The Sherryfest West 2014 Grand Tasting held recently in San Francisco included 21 bodegas pouring their Sherries, complimented by assorted seminars and pairing dinners. So it was not trivial to sift through all the sugary Pedro Ximenez, nutty Amontillados, and lush, complex Palo Cortados sampled. But I’ll give it a try. Let’s take a look (or lift the flor, if you will) at my dozen most noteworthy Sherries.
Alexander Jules Fino 22/85: Los Angeles resident Alex Russan’s négociant label is without question one of the more fascinating stories and concepts in the Sherry world today. Previously he was in the specialty coffee business and now thanks to that skill of selecting and blending beans (think espresso, not single origin), Jules is hand-picking certain barrels from assorted soleras to make his blends like the Manzanilla 17/71 and the Amontillado 6/26. His stand out right now is the Fino 22/85 (that means the Fino is selected from 22 barrels of the 85 barrel Fino Celestino solera at Sánchez Romate, an eight year average aged wine that is basically bottled “en Rama.” Only 1,100 bottles were produced.
It’s a firm, bright Fino with lovely floral and raspberry notes that close with glazed walnuts, altogether much denser than the typical Fino. No wonder Jules even says it’s more like a Manzanilla Pasada. If France has proven that négociants can create some pioneering wines there, why not have Sherry follow? After all, a solera already is a blend of years. This is another element to the mix. But remember, négociants in France sometimes make their wines. Other times, they’re like Jules, not the winemakers, but the detectors (or protectors?) of the premier barrels within a solera or vineyard.
Fernando de Castilla Antique Palo Cortado: The lightest bronze hue of the eight Palo Cortados in the Palo Cortado seminar but middle of the abv ratings at 20%. My first note was “classic.” This is how I imagine Palo Cortado to be if it were literally to split the line between Amontillado and Oloroso. A floral nose leads to candied orange peel and chamomile tea with a full body that never becomes syrupy. It’s aged an average of 30 years and shows in the details. That being said, this is one of the more approachable and relaxed VORS Sherries I know of.
González Byass “Cuatro Palmas” Amontillado: Think of the “Cuatro Palmas” as the final snapshot in the four part “Palmas” series where the classic Tio Pepe Fino grows up to this mature, handsome Amontillado that really seems like a Palo Cortado (21% abv). It’s a single barrel, 150 bottle operation. Consider this a precious Sherry because it is. It’s an intense Sherry, tasting of dustry sun-drenched terroir but also a few sea breeze notes fly into the nose brightening things up. I even got hints of beef jerky (well, meat, salt, and leather) in the mouth, mixed with some salted caramel, lavender, and even some olive oil. A masterpiece Sherry.
González Byass Tio Pepe Fino “en Rama”: Master blender Antonio Flores elected to use just two soleras for this blend and wanted the barrels with the best flor— the most alive barrels make the most alove Fino en Rama. And indeed this is an apértif wine if I have ever met one. It’s refreshing but textured with lychee, ripe pear, and an underlying mint note. Don’t think that just because this a relaxing sipper it’s not as capable of raising eyebrows as the most vibrant Palo Cortado. This sure is a natural match for buttery, mildly salty jamón Iberico.
Gutiérrez Colosía Manzanilla: A delicate, focused Sherry full of Manzanilla’s beautiful garden edges: here you’ll find plenty of thyme, sage, and oak (aged in American oakbarrels) with a subtle allspice tone giving exciting pizzazz. The company is one of Sherry’s oldest, dating back to 1838. In 1997 Juan Carlos Gutiérrez started the Colosía label. His Manzanilla is remarkably smooth with just enough of a puckering finish to remind you of Manzanilla’s signature crisp-bitter bite.
