Tales of the Vine: Sherry, Sir?

"Sherry, Sir?" by William Powell Firth, 1853

Most of the students in my beginning wine studies class have never tasted real sherry.  If they have encountered it at all, it was most likely the faux version-in-a-jug known around here as “cooking sherry” and used for deglazing sauté pans in their culinary lab classes (what a shame).

They also tend to be of the opinion, common in North America, that Sherry is a drink consumed by British old ladies who sit around sipping Sherry, pinky fingers extended, while nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and bonbons.  

While this might be a mere cliché, one cannot deny the British love for Sherry.  The British have long had a love for Sherry, and are the largest export market for wines from Jerez to this day.  But have you ever wondered why?

The story goes back to the days of Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth, the famous Spanish Armada, and Europe’s exploration of the new world. 

In the 1400’s, the great capitals of Europe began sending explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus to find passage ways for trade and to discover what lie beyond the wide oceans.  Christopher Columbus, despite being of Italian birth, made his most famous deal with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain and set sail from Palos de la Frontera, Cadiz, and Sanlucar – all regions well known for wine.

Wine was considered absolutely necessary for these journeys, as any water on board would quickly become unfit to drink due to long length of the journeys. The wines for the ships were fortified with alcohol to give them some preservative effect, beginning the tradition of many such fortified wines.

These voyages were spectacularly successful for Spain as explorers began to return in ships heavily laden with gold, silver, and other wealth from the new world. At the same time that Spain was profiting from the plunder of Mexico and Peru, young Queen Elizabeth of England was benefitting from the wealth brought in by her expanding colonies in North America.

However, it soon became clear that America could not begin to produce the immediate wealth arriving by the galleon load from Spain’s richer New World territories. Knowing that an island kingdom must be strong to survive, Elizabeth turned a blind eye as Sir Francis Drake and other English sea captains raided and seized the treasures from Spain’s heavily laden and slow-moving gold ships. It did not take long for the King of Spain, Philip II, to have had enough of England’s daring Queen and her “sea wolves” and he soon hatched a plan to invade England.   

Golden-hinde_400In 1580, King Philip ordered that a great Armada, or Navy, be built.  His plan was to invade England, remove Elizabeth from the throne, and crown himself king in Westminster Cathedral.  However, Elizabeth heard of the plan and made a bold preemptive strike, led by the skilled seaman Sir Francis Drake.

Drake was sent out from Plymouth, on April 12, 1587. He appeared before Cadiz on April 29th, and late in the afternoon of that day he sailed boldly into the harbor, completely surprising the defenders, and throwing the Spanish land and naval forces there into a panic.

All the remainder of the day, and all the next day, Drake plundered and burned. Thirty-seven naval and merchant vessels were destroyed with very small losses on the English side. During the raid, Drake managed to seize 2,900 casks of Sherry from the Spanish naval stores, which he soon delivered triumphantly to Queen Elizabeth.

amontilladoAs you might guess, it became all the rage in England to drink the captured Sherry.  Spanish Sherry was suddenly the most popular drink in England.  Legend even tells us that the English loved to call it “sack” because, well, Drake had sacked the Spanish supply port. (There are other explanations for the term “sack” as well.)

In the ultimate show of British praise, Shakespeare praised Sherry, or “sack,” when he had Sir John Falstaff proudly declare in Henry IV, Part 2, “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack”.

At top –  “Sherry, Sir?” by William Powell Firth, 1853

Tales of the Vine: The Hungry Black Rooster

The Hungry Black Rooster

The wine region we know as Chianti, running throughout the Tuscan landscape from Florence in the north and spreading south to the medieval town of Siena and beyond, is one of the oldest geographically defined wine regions on earth.  Winemaking in this region can be documented as far back as the 13th Century.  The first defined boundaries of the Chianti Wine Region were set in 1716 by The Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici.

The area now known as the Chianti Classico DOCG contains the original, historic center of the region.  Its wines are considered to be the original wines of Chianti and the best.  Winemakers in Chianti Classico guard the vineyards, the wine, and their region’s reputation fiercely.

In 1924, a group of grape growers and winemakers formed a group to promote and protect the image of the wines of Chianti Classico and took as their symbol the Gallo Nero, or Black Rooster.  In 2003 the Italian government gave the group, known as the Consortium (Consorzio) of Chianti Classico, regulatory control of the entire production of Chianti Classico, and all the wines of the region now bear the symbol of the Black Rooster.

The legend of the Black Rooster dates back to a 14th century boundary dispute between Florence and Siena.   After a long and drawn out battle, the two Republics decoded tp settle the issue with a race between two knights on horseback.  According to the rules of the match, each knight would set off from their respective home towns upon the crow of the rooster. In other words, the race was to commence—you would think—at dawn.  The knights would travel along the road between the two Republics, and the point where they met in the middle would be the official boundary line between Florence and Siena.

The townspeople of Siena chose as their representative a white rooster.  In order to make him a happy, strong singer, they fed and pampered their rooster until the appointed day.

The people of Florence chose a black rooster and fed him sparingly—so little in fact, that on the morning of the contest he was so hungry that he woke up several hours before dawn, and crowed and crowed until he was fed.  Thus, the knight from Florence began his part of the race in what was basically the middle of the night. Not surprisingly, he covered most of the road between the two Republics before he met up with the Knight from Siena.

As a result, almost the whole of the land of Chianti was annexed to the Republic of Florence and the “Black Rooster”, or “Gallo Nero”  became the symbol of the Republic of Florence.  The Gallo Nero became the symbol of the original “Lega di Chianti” in the 16th century.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net