It sure seemed a lot like Jerez last week in San Francisco. That’s not because afternoon high temperatures soared into the 80’s (unheard of in the city where July temperatures barely reach 60 degrees). But, because the fifth overall edition of Sherryfest and the second in the west rolled into town with more gusto than Karl the fog (the city’s name for its beloved fog blanket).
Last year’s Sherryfest West took place in Portland, Oregon (2012-2014 in New York and 2013 in Toronto as well). This year was absolutely the perfect fit for Sherryfest to be in this city, just an hour south of the New World’s most famous wine region (not at all known for its fortified wines), because Sherry is finally having its moment in San Francisco and the U.S. as a whole.
It’s hard to say American drinkers are now “discovering” Sherry. After all, it’s an ancient fortified wine dating back to before the Roman Empire. Americans have had Sherry Cobblers or added Sherry to recipes with crab since the Constitution was written. Some bodegas at Sherryfest are now on their fourth century. It’s more that the public as a whole in 2014 is now more curious about Sherry and understanding it as more than Spain’s version of Port wine, or your great aunt’s favorite tipple.
Sherryfest’s tagline appropriately is “Get Flor’d.” Ok, the Grand Tasting did have 140 Sherries from 21 bodegas for the ambitious to taste. But really, Sherryfest is only part tasting and drinking. The most important features here that too often get lost at other industry events are the dinners and seminars. You get flor’d and you get educat’d.
Wine & Spirits Senior Correspondent and the author of Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla Peter Liem and Rosemary Gray, director of RS Productions NYC and consultant for Flatiron Wines are the co-creators and festival organizers of what impressed me and everyone I talked with as a beautifully designed and well-attended festival. As far as I know, everything went smoothly, a rarity when it comes to events of this scale.
All sorts of industry and non-industry guests, locals and non-locals turned up. Two of the country’s most prominent wine journalists at the Grand Tasting swirled Sherry side by side with folks who had no idea where Jerez even was in Spain. At one dinner, I sat next to a New York native in town for the week by chance and knew nothing about Sherry before reading up on the subject the day before. Next to him was a British Columbia resident so passionate for Sherry she flew to San Francisco just for the event.
Like the Sherry spectrum itself, there was quite the contrast in personalities attending. With two days and three evenings worth of Sherry and Sherry-related themes to analyze, grab a copita of Tio Pepe Fino and we’ll take a look now at the major takeaways.
The most important parting note from a successful event on a challenging subject like this is the clear notion that Sherry is complex and Sherry’s audience is passionate and growing. Unless you’re a winemaker in Jerez or an expert of Liem’s stature, chances are something about Sherry is still puzzling. It truly is hard to fully grasp soleras or fully comprehend all the oxidation explanations.
Why does classification seem so random? There are many very good explanations, yet few are truly, unequivocally fact. Understanding wine requires lots of chemistry knowledge. Understanding Sherry seems to also require extensive organic chemistry experience.
Sherry’s growth is obvious based on the energy at the tastings, seminars, and dinners. It’s a fast growing niche of wine as a whole. More restaurants are delving into Sherry on their wine lists. Restaurants and bars like TBD in San Francisco, Vera in Chicago, the Terroir wine bars in New York, and Mockingbird Hill in Washington D.C. are emphasizing Sherry on their lists like we haven’t seen before, or even putting Sherry on the marquee.
As I emerged from the Grand Tasting, it was no coincidence that I heard that San Francisco’s new Marla Bakery will have a focus on… Sherry because the owner loves it so much. Sherry is making grand appearances in cocktails too, from the traditional Sherry Cobbler’s re-birth to seeing a quarter ounce of Amontillado add depth to Green Chartreuse and Rye Whiskey.
San Francisco’s new restaurant and bar Dirty Habit “Dirt Nap” cocktail adds Lustau’s “Don Nuno” Oloroso to Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth, King’s Ginger Liqueur, and porcini mushroom. Not to be outdone, Dirty Habit’s “Leather & Lace” features the “Peninsula” Palo Cortado from Lustau with the Spanish liqueur Licor 43, James Pepper Rye, and tobacco bitters.
