Reporting back from Sherryfest West 2013

Good things come in barrels. (Obviously.) Therefore, something that comes from many, many barrels must be extra good, right? We went to Portland last week to investigate this theory at Sherryfest West 2013.

Sherry, which is a fortified wine made from palomino grapes in the Jerez region of Spain, sees an awful lot of barrel time when it’s aged in a solera system. A solera is a series of barrels where part of the wine in each barrel is regularly moved to the next stage (or criadera) and replenished with new, younger wine from the criadera before it. This constant partial movement means that by the time wine is drawn out of the last criadera for bottling, it is a mix of wine that is relatively young and wine that can be very, very old—more than 150 years in some of the oldest soleras. During this process, the wine can be aged biologically (under a layer of flavor-producing yeast called flor) and/or oxidatively, by simply leaving the barrels about one-sixth empty to expose the wine to oxygen.

A lot of Americans share an unfortunate cultural memory of sherry as a treacly, cloying after-dinner drink—and a few decades ago, most of what you could buy on the American market probably wasn’t very good. But actually, the vast majority of sherry is completely dry. These dry sherries pair smashingly well with food, providing a range of nutty, saline, and umami tones and occasionally surprising notes like butter toffee, black olive, orange peel, or baking spices.

Sherryfest West is the brainchild of wine writer Peter Liem, who authors and recently published Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla: A Guide to the Traditional Wines of Andalucia, and Brian Martin of Galaxy Wines, who is a close friend of Peter’s and convinced him to bring the event (which launched in New York in October 2012) to Portland. I was psyched to hear that Liem has plans to expand Sherryfest to San Francisco in the coming year.

Many of the week’s tastings were held at Bar Vivant in southeast Portland, which is run by sherry (and Champagne) enthusiast Cheryl Wakerhauser. We began the week with the El Maestro Sierra tasting, where we discovered a gorgeous palo cortado and learned that this bodega is the only one in Jerez run by a woman.

On Wednesday, we attended a sherry dinner at Smallwares that paired the wines with Asian-inspired small plates. Spanish wine and Asian food is not a combination that would have sprung to mind for me, but it’s one that worked when the chef kept the spice level of the dishes to a minimum (spicy food will blow out your palate with sherry, so take it easy with that chili oil). When I thought about it a bit more, it made perfect sense: sherry often echoes the savory, umami notes of fish sauce, dashi, soy sauce, nuts, and other popular Asian ingredients.

Woodsman Tavern sherry dinner menuFriday’s pairings dinner was even more epic. Jason Barwikowski of the Woodsman Tavern served a five-course menu designed to pair with eleven sherries from two of the top bodegas: Valdespino and Fernando de Castilla. Both houses make tremendous wines, but my standouts for the evening were the Amontillado Tio Diego from Valdespino and the Palo Cortado Antique from Fernando de Castilla. We capped off the meal with a lovely, raisin-inflected Amontillado Solera Gran Reserva brandy from Fernando de Castilla, which is one of the only bodegas to take a craft distillation approach to its brandy business (most bodegas send out their brandy to large-scale contract distillers). As you can imagine, this dinner grew quite a bit more raucous as the evening progressed. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but my father managed to go home with the remainder of the brandy bottle. Lucky man.

The next morning, I wasn’t so sure I’d be up for more sherry drinking anytime soon. But by 5pm, we managed to rally and head back to Bar Vivant for the week’s grand tasting: 38 sherries from 13 producers. Fortunately, we’d tasted many of the wines at other events throughout the week, so this list wasn’t as liver-punishing as it might have been.

The real surprise among an excellent field: Alexander Jules, who was tasting three sherries that he hasn’t even released yet. Alexander, who comes from a background in specialty coffee, tastes through some of the best soleras in Jerez and identifies the best, most unusual barrels. He then blends some of the wine from each—his amontillado, for example, is a blend of six of the 26 barrels in its solera (and, incidentally, an intensely buttery, toffee-scented wine that I’m sure we’ll be buying a lot of just as soon as it’s available in California).

I know about 1000% more about sherry today than I did two weeks ago, when I was just starting to read Peter’s book. But reading will only get you so far. Tasting so many sherries side by side in such a short time really gives you a sense for each of the major types of production, as well as the stylistic differences between bodegas. As more people in the U.S. begin to discover sherry, events like Sherryfest will play a key role in helping them find what they like and develop an appreciation for the full range of this extraordinary wine. I can’t wait for Sherryfest SF!

In the meantime, we’re looking forward to sharing some of what we learned—and some of the great wines we found—at our next dinner on April 6. We’ll be serving a six-course tapas-inspired menu. We still have a few seats available, so please email us ASAP to reserve your spot. Cheers!

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