By Jens Riis
I admit to having a major weak spot for sherries (and other fortified Spanish wines). Over the years I’ve had many chances to enjoy these great wines; but, the low level of interest I perceive in Spain makes for serious concern & frustration. The saying “nobody is a prophet in their own land” defines it to perfection; from what I can see, sherries continue to out of sync with consumer preferences in this country.
I seldom see people ordering a fino in a bar or restaurant; that said there have been major improvements: 1) The specialized media worldwide has taken the lead in getting sherries in the public eye. 2) bars & restaurants like Palo Cortado in Madrid now offer a superb selection of these wines, 3) there’s growing interest in export markets, especially in the US, 4) a new generation of top class sherries from producers like Equipo Navazos and Tradición, 5) sommeliers nowadays are well versed in sherries.
Time and again I ask myself, “why sherry”? Fact is, I’m not all that sure, the only thing that’s certain is it excites me like no other beverage. It’s odd that an american, based is Spain for several decades, has become an avid consumer, promoter and absolute fan of the wines from Jerez. These are magnificent wines, no doubt; but something else is needed to explain my apparent “madness”. At the end of the day, life is but a series of experiences, and is seems clear that my own experiences related to these wines is the basis of this unrestrained craziness. I’ll try, by relating some of these experiences, delve into the “why”.
With friends in Cádiz
Nothing better describes the frustration part of the story than what happened a couple of years back in Conil de la Frontera, Cádiz*. I was there with three spanish friends from Madrid for a week of golf, dining in a seaside restaurant. An excellent restaurant with a top-class selection of fish, shellfish and some decent sherries on the card. Nothing better than a “manzanilla” to accompany this sort of meal, but my attempts were in vain. Nobody wanted to even think about my proposal of Solear manzanilla: “too strong, heady, not my thing” they said. In the end, they went with a beer or a second rate Verdejo and left me alone with a delicious glass (or two) of ice cold manzanilla. Such a shame…
*Conil de la Frontera is on the Atlantic coast of Spain in the heart of sherry country, a short drive from Jerez.
Mom and her glass of sherry
No doubt part of my love of sherry is hereditary. My mother was a sherry fan all her life. Growing up, the family budget didn’t contemplate sherry on regular basis, but once retired, she seldom missed her afternoon glass of sherry. In fact, the day she died eight years ago, she was alone in her living room with a nice sherry on the rocks, realized something wasn’t right and called the ambulance. When they arrived, she was a bit woozy -due to the stroke that ended her life that same nignt- but at the time, the ambulance people suspected it could have been caused by the glass of sherry on Sally’s coffee table.
A frenchman in extasis
A few years ago I experienced something that helped me understand the depth of passion that a truly great wine can produce. I was hired to do an ongoing mini-tasting to show three spanish wines (red, white & amontillado) to visitors to a stand at a commercial trade show. At one point I was advised that a french businessman, respected wine afficionado and consumer of top class wines, would be visiting. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he sampled something new for him, the Gran Barquero Amontillado. It was a look of complete extasis, for him a truly memorable experience that brought him back for more. Even today, I get almost misty reliving that special moment. Truly amazing, awesome!
One of the key players for me has been Dirk Niepoort. I met Dirk in 2000 at a dinner with wine lover friends in Madrid. We’d gotten together at a restaurant to share and enjoy good wine and food. Dirk’s offering turned the evening into something very special: a magnum of Grands Échezeaux 1985 and a 1900 “garrafeira” port from the Niepoort cellar in Porto. The wines, nothing less than spectacular, but a comment from Dirk impressed me even more: “the spanish are not leveraging a national treasure, one of the world’s great wines: fino”. Yes, fino one of the world’s great wines! Since then, I’ve paid that much more attention to sherry.
Memorable visit to sherry producer Valdespino
After over more than 20 years years in the wine trade, I’ve had the good fortune to visit and get to know a large number of wineries around the planet: Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, California, Argentina, Chile; but there’s no doubt that the visit to Valdespino in 2011 was the most memorable of all. Despite it being a local holiday, production manager and head winemaker Eduardo Ojeada personally met our small group of wine professionals and company to see the winery and taste through dozens of wines from Valdespino and La Guita.
In our group, winemaker Dominik Huber and his team from Terroir al Limit (Priorat) and four family members. It’s not easy to summarize, but there we were with Eduard and his “venencia”*, tasting everything from young wine just starting the sherry process through to 60 year old amontillados. What really stood out was the surprising difference from “bota”* to “bota” – the same wine varied greatly from one barrel to the next. Each “bota” has its own ecology – micro-organisms that create a unique environment to grow, condition and stamp its identity on the wine inside.
Memorable day, memorable wines, at both Valdespino and La Guita, an unforgettable lunch at Bar Navarro in Sanlúcar – looks a bit rough, but the food’s authentic and very good. After that, relaxing with coffee overlooking the bay from the Duques de Medina Sidonia palace. Not that I needed it, but now yet another reason to love sherry.
*Venencia = wine thief, used to extract sherry from the barrel
*Bota = sherry butt, 500+ liter barrels where sherry is “grown”.
With this small collection of experiences and anectdotes, the idea is to try and explain in part the passion I feel for these wonderful wines from Jerez, as both a consumer and a trade professional. After all is said and done, I plan to continue my own personal crusade to get people to know and appreciate these wines, both in Spain and abroad.
Jens Riis, Exeter, NH, USA. 1946. 36 years in Madrid. Author of The Spanish Wine Page (1995) and other Web sites. Founding member of elmundovino.com (año 2000), taster & Webmaster. Since 1999, representative in Spain for Kysela Père et Fils, US wine importer. Taster/teacher at the UEC & La Escuela de Catas de Alicante.