Sherry is hot right now among sommeliers, writers and other opinion peddlers in the wine world. But few would call it an easy sell. It's a style of drink from another era, when wine was more like booze, and even among the great fortified wines, it's hard to deny that Sherry sticks out.
It doesn't taste like wine is "supposed" to taste. The main grape variety, Palomino, is generally considered too bland for table wine. Sherry's 10-or-so different styles are all over the map in flavor profile. The winemaking process involves a series of bizarre-seeming selections and aging regimens that wouldn't make sense in most viniculture—from aging some styles under a protective, foamy cap of yeast called flor to letting others oxidize extensively, to blending the young wines into older wines in a complex rotating system of barrels called a solera. In my last post, I discussed why Sherry, the great flightless bird of wine, provokes such fierce admiration from a small-but-growing group of American wine sellers.
Getting the tastemakers in your corner is half the battle, but is the Sherry pitch working on drinkers? Yes and no. Since their 2008 inception, one mission of New York's Terroir bars has been stated on the wine lists: "To increase Sherry consumption three-fold over the next five years." Strictly speaking, the opposite has happened. In 2002, the United States imported 2.3 million liters of Sherry; by 2011, the most recent year for which there are figures—and which arguably predates the recent Sherry wave—that number had fallen to 1.4 million, a 38 percent drop.
"We still have a long way to go," acknowledged co-owner Paul Grieco. "It's a tall order that we put in front of our guests when we say, hey, we're going to match some Sherries with this course, so why don't you begin your night with a glass of manzanilla—people are still too reluctant to jump in and play."
But there are bright spots. The premium-ization of Sherry did not begin in earnest until the 1990s and 2000s, with the adoption of standards for VOS ("Very Old Sherry"—an average of 20 years in the solera) and VORS ("Very Old Rare Sherry"—30 years) and the practice of releasing single-almacenista bottlings from the small producers who would typically sell their wines off to larger houses, to disappear into the big soleras. Sweet, plonky, grandma-style Sherry—generally the cream category—still retains the lion's share of the American market, but styles that are more likely to be finely tuned are gaining ground.
In 2006, Americans brought over 94,000 liters of amontillado; in 2011 the number had ramped up to 146,000. We now drink more amontillado than the Spanish themselves do. Oloroso—fermented dry but richer and higher in alcohol—has gone up from 19,000 liters to 22,000. Pedro Ximénez (abbreviated PX), a unique and gratifying dessert style made from raisinated grapes, was not even listed in the Jerez wine authority's 2006 report, but by 2011, Americans imported more than 13,000 liters of it.
It's not much, but it's a rumbling, and the Jerezanos hear it. For the González Byass house, a big player, shipments to the U.S. have increased threefold since 2003, according to CEO Jorge Grosse. "In the early 2000s, our exports to the market were concentrated around Tio Pepe and the more traditional styles of Sherry. Where we have seen growth in the last four or five years is in the more premium wines such as Nectar PX, Solera 1847 and the entire VORS range," he said. Premium Sherries accounted for 0.29 percent of GB's exports in 2003; by 2012 that number reached 25 percent.
Grosse thinks potential U.S. growth "will never be based on volume, rather on value" in this premium segment. And for now, he acknowledged, "sales of Sherries are definitely concentrated more in markets such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco"—helped out by the recent storm of tapas bar openings and small-plate restaurants.
So I had to ask: Are we looking at a fad, or something with more permanence? "Why we were all drinking grappa in the 1980s, I have no goddamn clue. It was a very rustic beverage. There was very little refinement to it," said Grieco. "That was a fad. Drinking Sherry is not a fad. It's pushing us forward on trying to rethink what wine can be. It's forcing us all to think about the history of these products, and Sherry is almost unparalleled in its aspect of history involved."
"Ten years ago, I think Sherry was totally relegated to being more of a back-bar afterthought or strictly a dessert wine," said Grosse. "Now, it has a real place on American wine lists."
And the sommeliers who believe in it are putting in the work to make a wine they love take off. "It's a slow process, it's a process of a lot of education. When I first brought it into the restaurants, it required a lot of patience. It required a lot of revisiting ideas I kept bringing up—OK, this is what a solera is, this is what flor is and why it affects the wine—and it requires a ton of tasting, a ton of pairing with food," admitted Carla Rzeszewski, wine director of the Breslin, the John Dory Oyster Bar and the Spotted Pig in New York. "But once it hits, it hits."
Will it stick? Sherry is heating up, but no wine stays hot forever. What's going for it: Its new crowd of U.S. drinkers is largely young, and the kids coming of wine-age right now are willing to try anything, particularly if it feels pedigreed rather than crassly branded. Sherry is the real deal.
But Sherry's unusual taste profile is reason enough why, while the preachers will reach as many people as they can, some converts will inevitably lose the faith. I think it's also the reason, however, that many people discovering it today will be drinking it long after other hot wines are dumped off the clearance racks: There's nothing else quite like it out there.
You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.