Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bodegas Harvey: Peacocks, Gators & Aged Sherry

Forget about Harveys Bristol Cream.

Bodegas Harveys has one of the most recognizable sherry brands outside of Spain. It is a top seller in the U.S., Great Britain and elsewhere, especially where sweeter forms of sherry are preferred. Yet in the U.S., its reputation is not always the best, and many people use it as a stereotype representing all sherry, supporting their belief that all sherry is sweet. It is also often seen as a drink for older generations, a drink for your parents and grandparents.

But Bodegas Harvey produces far more than just Bristol Cream. So when I tell you to forget their Bristol Cream, I really want you to look past it, and see everything else that this sherry bodega produces. I also want you to forget the stereotype, and place Harveys Bristol Cream in its proper place. It is but one type of sherry, and there are many more types available, including many that are dry.

The history of the Bodega extends back to 1796, when William Perry established a shipping concern in Bristol, England. He concentrated on importing sherry and port, though he also imported small amounts of other wines and spirits, and even some leather. A few years later, William took on Thomas Urch as a partner. Now, Urch's sister Ann was married to Thomas Harvey, a well known and highly skilled sea captain. Thomas' son, John, was very different from his father and actually despised the sea.

It was eventually agreed that John could enter his uncle Urch's business. In 1822, after the death of William Perry, John joined the company, and members of the Harvey family would be part of the company for many years. They would buy wine in Jerez, ship it back to Bristol and blend it in their extensive cellars. But, in 1970, they finally decided to buy their own bodega in Jerez, and would eventually buy several more.

Currently, they own about 10% of the vineyards in the Jerez region, and have 25-30 cellars. About 95% of their vineyards are planted with Palomino grapes and the rest planted with Pedro Ximenez. The vines generally last about 30-35 years, when they are then removed and the land is then let to sit for a few years before replanting. The vineyards use to be hand harvested, mostly by local women, though about 75% are now harvested by machine. This is done as oxidation is a threat to the grapes and rapid harvesting is best. 2010 is considered a good vintage, and there was twice as much rain as usual. The harvest started around August 30 and was supposed to end around September 17.

In Bristol, since the 17th century, "milk sherry" was popular, a thick blend of sweet and dry sherries. There is a legend concerning the origin of milk sherry, as it was thought to be the first moisture given to infants in Bristol. In the 1840s, Harveys Bristol Milk was a best seller but the company had a desire to make a finer blend. There is another legend, that a woman came to the Harvey offices, and tasted some of the Bristol Milk. She then tasted the new, finer sherry, and said "If the first was Bristol Milk, then this must surely be Bristol Cream." Thus the origin of Bristol Cream in 1860.

There are about 30 soleras of Harvey's Bristol Cream, each about 3-20 years old, and the Cream is a proprietary blend of Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez. This is unusual as most other producers make their cream sherries just from a blend of Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez. Harveys blend is thought to add more complexity and flavor to the sherry. A couple suggested food pairings include foie gras and Stilton cheese.

In 1996, in honor of Harveys 200th anniversary, they began to bottle their Bristol Cream in a "Bristol Blue" bottle. The city of Bristol used to be the main point of supply for Saxon cobalt oxide, a coloring staff which created a deep blue color. Some members of the company had initial concerns about the blue bottle. In Europe, poison was once sold in small blue bottles so there were worries that the blue bottle would fail but it ended up being a big success.

We tried some Harveys Bristol Cream on the rocks with an orange slice and it was a pleasant drink, and I understand why it is so popular. But it was their aged sherries which truly impressed me. This was the first bodega that we visited and it provided an excellent start, showing us the potential of sherry, especially aged sherry.

In 2008, Harveys launched their VORS line, 30+ year old sherries, though it is not yet available in the U.S. They only produce about 250 cases per year, each case consisting of six 500ml bottles, so this is a very limited release. The VORs line includes an Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez. I eagerly anticipate when these sherries are available locally as they are excellent.

My favorite was a tie between the Amontillado and Palo Cortado. The Amontillado solera was founded in 1914, and has an average age of about 70 years. It had such an alluring aroma, beguiling my senses. The taste was amazing and complex with lots of salty nuts and caramel. It was elegant with a very lengthy and pleasing finish. Highly recommended! It was suggested that this sherry would pair well with curries, stews, Manchego and other strong cheeses. The Palo Cortado solera was founded in 1906, and has an average age of about 60 years. It too had a compelling aroma and taste, with flavors of butterscotch, caramel, mild nut, and even a bit of wood. The length was very long and satisfying. Also highly recommended! It was suggested this sherry would pair well with red meat.

The Oloroso solera was founded in 1909, and has an average age of about 60 years, though the final blend has a bit of Pedro Ximenez in it. It shared some of the taste of the Amontillado but was bolder, more rounded and fuller in the mouth. It was very good too, but I preferred the Amontillado and Palo Cortado. The Pedro Ximenez solera was founded in 1919, and has an average age of about 80 years. It was very concentrated, extremely sweet, with prune and raisin flavors. It was good, just not my preference.

Harveys has their own private park, as well as plenty of other land, and keep some animals on the premises. They own two alligators, named Kevin & Harvey, something you would not expect to find at a winery in Spain. Originally, the bodega received a gift of two alligators, Kevin and Sandra but Kevin decided to eat Sandra. So, they got another alligator, Harvey, and the two males have been getting along very well.

They also have peacocks, who sometimes wander into the bodegas, climbing atop the casks though I am unsure whether they actually sample any of the sherry.

Plus, they even have rare albino peacocks! That was a unique and fascinating sight to me.

Ok, it is now time that you can return to Harveys Bristol Cream. But hopefully your stereotype has been shattered and you will see beyond Cream sherry, and realize the greater world of sherry beyond that one specific type.

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