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ON WINE

Spain's Gifts : A Sherry Tasting and Port Preview

December 06, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

DURING A RECENT visit to Southern California, David P. Sandeman, chairman of the famous English house of ports and sherries, hosted a sit-down tasting of Sandeman sherries and a preview of its 1985 Vintage Port. It had been some time since I'd sipped the golden glory of the wines of Jerez de la Frontera--the town in Spain that gave sherry its name, Anglicized from Jerez to sherris to sherry . Yet, the first sip of the first wine--a young fino, with its uncommon, appetizing zing--immediately alerted me to its wholly different taste.

The chalky albariza soil gives both the basic Palomino and Pedro Ximenez berries their distinctiveness, which carries through to the finished wine. All grapes reflect their homeland, as do the wines. Palomino grapes thrive in the comparably hot vineyards of the San Joaquin Valley, but this is not Jerez de la Frontera, nor the defining albariza.

As we moved on to the second wine, after the definitive Sandeman Don Fino ($9.50), we had the Bone Dry Amontillado ($14.95). There were perhaps a dozen different sherries leading to the concluding Vintage 1985 Port.

David Sandeman was in California particularly to introduce these more rare "royal" blends: Esmeralda ($18.95), Ambrosante ($21.95), Corregidor ($18.95) and Imperial Corregidor ($28.95), the latter perhaps the oldest sherry ever offered commercially. It's an oloroso , with some Pedro Ximenez grapes added to achieve its rich and luscious finish.

The Vintage 1985 Port, an excellent year in the Douro valley, allowed the grapes to mature under ideal conditions at the quintas , or vineyard estates. The wine will not arrive in California until the spring of 1988, when it will retail for about $30 and be worth laying down or enjoying at once for its almost strawberry fruitiness. But if you prefer genuine port at a holiday event, Sandeman Founders Reserve, in a handsome satin-smooth bottle ($14.95), merits attention.

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