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August 25, 2010

The Grape Escape: A glass of Amontillado

“For the love of God, Montresor!”

Who can read this chilling line from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” without feeling a strange impulse to taste this dark, strong Spanish wine? Yet Amontillado remains a mystery to many.

What is this wine, the mere mention of which was sufficient for Poe’s evil protagonist to lure his rival, the connoisseur Fortunato, to the depths of his wine cellar to be buried alive? No fictional potation, Amontillado boasts a heritage of many centuries, and it is available (although not commonplace) in today’s wine markets.

Amontillado is pronounced “Ah-MOHN-tee-YAH-doe,” which means “near Montilla.” It’s a variety of sherry, a Spanish wine made by an unusual process that gives it a flavor considerably different from most other wines. It is made in open barrels with a natural yeast called flor, then aged until it turns brownish and oxidizes, gaining a nutty aroma reminiscent of walnuts or pecans. It is fortified by adding brandy, which gives it a long life and makes it much stronger than regular table wines. Unlike the cream sherry your grandmother sipped, Amontillado is not sticky sweet but tart and dry, full-bodied and robust.

A neighborhood liquor store might not carry Amontillado, but Louisville’s better wine shops should have one or two. One good brand (although certainly not the only one) is Emilio Lustau.

Amontillado is generally sipped in small portions as a cocktail or after-dinner wine, perhaps with cheese or nuts. If you try it, sip a glass while reading Poe. In weather like this, it couldn’t hurt to chill a glass for a half-hour or so before serving, to bring it down to, um, cellar temperature.