Hidalgo-La Gitana Faraón Oloroso: Ok, it was warm even by San Francisco standards but this stalwart Oloroso kept reminding me of gingerbread, beet root, and general wintertime, fireplace comfort, except way superior to mulled wine. I’d be repetitive if I chronicled Hidalgo-La Gitana’s particular dominance of the dryer end of the Sherry spectrum (I’ve many times called the single vineyard Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada the Sherry I want before dinner at least three times a week). Then again, when your bodega dates back to 1792 and you’re arguably the most renowned producer in Sanlúcar de Barramdesa, it comes as no surprise that the Manzanilla is remarkable. What is most impressive and worth nothing is this skill with Oloroso that eschews stoic sweetness for a fruit forward, very refined and textured sipper.
Lustau Amontillado Escuadrilla: Probably the best bargain of the list with three times the character of its $15.99 retail tag. When I think of focused, nutty Sherry, this is it. There is pleasant weight that leads to a slightly sweet finish reminiscent of blood orange. But it’s the journey from nose to mouth where the remarkable clarity garnished with rosemary, almonds, and hibiscus that set the Escuadrilla apart.
Sánchez Romate Fino Perdido: A pristine, riveting portrayal of a dry Fino that resists the temptation to be bone-dry by the venerable bodega dating back to 1781. The color is a glowing gold— none of that hazy straw so many Finos have. Honeycrisp apple, hay, and clay all pop on the palate. This is the closest thing the wine world has to a Belgian farmhouse saison.
Bodegas Tradición Palo Cortado VORS: Even veteran wine tasters were refusing to part with the final sips of this 30 year aged Palo Cortado to continue the Old & Rare Sherry seminar. A restrained nose leads to a calm body that struck me as playful and flexible, frankly much younger than it’s supposed to be but with the refinement of an aged classic. The 60 year old who still can beat anyone in a marathon. A little salt speckles cacao nibs, cardamom, and strong blasts of figs. In a way, it’s almost more of an Oloroso in palate and Amontillado in body. How Palo Cortado. At 22% abv, this is not a shy fellow. This is confident Sherry. A victory lap for Sherry aging and for Tradición.
Bodegas Tradición Pedro Ximénez VOS: I have an unabashed sweet tooth and tend to be very accepting with most PX. Still, my often fruitless, overly cloying and sweet search for a balanced PX must have U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as its theme song. At last, the masters at Tradición have solved the dilemma with this beautiful twenty year aged version. The color strikes as more balanced, ranging from a caramel-hued charcoal in the center to a deep pitch black at the edge. There’s more earth on the palate and less maple syrup. Tannins are more refined and avoid being sticky. All in all, a powerful wine instead of a dessert sauce. What I’ve hoped to find in a PX.
Urium Amontillado VORS: One of Sherry’s youngest and brightest bodegas, only founded five years ago by Sherry enthusiast and businessman Alonso Ruiz and his daughter Rocío who makes the wines. Across the board they’re presenting great Sherries both in their Clásico series and VORS series. Plus, a top flight Fino en Rama. But I can’t get past the Amontillado VORS, showing 30 years of graceful elegance and the complexity of aging both under flor and oxidatively. The Sherry shows the best of both worlds, balancing sweet and savory, chewy and smooth (much less sweet than its peer below). Here is a hearty Sherry that doesn’t mind cracking a joke sometimes.
Williams & Humbert As You Like It Amontillado Medium Sweet: No, no, this isn’t W&H’s ode to Shakespeare like I initially thought. With tastings and a dinner, I must have had each of W & H’s Sherries. There’s a lot more to the company founded in 1877 than Drysack. There’s a light, sharp, layered Fino en Rama and the Dos Cortados Palo Cortado VOS has to be one of the more mysterious, nuanced Sherries period. Maybe I fell for the name but As You Like It was a brilliant find by W & H after being untouched for three decades (or they say “almost forgotten”). Do note, it’s only available by the half bottle, so savor as you’d like. Like the Urium VORS above, As You Like It exhibits the mature beauty of an Amontillado aged into medium sweetness. At first you get that signature Amontillado woody oxidation but then the Sherry veers towards Sauternes territory with vanilla, tropical fruit, and cinnamon— a wine not to forget, like it almost was.
For more on the 2014 Sherryfest West please see: Sherryfest West Brings Jerez to San Francisco