As my train pulled into the station in sherry’s historic capital, Jerez de la Frontera, rain spattered against my window and onto the platform below. I was half-awake, with a mosaic of half-eaten jamón bocadillo
stuck to the front of my sweater, classically overpacked yet without an umbrella in January, a month so rainy it makes you forget that arid Morocco is anywhere near Jerez.
I shuffled into the lavishly tiled station bleary-eyed and inelegant. In such a state only a few things were immediately clear to me. I was in Spain. Spanish was being spoken. To my right, in the train station café: the hum of the espresso machine, the faint mumble of a football game, and the clink of cups meeting saucers—a definably Spanish kind of clink and hum. Furthermore, I was in southern Spain. Nobody was in a hurry. In fact, people almost looked embarrassed to be making their trains. (And, let me tell you this now, because it’s as true as anything I’ve learned while writing this book: never, ever come to this part of Spain and show up to a meeting on time. You will startle and confuse your host.)
I tumbled out onto the street and into a cab, cracked the window, and watched the buildings whirl by, whitewash peeling off their façades to reveal the scars of centuries. Seville orange trees lined the sidewalks, sagging with fruit so fragrant it smelled as if the streets were paved with marmalade. I was a goner, of course, but it’s not hard to fall in love with the aesthetic beauty of this place and the obvious cultural bounty—the sherry, the food, the music, the everything—that has enchanted centuries’ worth of thinkers, poets, explorers, artists, and
(apparently) California girls. But Federico García Lorca—the great early twentieth-century Spanish poet often dubbed the Son of Andalusia—would say to look past the obvious charms, that the real Andalusia cannot be seen.
It’s true that the cultural affluence smells and tastes so good that it’s easy to forget the centuries of conflict buried underneath Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María—both literally and figuratively. These three towns, which form the roughly 25,000-acre swath known as the marco de Jerez,
or Sherry Triangle, have seen a tremendous amount of historical tumult and variety of cultural influence. In many ways, sherry—in its idiosyncrasies, triumphs, and failures—is an embodiment of the region’s experience.
It is a wine that has endured through thousands of years of political upheaval, sacking, conquest, and economic disappointment. But sherry’s highs have certainly outweighed its lows: it was practically the official drink of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers; a favorite of everyone from Shakespeare to Poe to Dickens; the base of the Sherry Cobbler, one of the greatest American cocktails ever invented; and, believe it or not, one of the muses of California’s nascent wine-producing industry before it set its sights on Bordeaux as a model. So it’s not hyperbole when I say that sherry’s story is one of the most remarkable in the history of wine.
Despite its storied pedigree, however, sherry has been maligned in America for decades—so misunderstood that one wonders whether it was the victim of an elaborate smear campaign involving all of the grandmas, everywhere. But against odds that seemed insurmountable just ten years ago, sherry—real sherry, not the warm, blended stuff still found lurking in octogenarian pantries—is undergoing a renaissance. It has become a star ingredient on the modern craft cocktail scene, beloved of bartenders who use it in pre-Prohibition-era cocktails as well as in their own contemporary drinks. It is popping up on wine lists in restaurants and bars from New York to New Orleans to San Francisco, where sommeliers have finally given sherry the real estate it deserves. And at long last, importers and wine shops are selling an unprecedented array of sherries from producers large and small, which means that the best sherry wines are available to American consumers for the first time in generations.
Sherry has, in short, been reborn. And with this rebirth, it’s time that sherry’s story is retold.
In simple terms, sherry is a wine produced in Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. It is a fortified wine, which means that a small amount of neutral grape spirit (brandy) is added to the wine to increase its alcohol content. Fortification—or, more specifically, the lingering negative connotations surrounding it (thanks, Thunderbird)—is one of the reasons sherry is so misunderstood in America. Another reason: its wide range of styles, which include both the driest and the sweetest wines in the world, and numerous points in between.
There are four dry styles of sherry, each with differing modes of production:
fino (in which style I include manzanilla, which though distinct in character is simply a fino aged in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda), amontillado, palo cortado, and oloroso. These styles fit, in this order, along a spectrum from lightest to fullest.
In addition to the range of dry wines, the region produces two naturally sweet wines: pedro ximénez (known affectionately as “PX”) and moscatel.
And those cheap, sweet bottles with the sticky labels left marinating in pantries across America? Those fit into the category of blended sherries, which are generally made by mixing one of the dry styles with either PX, moscatel, or unfermented grape must and labeled with designations like “pale cream,” “cream,” “amoroso,” and “medium.”
In America, people often equate sherry with these ubiquitous, sweetened wines. Thus, the entire category is generally considered sweet, even though the majority of it is not. That fact, coupled with a general distrust of fortified wines, has long kept sherry from the dinner table. But sherry is above all a wine, and one that should be consumed like any other wine: with food. In fact, the intense savoriness of the dry wines and their compatibility with a wide range of cuisines, from English pub fare to sushi, are what’s helped drive modern interest in it.
But while sherry should be considered a wine like any other, it’s also true that its production methods, especially, make it unique within the world of wine—and not in an academic or abstract way. The differences are dramatic, and visceral.
“No wine differs so much from all others, and the differences are not merely of taste or colour, of scent or sparkle, but of kind . . . it is not a variant, but a primary,” writes Rupert Croft-Cooke in his 1956 book, Sherry
. “There is Sherry, and there are all other wines.”
Despite what all the vowels in my name might imply, I was not reared on the great wines of Italy and my mother, who is half Spanish, did not teach me either the art of flamenco or how to love fino sherry.
