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Sherry on Top

Improbably, this oft-maligned Spanish wine is having its trend moment. F&W’s Ray Isle, a huge fan of the good stuff, hits London’s hip new sherry bars to learn why.

On a recent trip to London, I ordered a glass of sherry at Morito, the pint-size tapas-bar offshoot of the acclaimed Exmouth Market restaurant Moro. When he heard my order, my server—a bearded twentysomething kid who exuded cool like a fog—raised his fist. Right on, man. Sherry power. “Sherry,” he said, with a nod of approval. I asked him if he drank sherry himself. He glanced at me and said, “Not before I started working here. Now I love it.”

In the past few years, trendsetters like him have caused a minor explosion of sherry bars in London. These are places like Capote y Toros in Kensington, where the wine list offers seven pages of sherries; Trangallán, hidden away in north London’s Stoke Newington neighborhood, which supplements a deep sherry list with occasional all-sherry pairing dinners; and Barrica, in the Fitzrovia neighborhood, which helped kick off the trend in 2009.

At José, chef José Pizarro’s perpetually jammed tapas bar in Bermondsey (a short walk away from the foodie-mecca Borough Market), about 40 percent of all the wine sold is sherry, according to Pizarro. If you consider that the place serves more than 1,600 people each week (and only seats 17), that means something like 33,000 people a year—a number more or less equivalent to the entire population of Monaco—are wandering in and asking for sherry. “And they’re young people,” Pizarro says happily.

Given that sherry hasn’t been fashionable since the late 1700s or so, that’s quite a statement. But in London—and to some degree at restaurants in the US run by forward-looking sommeliers—sherry is having its moment.

It’s about time. Sherry, which is made in the Jerez region of southern Spain, near the city of Jerez de la Frontera, is one of the world’s great wines. It’s also, without a doubt, the most underrated. People tend to think of it as creamy and sweet, but in fact, most good sherries are dry—even extremely dry—and their savory, umami-rich flavors make them extraordinary partners for all kinds of food.

Sherry starts life like any other wine, as fermented grape juice. But after that, the winemaker increases its alcoholic strength by adding a small amount of grape brandy and setting it down one of two paths. Sherries that are “biologically aged,” which include the light-bodied, pale yellow manzanillas and finos, are fortified to about 15 percent alcohol. As they age in barrels, a layer of yeast called flor begins to grow on the surface of the wine. Over time, the flor protects the wine from oxidation and imparts a distinctive, saline-herbal aroma and flavor.

The other kind of sherry is “oxidatively aged,” such as olorosos. These are fortified to 17 percent alcohol or higher, which prevents the flor from developing. As the wine ages in the barrel, it is exposed to oxygen, growing darker in color, becoming rounder and more full-bodied, and taking on nutty and caramelized notes.

There are innumerable variations on these two basic sherry styles: amontillados, which start life under a veil of flor and then, after it dies off, deepen in hue and become intensely nutty; palo cortados, which are a kind of mysterious hybrid of the two styles; and so on.

Another key thing to know about sherry is the way it is aged over time in oak barrels, with a method called the solera system. To understand it, imagine you have three barrels of wine: a dusty old barrel (filled with very nice old wine), a middle-aged barrel and a barrel filled with young wine. Every time you take some wine from the oldest barrel, you fill that barrel back up to the top with wine from the middle-aged barrel; then you fill that barrel up to the top with wine from the youngest barrel. With each new harvest, you add another barrel, so that eventually, when you take wine from the oldest barrel, you are actually taking wine that’s a complex blend of many wines of different ages. This is essentially how a sherry solera works—though in a major bodega in Jerez, it may involve hundreds or even thousands of barrels, a kind of jigsaw puzzle of time and wine. That’s why even affordable sherries can be incredibly complex. (For anyone who wants to delve into all this and become a full-on sherry geek, arguably the single best book ever written on sherry was published last October: Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, by wine critic Peter Liem and Jesús Barquín, the owner of the cult sherry bodega Equipo Navazos in Jerez.)

