In the Ace Hotel’s dimly-lit, black-walled basement, a small wine revolution is going on. Four hundred people are eagerly lining up to sample long out-of-fashion sherries, which have been on a downward hipness spiral for decades.
This fortified wine, once derided as the drink of blue-rinsed aunts, is a new passion for New York’s trend-conscious wine lovers.
Twenty of the best producers, from the Andalucia region of southern Spain, are here for the city’s first Sherryfest tasting. They’re pouring 150 top examples, from pale, dry, refreshing finos to powerful, complex dry olorosos and rich, sweet moscatels.
“It wasn’t easy to convince the bodegas to come,” says Peter Liem, co-author of the just-released book “Sherry, Manzanilla, & Montilla,” and one of the event organizers. “They were pessimistic. But really, sherry is the hottest wine in New York.”
A dozen restaurants and wine bars in the city, including the Beagle and Pata Negra, sell scores of sherries by the glass. London has even more.
One big reason for sherry’s comeback, Liem says, is that the best ones offer such amazing value.
I grab a copita, the traditional small, tulip-shaped sherry glass, and head for a dark corner where importer Andre Tamers, one of the heroes of this revival, is presiding over his five producers like a beaming parent.
He gets emotional recalling his first pilgrimage six years ago to sherry territory for the annual Festival of El Rocio in the small town of Almonte.
“I danced in the streets and drank sherry for three days and nights,” he says. “I think it seeped into my veins.” With his oversize horn-rimmed glasses and neatly trimmed beard, Tamers looks more hip professor than late night party-goer, and grins when he reveals that his sherry sales are up 80 percent in the past year.
He starts me off with a chilled, intense and savory fino, the lightest and driest sherry category, from El Maestro Sierra (375ml, $15). This small bodega is in Jerez de la Frontera, one of the three towns in the so-called “sherry triangle” where the wines must be aged.
Though finos and manzanillas (finos that come only from the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda) are fortified to 15 percent alcohol, their resemblance to crisp white wines makes them a good entry point for would-be sherry lovers.
A fruity fino from the latest addition to Tamers’ De Maison Selections portfolio, Bodegas Cesar Florido (375 ml, $14), tastes of ripe pears, while a La Cigarrera manzanilla (375 ml, $12) is fresh, delicate, salty and citrusy. The bodega’s manzanilla pasada (375 ml, $39), a long-aged version, is even more intense and complex.
All have the distinctive almond aromas and unique tangy flavors that come from flor, the film of yeast that forms on top of the wine as it ages in barrel and eventually transforms its character.
Over several years, Tamers hunted down tiny, artisanal almacenistas, entrepreneurs who supply stocks of aged wines to bigger companies, as small growers do in Champagne. In recent years they’ve also begun bottling their own.
As I circle the room sampling finos from other bodegas, I’m especially impressed by fresh, light, lemony, super elegant Valdespino Fino Inocente (375ml, $14), which comes from a single vineyard. It’s perfect with the briny olives and paper-thin slices of salty jamon set out on a wooden cutting board.
Fino’s versatility with everything from fish to artichokes to spicy Southeast Asian dishes and Japanese sushi is another reason for its new surge in popularity.
All this interest comes just in time for bodegas trying desperately to survive. Even top small producers are in danger of going under. Cesar Florido is one of only two remaining in his town. Once there were 83. “I’m left because I’m a bohemian,” he tells me.
Most bodegas, like El Maestro Sierra, produce an entire range of sherries, some of which are more of an acquired taste. Amontillado is a special type of long-aged fino, while olorosos, made without flor, are darker and stronger, and Pedro Ximenez, from the grape variety of the same name, is rich and very, very sweet.
Rare palo cortado, with characteristics of both amontillado and oloroso, is my big discovery of the tasting. It’s a far cry from the sweet, almost gloopy sherry my London graduate school adviser served up in his dusty, book-lined study as we discussed folklore in Thomas Hardy’s novels.
At table 13, Bodegas Tradicion director Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias explains the ambitious winery, founded in 1998, is dedicated to complex old wines and makes no fino at all. As I sip his silky, subtle, 33-year-old Palo Cortado VORS (750 ml, $90), he says the bodega aims to be the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti of sherry. With its layered, bitter almond, salty lemon peel taste, it’s my wow wine.
Will it really go with everything? The ultimate test comes Thursday, with the turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce on my Thanksgiving table.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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