popular enough for a second hogshead, and maybe a few more, to be despatched to the East Indies. The last known bottling was done by Scottish wine merchant Peter Thomson of Perth in 1982. Occasionally a bottle comes up at auction. The only real option remaining, then, for fans of this wine is the example bottled by Emilio Lustau. This wine is entirely produced at the bodega in Jerez but in a selected bodega with higher than normal levels of humidity and heat. It is very good (see post).

(Much information gleaned from Jose Luis Jimenez)

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