People in the wine business have known for years that sherry is both great and sadly overlooked. So why are London restaurant-goers suddenly interested? I asked Tim Luther, the owner and wine director of Barrica, one of the first of the new wave of sherry bars. He said, “When we opened in 2009, every time people would ask what they should have to start, we’d say, ‘Have a sherry.’ And they’d look a bit puzzled and say, ‘That’s what my great-aunt drinks at nine in the morning. Medicine, she calls it.’ And I’d say, ‘Manzanilla, with some almonds, some jamón—trust me.’ And eventually, the people who took the plunge would come back and ask, ‘What was that sherry I had? I’ll have that again, thanks.’ ” One could call this the “proselytizers can change the world” approach (which is essentially the same way American sommeliers have managed to convince people that Riesling is cool, too).

On the other hand, there’s also the “blame it on the pig” theory of sherry popularity, which was offered to me by Tabitha Money, one of the managers at Morito. Three or four years ago, she explained, pork scratchings (chicharrónes in Spanish, or fried pork rinds if you’re from Texas, like me) became an incredibly popular bar snack in London, particularly at “cool” restaurants. “So people like Mark Hix”—one of the star chefs of traditional English cuisine—“started serving fino with them,” she said. “And then sherry took right off.”

Whatever the reason, there’s no question that the vibe surrounding sherry has changed. That was clear at every place I visited in London, most of all on one of my last nights there. Trangallán is a laid-back restaurant that doubles as a movie and music venue, where every piece of furniture as well as most of the art on the walls is for sale. I found myself sitting there late at night, after the restaurant had closed, surrounded by an eclectic group of new friends—an art-magazine editor, a young Belgian woman who is the exhibition manager for the architect Zaha Hadid, a random couple over from Paris for a visit, and the restaurant’s infectiously sherry-mad wine director, Xabier Alvarez. Outside it was black and misty; inside it was dim and warm. We were, of course, drinking sherry. “Have you had the Tres Palmas before?” Xabi asked me. “You’ve never had Tres Palmas? From González Byass? Oh—that is extraordinary sherry. You must have it!” And before I could even agree that yes, that sounded like an excellent idea, he disappeared downstairs to find a bottle.

Top London Sherry Bars

Top London Sherry Bars
Photo © Alex Nabaum.

Barrica

62 Goodge St.; barrica.co.uk; 011-44-20-7436-9448.

Capote y Toros

157 Old Brompton Rd.; cambiodetercio.co.uk; 011-44-20-7373-0567.

José

104 Bermondsey St.; josepizarro.com; 011-44-20-7403-4902.

Morito

32 Exmouth Market; morito.co.uk; 011-44-20-7278-7007.

Trangallán

61 Newington Green; trangallan.com; 011-44-20-7359-4988.

5 Great Sherries to Buy

Tio Pepe Fino ($20)

One of the world’s most popular sherries, this fino is also very good: dry, balanced and crisp, with a light minerally tang. Look also for the limited-production, unfiltered En Rama bottling (#25), which is more intense and exotic.

Bodegas Dios Baco Fino ($22)

Medium-gold in hue, Dios Baco’s basic fino has a more substantial mouthfeel than Tio Pepe does, with a round, lush texture and distinctive, savory almond and yeasty notes. It would be ideal with main-course fish or shellfish dishes.

Valdespino Manzanilla Deliciosa ($24)

Manzanillas come from the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which is northwest of Jerez. Their aroma—saline and a little briny—shows that influence. The polished bottling from Valdespino is a great example.

El Maestro Sierra Amontillado ($29)

Founded in 1830 by a former barrel maker, El Maestro Sierra remains family-owned. Its sherries are uniformly superb; this nutty, citrusy amontillado bottling makes an excellent introduction to the bodega’s house style.

Equipo Navazos La Bota Series

Equipo Navazos is an exciting new project, bottling limited-edition sherries of extraordinary quality identified by number (e.g., La Bota #35) and priced from $35 to $145 or so. Truly unique, they are well worth seeking out.

Published February 2013
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