by Sarah Abbott MW

Fino’s context warning

Elegy V

Here take my picture; though I bid farewell
Thine, in my heart, where my soul dwells, shall dwell.
Tis like me now, but I dead, ‘twill be more
When we are shadows both, than twas before.
When weather-beaten I come back, my hand
Perhaps with rude oars torn, or sun beams tann’d,
My face and breast of haircloth, and my head
With care’s rash sudden storms being o’spread,
My body’a sack of bones, broken within,
And powder’s blue stains scatter’d on my skin;
If rival fools tax thee to’have lov’d a man
So foul and coarse as, oh, I may seem then,
This shall say what I was, and thou shalt say,
“Do his hurts reach me? Doth my worth decay?
Or do they reach his judging mind, that he
Should now love less, what he did love to see?
That which in him was fair and delicate,
Was but the milk which in love’s childish state
Did nurse it; who now is grown strong enough
To feed on that, which to disus’d tastes seem tough”

John Donne (Fought against the Spanish at Cadiz with Essex, 1596)

“Oh this is better! We’ve just had a disgusting wine over there, haven’t we?” “Horrible! Tasted off. Disgusting!” I am presenting at a big consumer wine fair, and it is packed with merry and engaged wine lovers. Two glam ladies have fallen on my Turkish Narince with joy and relief. But what was this offensive wine from which they’ve fled?

Ah, Fino.

It was a lovely Fino (I went to try it), but they were expecting dry white wine. And it didn’t taste like their idea of dry white wine.

Fino is not alone in benefiting from a context warning, but it is probably the most mystifyingly misunderstood. A few years ago, I ordered a bottle of Fino with dinner in Moro, the fine Iberian restaurant in London. The waitress was perplexed. “Are you sure? Most people just have a glass”. (There were four of us – I was not downing a bottle of Fino on my own.) I am pretty sure that wouldn’t happen now. But still there is a sense that Fino in is not exactly ‘wine’.

Fino’s character relies upon deliberately inducing a fault. Acetaldehyde is unwelcome in dry white wines. It smells dull and unattractive, like an old browning apple. But in Fino it just works. It smells more of an angry, nutty apply. It is salty, saline, savoury. Fino’s yeasty, proving-dough, aromatics are a bit strange. Anything biological smells unsettling, at first. Fino is also confusing in its freshness, because the acidity is not that high. But it is enlivened by its aldehyde bitterness. Even the alcohol is in disguise. A typical Fino is 15% – several notches higher than classic dry whites – but you never get that hot farewell with a Fino. All is enlivening. You often see Fino described as ‘delicate’. But it’s not that, exactly. It’s nuanced, but with a strong soul.

I understand finding Fino strange. If you are not prepared, it’s like readying to glug down a banana and honey smoothie and finding you’re drinking a liquidised roast dinner instead.

“I had forgotten. Disgust shadows desire.” Robert Wells.

We like what we like because we are used to it. Elizabeth I passed a law that lamb be eaten only when accompanied by ‘bitter herbs’. The aim was to reduce lamb consumption, which was threatening the English woollen industry. The outcome was our eventual desire for mint sauce with lamb, to the chagrin of many chefs, and the mystification of our European neighbours. (Nobody else eats lamb and mint sauce. They think we’re mad.)

We also like what we like because of the meaning we give it. Connoisseurship rests on understanding and appreciating tastes that are uncommon, grotesque or even dangerous. Food connoisseurs are fonder of danger than we are in wine. We don’t really have the wine equivalents of tucking into the deadly Fugu fish of Japan, the writhing maggot cheese of Sardinia and the Ortolan of France (the symbolism of the third seems to have something in common with eating a unicorn burger). It is illegal to make and sell maggot cheese (the maggots can cause internal bleeding) and to capture the endangered and miniscule Ortolan song-bird (they are protected), but there’s a thriving black market in both.

