There are many perfect food pairings in the world -- Sauternes and foie gras, Muscadet and oysters, Champagne and potato chips, Barolo and truffled anything -- but no pairing in the world is so perfectly simple as the pairing of Marcona almonds and fino sherry.
These are the rich, flavorful almonds that originate in Spain, generally larger and more squat than the standard issue. They're usually blanched, then lightly fried, salted, sometimes tossed with herbs, and often come coated in a good fragrant olive oil. As anyone who's had even one of these knows, they are completely addictive.
As good as they are by themselves, their simple brilliance is somehow enhanced immeasurably by the salty, nutty flavor of fino sherry, the dry, peculiar fortified wine of Jerez, Spain.
On its own, fino is a bit of an acquired taste. As you'll see in my next Serious Drinking column -- about sherry cocktails, out next week -- if you're looking for fruit in sherry the way fruit flavors inform most wines, you'll come up wanting. Sherry has none. Instead it leads with nutty, yeasty scents, a salty tang, and a quality the wine geeks refer to as its rancio, a word meant to convey what it sounds like, rancid, like something that's gone slightly off.
Of course, hundreds of the world's cheeses have precisely the same, er, feature, and like them, fino can display astonishing complexity and layering on the palate. But perhaps the wine's best feature is that its flavors seem to anticipate pairing with food, salty snacks especially. There's nothing wrong with drinking it straight, but its intrinsic merits are that much more apparent with food at the ready -- especially foods that echo its savory repertoire -- nuttiness, a saline, mineral texture.
Take a nut, fill your mouth with its flavors. Take a small sip of sherry and see what happens.
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Like most great pairings, the wine sharpens the flavor of the nuts, throws it into high relief. But the nuts in this instance also reveal a subtle fruit quality in the wine, hints of green apple, crisp pear, as if the almonds have pulled a curtain on the wine. It's quite a performance, one you can just toss back among friends on the patio as the shadows lengthen, or get lost in its simple profundity.
Here are three good affordable fino producers: Tio Pepe, one of the most widely available and very good; Lustau, and Alvear; all in the vicinity of $15.
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Have a spirits question for a future column? Ask him. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.