Instead, it all begins with a stoned surfer, a liquor store on Pacific Coast Highway, a carful of high school girls, and a botched request for Bailey’s. That night I had my first taste of Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry, which I stirred into a concoction that I still maintain is the worst blended drink I’ve ever consumed.
I was sixteen.
Five years later (and no thanks to the Bristol Cream), I broke the news to my parents that I’d fallen in love with wine. Instead of going to law school as predicted (or at least as hoped), I’d taken a job as a vineyard slave in Piedmont, Italy, and I wouldn’t be back until I’d spent all of the money my relatives sent for graduation. (P.S. I love you.)
I had my second sip of sherry the year after I returned from Italy, when I wandered into Bar Jamón, a pocket square of a restaurant on Irving Place in New York’s Gramercy neighborhood, just down the block from the wine store where I worked. I went for the ham, but I left loving sherry. That night the bartender poured me the first real
sherry I’d ever tasted: a chilled copita
of oloroso. It was both incredibly foreign and totally familiar—like old Barolo laced with iodine that was amplified, reduced, and somehow elegant despite its heft. It sparked that dull, joyous pulse in the gut that travels north, gains momentum in the chest, and releases all its pent-up energy behind the eyes in the same way that good ’90s rock choruses, eggs with truffles on them, love, Barolo, and log rides do. It’s a variety of bliss, I guess; the kind that is best expressed through tears or dancing—or, if you’ve had enough sherry, both.
That was in 2007, and sherry was at the tail end of a decades-long decline that had left it nearly irrelevant—a wine best reserved for bridge games and bad jokes. In fact, the best bit of PR the wines enjoyed over the last thirty years was a nine-year stint on the sitcom Frasier
as the object of the Crane brothers’ alcoholic affection, which doubled as a backhanded jab at their stodgy Britishness. In a testament to how old-fashioned it had become, the Cranes served their sherry warm out of a decanter next to Frasier’s grand piano, and sipped it pinky up.
But just a few years after Frasier’s
run ended, rumblings of an unlikely renaissance began in the cocktail world. The modern-day craft cocktail revival inspired bartenders and consumers alike to rediscover America’s pre-Prohibition-era drinking past. Bars around the country were studiously unearthing nineteenth-century recipes, many of which called for sherry as a primary ingredient. The rebirth of classic cocktails like the Sherry Cobbler gave sherry a way back into the barman’s repertoire. By 2009, sherry had become a budding trend in the cocktail world, with bars from coast to coast featuring sherry prominently on their menus.
The wine world wasn’t far behind. The improved distribution of smaller, high-quality sherry bottlings—including Lustau’s Almacenista line, the boutique sherries of El Maestro Sierra, Hidalgo–La Gitana’s Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana, and Emilio Hidalgo’s La Panesa, as well as the La Bota wines from Equipo Navazos—helped hook the more progressive sommelier set. Within a few years New York and San Francisco had become incubators for an overdue American fascination with one of the first wines ever imported to the New World. Sherry, quite suddenly, was hip.
Some of this comeback is linked to a decades-long shift in flavor hierarchy in the American palate—a slow but steady decrease in the dominance of fruit flavors to an embrace of bitter and intensely savory flavors. Simply browse the greens section at Whole Foods: endive, treviso, arugula, and dandelion greens now hold court in aisles that once pledged allegiance to Bibb lettuce and spinach. Even McDonald’s serves radicchio now. As it applies to beverages, this change can help us understand everything from the rise of the bitter, Campari-based Negroni cocktail to the unlikely popularity of intensely savory skin-fermented orange wines.
Enter sherry. Its various dry styles—fino and manzanilla, amontillado, palo cortado, and oloroso—are arguments for rebellion against fruit: wine’s anthems about the savory. They are also wines that deserve to be on the table. And that is the great lesson we are learning in America: while sherry’s production process makes it unique within the world of wine, it represents more of a convergence with table wine than a departure. And the more I taste, the more I find glimpses of other wines—the salinity of Chablis, the warmth and meatiness of northern Rhône Syrah, the earthiness and florality of Nebbiolo—in the wines of the Sherry Triangle.
It’s thanks to some of the country’s best sommeliers and bartenders that sherry is finally being understood as both a table wine and an element that can make a cocktail more complex. These are people like Ashley Santoro, the former wine director of Manhattan’s Casa Mono and Bar Jamón, who would be a millionaire if she had a buck for every time she’s heard “I thought that was for grandmas” during her years at the restaurant. She converted many of those people by slipping glasses of fino or manzanilla next to countless plates of ibérico
ham, gratis. There’s Sean Diggins, formerly of Gitane, who was pouring more than twenty sherries by the glass before most restaurants in San Francisco even thought to consider it. And Sandro Piliego, an Italian from Lazio who fell in love with sherry in the late 1990s, when collecting it was about as cool as collecting navel fuzz. When I asked him why an Italian guy would move to America to open a Spanish restaurant in Brooklyn, he said, plainly, “For the love of sherry.”
There are dozens of people who helped dig sherry out of the dark ages and have pushed to prove that the wines of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María, as well as those of Montilla-Moriles, are some of the world’s most intriguing and uniquely terroir
-driven food wines. They are different, yes, but they require nothing but curiosity (and perhaps a little jamón
In fact, thirteen years after that not-so-fateful night on PCH and more than three years after that first rainy January in Jerez, I’ve realized that unbridled curiosity—not knowledge, or fancy glassware, or the right vernacular—is the only thing you need to love wine. It’s the one thing that led me here, and perhaps it’s what’s led you here, too.
Copyright © 2014 by Talia Baiocchi. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.