Fino is a child of these intersections of history, environment, and human ingenuity when it comes to ensuring there is something delicious for dinner. Typicity is prized because it tells these stories. It connects us to humanity at its tastiest. Conventions Theory explains the principles and motivations behind this sense of what is ‘right and true’ (and therefore beautiful) in the taste of typical food products. The idea of what Fino ‘should’ taste like is a sort of shared intellectual property between the people who make it, and those who consume it. The style shifts over time, but the link to place and struggle must not be broken.

Jerez could churn out inoffensive glugging wine in the style of conventional dry whites. It has mild wet winters with plenty of rain. The limestone soils (‘Albariza’ is the local name for them) have excellent water-holding capacity to get vines through the hot, dry summers. The Palomino grape is a reliable cropper, giving grapes of low acidity and neutral fruit.

But Jerez was ‘de la Frontera’, on the battle-scarred 13th century border between Christian and Moorish Spain. For centuries before that border, the Moors had ruled in Jerez, and across Andalusia, tolerating wine production and introducing the distillation of spirit and brandy. It was Moorish spirit that made Sherry a fortified wine, boosting its alcohol and increasing its stability and ability to travel.

Travel was Sherry’s destiny. Jerez is in the province of Cadiz, one of the great trading ports and provinces of the world, and a major stop in the Age of Discovery. Sherry went all over the world. Magellan toasted his discoveries with it. And we Brits adored it. In the 12th century, Henry 1 of England arranged to swap English wool for sherry wine. Catherine of Aragon complained that Henry 8th was drinking all the sherry she’d brought from Spain (the least of her problems, in hindsight). Francis Drake appropriated 3,000 barrels of the King of Spain’s sherry at the same time as he singed his beard in 1590, and presented it to Elizabeth 1’s thirsty court.

Rocketing demand for Sherry from the UK and other export markets in the 1700s led to the development of solera ageing of multiple vintages. The major merchants – many of them English – were probably acting from a commercial imperative rather than a qualitative revolution, but this was another happy intersection.

Fino as we know it was born around this time. Base Palomino wine is fortified to 15% (lower than for other Sherry styles) and is aged in large oak barrels, just four-fifths full. Film-forming yeasts grow and cover the wine in a thick layer, called ‘flor’. This is another happy and local accident, because these Jerez yeast strains are particularly buoyant, meaning they can get to the top of the barrel and breath the oxygen in the headspace. They are also resistant to the high alcohol. Ageing a white wine under this thick yeasty film is not as shocking as maggots that have effectively become cheese, but still, it is quite weird.

Fino ages under this flor, and alcohol is metabolised by the yeasts to give acetaldehyde and other complexing metabolites. And somehow, it works. The acetaldehyde brings gentle, freshening bitterness and salty intensity. Heaven with drunk cold, with sun, and fried fish.

So, were my glamorous ladies wrong to hate it? Of course not. Some tastes are acquired, and some will never make you happy. Brits came up with our own ‘Cream Sherry’ version decades ago, which has its tabloid, suburban charm. But it’s granny in a cardigan to the Andalusian original on its rippling steed.

A couple of lines from that Donne pop up in my head whenever I taste anything strange, or demanding. The gentle milk of a fresh, fruity white is a wild Atlantic voyage from the salty, nuanced intensity of Fino. But I include the whole thing in defence of difficulty. Mrs Hopkinson taught us Donne. She was more fierce and more sincere than any other teacher we had. She opened out those conceits and his context, snuffling out the beauty despite our teenage resistance, and it was greater for the effort and the difficulty. I once made her explain the meaning of detumescence, innocently, while she was teaching us The Flea (Donne was a bit of a boy in his youth, and it is one of his many come-and-shag-me poems). She thought I’d done it to embarrass her, which I hadn’t, she’d won me over to her Donne obsession. I was an innocent sixth-former. I still feel a bit bad about that, but you live and learn.

Sarah Abbott MW will be writing a monthly column for

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