In short, Sherry now isn’t just thought of as dry or sweet. It’s a multi-purpose, diverse fortified wine that is full of various personalities on its own or mixed in cocktails.
Those personalities? The spectrum is complicated. The primary classification occurs after fermentation and before fortification, when master blenders must decide at this early stage if the wine should should be elaborated biologically or elaborated oxidatively.
Biological aging takes place under a layer of flor yeast in each barrel and keeps the wine fresh and pale colored like a white wine. While oxidative aging turns the wine an amber brown color and imparts complex nutty and barrel flavors. After that is when it starts getting complicated.
Sherry is always bone-dry or dessert sweet, right? Wrong. Of about 150 Sherries I tried, maybe four of them absolutely hit either description. The best generic description for Sherry is a wine with some nuttiness that sees a wide range of barrel aging methods, with a wide range of sweetness levels used. The Fino from Delgado Zuleta and the Pedro Ximenez by Aecovi off the top of my head were some of the few wines that perfectly fit the generic 100% bone-dry or dessert adjectives.
A master sommelier mentioned at the González-Byass dinner that with Calvados, they are the only two wines or spirits still around that are 100% pure like centuries ago. It goes to the show how old-school sherry is. That old-school mentality also showed when I asked Beltrán Domecq (President of the Consejo Regulador, Sherry’s governing body) about why Sherry can’t be replicated anywhere else. He explained besides the legal implications that Sherry must be made in Jerez (think Champagne can only hail from Champagne), it ultimately comes down to the old soleras, terroir, and winemaking. You just can’t replicate those parts of Jerez elsewhere. …While some aspects of California seem to replicate anywhere.
Almost all Sherry is made using the solera aging system and it’s the most technically complicated aspect of Sherry to understand. How many years are in them? How can you really tell? There are so many questions about soleras that it seems only a trip to Jerez can definitively answer them or more likely a lifetime working at a Sherry bodega. But short of that, the key thing to know is that each solera periodically has old wine taken out of the blend and fresh young wine added into the blend, so that the old wine imparts its character on the new wine, maintaining the solera’s core character and complexity for decades.
Old and rare Sherries are generally the superior Sherries, although the younger, pale and dry styles (Fino and Manzanilla) excel for sheer refreshment. Well, it’s not exactly shocking that old and rare Sherries are the best, but that is what the Grand Tasting and a seminar on the subject from Bodegas Tradición’s Lorenzo García-Iglesias and Sánchez Romate’s Borja Leal proved to me.
Goodness, some of those Sherries explode on the palate with intensity that is only restrained by sturdy, integrated back bone. Being solely dedicated to VOS (Very Old Sherry, aged at least 20 years) and VORS (Very Old and Rare Sherry, aged at least 30 years), Tradición is one of the rock stars of Sherry presently and was treated as such by the public and trade in San Francisco.
If Tradición is a rock star, Sánchez Romate is a guitar sidekick with their Old & Plus Sherries. Alexander Jules is the exciting new kid in the room as a Los Angeles-based négociant blending various Sherries. Valdespino, Fernando de Castilla, Hidalgo-La Gitana, Williams & Humbert, and Lustau all are very skilled, long-standing members of the band that each can steal the spotlight with a solo. González Byass is the producer, always steadfastly in command with perhaps the most impressive broad portfolio. Osborne and Harvey’s are the houses with power (the record companies?) that the young upstarts roll their eyes at because you’ll find them in every major warehouse from Flagstaff to Toledo (Ohio, not the Spanish one).
The “En Rama” (in the raw) Finos and Manzanillas are the breakout classification and style presently, putting freshness and yeasty flor character ahead of the smoother more commercial regular releases. Amontillado and Palo Cortado often have the most complexity and rewarding tastes. Oloroso is the eptiome of the oxidized style. Cream Sherry is the ugly duckling, the Merlot of Sherry—although the best examples can be outstanding, just as with Merlot. And good luck trying to properly spittoon a super sweet PX.
