Jerez de la Frontera is a different kind of factory town. The largest city in southwestern Spain, its fortune is largely tied to a wine industry that’s seen better days.
Take a wander around the historic centre of town and you’ll encounter statues immortalizing various leaders, including military men whose valiant efforts wrestled control of the city from the Moors in the 13th century. You’ll also come across a bronze tribute to José Angel de la Pena, uncle to the founder of Gonzalez Byass winery, who was affectionately known as Pepe.
José Angel’s legacy also endures in the wine named in his honour, Tio Pepe (meaning Uncle Pepe), the world’s best-selling dry Sherry. Seemingly every café, bar and restaurant around the town is emblazoned with Tio Pepe advertisements in the form of posters, branded umbrellas or awnings. It’s the first bottle that bartenders reach for. If only all Sherries enjoyed such recognition.
Like disco, Sherry consumption peaked in the late 1970s. But a passionate band of sommeliers and wine writers continue to fan the flames, looking for a new boom. The rise of Sherry bars in urban centres like New York and London inspires breathless reports of Sherry being the next big thing. Nevertheless, like similar articles about the growing fad for vinyl records, it’s a niche market. Neither vinyl nor Sherry will regain the same market dominance they once enjoyed.
But that’s not to say interest in these traditional wares is merely a nostalgia trip.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from the sun-baked vineyards on the outskirts of Jerez. A grape variety called Palomino, a relatively neutral white grape, is the star here. It’s a heavy cropping variety that manages to withstand the heat when planted on the right soils, which successfully retain moisture during dry spells.
These aren’t the conditions to make satisfying table wines, but pioneering winemakers figured out the way to make better products was by adding spirits to their wines after fermentation. The higher alcohol levels — 15 to 20% by volume — made the wines stable and allowed them to develop more complexity by aging in barrel. The clichéd notion of Sherry is the sweeter versions enjoyed by spinster aunts or grandmothers. But excitement lies around the refreshing dry styles, especially fino and dry oloroso examples, accented by distinctive nutty flavours that developed during the aging process.
The decline in Sherry’s popularity has meant that the wines that continue to be produced are extremely high quality and from the best vineyards and cellars. They also are bargains since there’s not a lot of competition except for the most rare bottles. But as you’re standing at a tapas bar, with plates of cheese, almonds, olives, grilled octopus and ham all within reach, you’ll wonder why the whole world isn’t joining you for a glass.
Wines of the Week:
**** 1/2 Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Extra Dry Fino Palomino Jerez, Spain BC $21.99 (242669) | AB $18 | MB $17.99 (242669) | ON $16.95 (213829)
This is a bold white with a bracing personality. It’s not for everyone, especially if consumed by itself, but the wine’s mouthwatering character makes it an excellent partner for many dishes, which is why it’s a go-to for Spanish tapas bars.
*** 1/2 Williams & Humbert Walnut Brown Oloroso Jerez, Spain ON $13.95 (437467)
Not all sweet Sherries are created equal. A mix of Palomino, Muscat and Pedro Ximenez, this well-made luscious example boasts sweet aromas and flavours alongside nutty and spice notes. Served cold or on ice, it’s a wonderful aperitif and a winning match for crème caramel, butter tarts or bread pudding.
For more information visit www.torontosun.com/2014/04/03/why-you-must-try-sherry-as-soon-as-you-can
Article: Christopher Waters, special to QMI Agency (Toronto Sun, April 4th 2014)
Picture: ICEX (Pix of Spain)