When traveling, I often slip into the “When in Rome…” philosophy at restaurants and bars without thinking about it. In Dublin, pints of Guinness become automatic at 5pm (or much earlier). A Kir for my apértif in Paris. Malört at midnight in Chicago bars. O.k., I don’t mind the first two examples, but I can’t lend my full support to Malört. Sorry Chicago.
Similarly, I found myself starting every dinner with a dry Sherry and concluding dinner post-dessert with the maple syrup of wines, Pedro Ximenez Sherry. It’s easy to love and hate Pedro Ximenez at the same time. Vintages are rarely complex. They are also rarely undrinkable if you have a sweet tooth and enjoy fortified wines.
Dry Sherries, such as Fino and Manzanilla, are much trickier. Many of them are bone shackling dry and bitter as lemon juice. They certainly play the part of palate preparers for the upcoming meal where you need to get something to drown out the tartness. I’ve had too many dry Manzanillas that give far too much sharpness up front to be bearable and enjoy the usual nutty finish.
Yet, there’s something catchy about the drier Sherries that keep you wanting them when they’re restrained.
Dinner by dinner in Barcelona and Madrid recently, I’d warm up to Amontillado and Oloroso with their creamier bodies and gracious starts and finishes that signal the perfect central zone between dry and sweet Sherries.
However, I wasn’t the one choosing the Sherry. From my somewhat limited experience, nearly every restaurant, from a local taberna to high end El Bulli inspired dining rooms, literally had bare bones by-the-glass wine offerings. There is the red by the glass. The white by the glass. Perhaps a sweet Sherry and a Cava by the glass. There is always a dry Sherry by the glass.
I asked a Spanish wine importer friend and colleague of mine why is this? The by-the-glass selections were almost always enjoyable, but still, what gives with the lack of selection?
To summarize his explanation, since bottle prices are so low and the Spanish don’t have to drive in these major cities, everyone just buys the bottle. Cheers!
I don’t need a bottle of dry Sherry, a bottle of red, and a bottle of Pedro Ximenez for dinner, but sounds like a party.
So all trip long, when we’d open a meal before even receiving the menu or wine list, the servers would ask if we wanted a glass of dry Sherry. Sure, why not?
On my final night in Barcelona dining at the superb Cinc Sentits in the L’ Eixample neighborhood, the waitress changed things up and wanted me to open with a dry-sweet Sherry. Out came the Palo Cortado from Fernando de Castilla, one of the most celebrated tiny soleras in Jerez (the Sherry making region in Andalusia, roughly halfway between Seville and the Strait of Gibraltar).
Jerez is really having its revitalized moment both at home and on the global scene. Just this morning I read about an ambitious upcoming restaurant in San Francisco that won’t even be Spanish in concept, but plans to boast the city’s largest Sherry collection.
Fernando de Castilla really exemplifies the rise in quality of Jerez’s Sherry makers the past decade.
The solera was one of the longstanding old Sherry makers on its last legs when Norwegian expat and Sherry lover Jan Pettersen bought the solera in 1999. Since then, the Sherries have become some of the gold standards to seek out.
Commercial Palo Cortado often literally combines Amontillado and Oloroso to achieve the crisp- oxidated- nutty- caramel sensations that make Palo Cortado such an eye-opening treat. It’s really the best of all Sherries combined.
The smaller soleras, however, know that Palo Cortado is an accident, not a money-making blend. You don’t make Palo Cortado. Sherry becomes Palo Cortado
Palo Cortado starts aging naturally with yeast called “flor”), then loses the yeast on its own and starts to oxidize. So here you have a fuller bodied, lush Sherry that then picks up the oxidized attributes of drier Sherries. Plenty of candied orange peel gives an exciting bite to it.
This Palo Cortado is a beautiful tan meets deep orange color, perfectly fitting for the sunny beach setting in Barcelona. You feel the sun and fun in the wine. The caramel notes strike initially, followed by honey and wildflowers, leading to the drier backbone that provides a walnut close. Come to think of it, the whole experience is not far off from a pecan pie with far less sugar.
It’s hard to find many true, unblended Palo Cortados out there. Versions like the Fernando de Castilla are certainly worth seeking out to start dinner with tomorrow night.