Pedro Ximenez is the name of the grape PX is made from; and is neither the name of a winery nor is there any certainty that the grape really is named after someone of that name. That’s asked countless times a day around Sherry personalities.
Sherry is excellent with food beyond the usual Marcona almonds and olives. By all means, have a four course meal paired with Sherry. My, how well the Lustau Amontillado Escuadrilla paired with Bar Agricole’s cedar plank grilled salmon and smoked salmon duo. That being said, one of the best simple pairings I’ve ever had was the (impossible to not have 20 samples of) buttery, salty jamón Ibérico from Nosa Ria Market in San Francisco with González Byass’ Tio Pepe Fino “En Rama” at the St. Vincent dinner. Now that is how wine and food sing together.
If Sherry is complex, then Palo Cortado is Sherry’s nuclear physics. The classification has so many personalities as a seminar on the subject proved. Hildalgo-La Gitana’s “Wellington” 20 Year VOS cast a brilliant bronze hue with a delicate, light texture, and little sweetness from the “glyceric effect” where the first note senses sugar but then a wave of dryness ensues, almost like a cocktail.
The Fernando de Castilla Antique Palo Cortado was even lighter colored but much fuller bodied with plenty of orange peel and chamomile tea and stronger in alcohol, 20% compared to 17% for Wellington. Williams & Humbert’s Dos Cortados aged 20 years, at 20.5% was smack in the middle of the dry-sweet spectrum with a lightly toasted nose and sage-earth notes finished with butterscotch. It was intense, more like the Tradición Palo Cortado VORS aged 30 years, at 19.5%. Then you got the Osborne Capuchino Palo Cortado VORS last with notes of milk and espresso but a dark body leading to a layered, dense personality of pear and cacao nibs. It was far from the delicate first set of Palo Cortados in the seminar.
The keys to know are: what are Sherry’s three grapes? Aged biologically with flor or oxidatively with no flor? Is it bone dry, super sweet or somwhere in between. Let’s focus on that before getting into the chalk signs on the barrels’ butts classifying the wines that leaves nothing but blank stares.
Remember, Manzanilla, and Fino are pale, dry and aged BIOLOGICALLY UNDER FLOR, that layer of yeast that prevents the wine from oxidizing and turning brown through contact with the air in the barrel. While Oloroso, Cream, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximenez are aged OXIDATIVELY WITHOUT FLOR to protect the wine from the air in the barrel. And then our friends Amontillado and Palo Cortado feature both. Simple, right? It’s all about learning the concepts, much like biology in high school.
So…Oloroso is a dry Sherry? Many, many eyebrows get raised each time that’s mentioned. Yes, Oloroso is a dry Sherry since it’s only made from fully fermented Palomino grapes, however, it often has Pedro Ximenez added to sweeten it up to varying degrees. In fact, I talked with many non-rookie Sherry drinkers who even thought Oloroso was interchangeable with Cream Sherry based on flavor profile. Simply put, Cream Sherry is a sweetened Oloroso, normally with Pedro Ximenez.
I wondered at the Grand Tasting why so few bodegas were pouring Manzanillas? It’s a simple answer. Sherry is only made in the Jerez triangle. Zoom in further and Manzanilla is produced exclusively in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
And we’re supposed to drink Sherry in white wine glasses instead of copitas? Yes and no. For the wine experience, absolutely go for wine glasses. What wine doesn’t benefit from more room to swirl and sniff? Still, if I’m a restaurant, I’m following tradition with a copita. It just screams Sherry and is more festive. It loosens up Sherry instead of making it deep and contemplative (as Señor Domecq said it is best enjoyed).
Sherry will also be a bigger deal in five years because wine tourism in Spain will surely increase. With the Priorat, Jerez, Rueda, and all sorts of other Spanish wine growing regions growing in popularity, the tourist trade surely will expand from its current infant stages when compared to European colleagues France, Italy, and even Austria and Portugal. Gonzalez-Byass for instance has world class facilities for visitors.
The Sherryfest schedule worked perfectly with just the right amount of events so anyone could basically attend anything, except one evening with two dinners. I visited two dinners and the contrasting serving styles brought up the age old question of which method is better for a dinner in size somewhere between a large dinner party and a banquet.
One restaurant served 3-4 dishes family-style over four courses. Another served four dishes, each one individualized. Which is better? My answer always is the latter since there’s much more of a focus on the food and drink pairing for the diner and less concern of not eating enough/sharing with strangers. At the same time, it bogs down the dinner and a small kitchen (this one had three chefs), so pairing explanations happen often when diners don’t even have wine poured and one half of the room finishes a course before the other half. A coin flip.
With 21 bodegas and 140 Sherries, the Grand Tasting was indeed grand but not the grandest wine tasting numbers-wise by any stretch. That’s good. The first three hours were for industry and the public could join for the final two hours. I decided it would be fun to conduct half my tasting with the trade and half the tasting with the public.
The big difference? Obviously the dump bucket is used less frequently in the second half and the public is much more social with each other and those pouring. In other words, it’s more of a party later as you’d expect but come for the first half to really determine the nuances of one Amontillado VOS to the next.
A big part of what made Sherryfest really click was the presence of many of the master blenders, winemakers, and behind the scenes personalities in Jerez like Domecq, González Byass’ master blender Antonio Flores, and Williams & Humbert’s master blender Paola Medina.
All in all, Barbadillo, Fernando de Castilla, González Byass, La Guita, Lustau, Osborne, Sánchez Romate, Bodegas Tradición, Valdespino, and Williams & Humbert brought representatives from Spain to San Francisco. That is impressive. They didn’t just add the Spanish joy of life (outside of their soccer team’s World Cup failure happening at the time) but they brought the voice of Sherry. If you can’t fall in love and understand Sherry with them guiding you, I don’t know how you will.
Sherryfest’s visitors were a great blend of novices and experts, something you’ll see across San Francisco’s markets and restaurants. But everyone was well above average in a desire to learn and taste Sherry. It was refreshing to see so many un-opinionated folks with their eyes opened (Very few bloggers on hand, not that this is necessarily good or bad. Just a note.). Yes, I’m selfish but I sure hope Sherryfest West calls San Francisco a permanent summer home. Frankly, the west in general just needs more focused, niche wine festivals like this.
For next year, I’d love to see the public socialize more with the winemakers outside of group questions in seminars and a brief word at the Grand Tasting tables. I’d also like to even see videos or demonstrations on the Sherry making and solera system that are just so challenging to comprehend even after several classes and reading various books.
The best dish from the dinners? That’s tough, but Bill Niles of St. Vincent’s green coriander soup with sea beans, wild fennel, and an eggplant borani in the center was a vivid work of art to this soup skeptic (if you’re hosting a wine dinner in San Francisco, I can’t recommend having David Lynch and St. Vincent helping out strongly enough!).
The best pairing I felt, besides the extraordinary (and I mean it!) jamón and Fino en Rama, was the Monterey squid over pole beans, Brentwood corn, and smoked tomato with the González Byass “Apostoles” Palo Cortado VORS. The Apostoles really dug deep into the Low Country rendition of seafood mixed with baked beans, beautifully tying together rustic, slightly sweet tomato notes with the bright, velvety squid. It was an exact match.
Stay tuned for a companion article rounding up my dozen favorite Sherries from the various events.
But the biggest note I left the week with is how Sherryfest only further inspired my quest and many other curious wine drinkers’ quests to not just understand Sherry more in-depth, but wine in general. No wine is beyond anybody’s tasting and intellectual reach. Sip, talk, eat, enjoy, whether you’re in Jerez or San Francisco.