Here's Why You Should Be Drinking Sherry
Meet Alex Alan, the city's newly crowned Prince of Sherry.
Last fall, New York's original queen of flor Carla Rzeszewski abandoned our dear city and vacated her post as sherry ambassador. But Alex Alan, the wine director at Williamsburg bar Hotel Delmano (82 Berry Street, Brooklyn, 718-387-1945) and longtime bartender at Bar Jamon, has stepped in to fill the void; he's been quietly transforming customers into sherry foot soldiers for the last several years.
Delmano exudes attractive faded elegance and timeworn warmth. Alan and I recently sat at a table near the expansive windows in the front room, the cool glow of late afternoon winter light filtering through the glass panes. The bar feels familiar, comfortable, and vaguely evocative of New Orleans; a place you could envision sitting for hours discussing life through the lens of fine booze. Alan has been the wine director for Hotel Delmano since it opened six years ago, and he's helped his buddies, who own the place, accomplish their goal of creating a neighborhood spot where they could drink wine, hang out, and encourage likeminded locals to do the same.
As for the wine list, Alan has ambitiously procured nearly 120 different selections, impressive for such a small bar meant to service the local imbibing populace. Even more impressive, he pours 12 different sherries by the glass. To provide customers a small measure of illumination on the complex subject of sherry, Alan splits the category into two at its most logical divide: biologically aged sherry and oxidatively aged sherry.
Essentially, sherry comes from a region in the south of Spain near the town of Jerez. The wine is fortified, but unlike port and madeira, which see the arrestation of fermentation by the addition of neutral spirits in order to leave a measure of sugar in the wine, sherry is adjusted after it's been fermented dry. Depending on stylistic goals, sherry can be bone-dry to medium to incredibly sweet. The white palomino grape produces the dry version, while Pedro Ximenez and muscatel contribute to sweeter wines. Producers blend different vintages of their wines using a fractional system called a solera. And that's where sherry gets interesting -- and confusing for the dilettante drinker.
On Alan's menu, each sherry category opens with a little blurb, intending to give customers just enough information on stylistic differences without overwhelming them. Biologically aged sherries "have been protected from air while being aged in barrel under a layer of yeast [flor]. Flavors vary, but generally are lightly nutty, sea-salty, briny, and sometimes smoky." Oxidatively aged sherries "have been exposed to air and have turned color to varying shades of brown." Sherry can take two radically different journeys, or even cross from one to the other. Take amontillado, for instance, which begins life as a biologically aged wine and finishes as an oxidatively aged one.
I asked Alan how he managed such an extensive wine program with so many open bottles of sherry; fino sherry has a much shorter shelf-life, at around a week, than an oloroso which can last several. He replied, "The bar is my playground; every time I attempt to trim the list, it only seems to expand. We really have no business carrying all of this wine." At least he's honest.
Alan grew up in Chicago, studied in Spain during his collegiate years, moved back to the States, and lived for a year in D.C. before arriving in New York and landing his first restaurant job at Bar Jamon, where he remains today. Alan's love of Spanish wine and sherry began in New York, however, not Spain -- he says the Spanish lack familiarity with the regional diversity of their wines. "Most of Spain doesn't have a clue about sherry," he says. "It's kind of funny. They suffer from what Spaniards refer to as Riojitis -- in every bar, customers ask for either a crianza or a Rioja. They know they don't want the cheap stuff, but they don't want to spend for a reserva either. As far as sherry goes, they think it's gross, for lack of a better word. The English really determined the trade, as everyone knows. But that's changing. That's why sherry is so exciting right now."
I pointed out that over the last couple of years, we'd seen a few books and numerous sherry articles published, the continued development of sherry cocktails in bars, and generally more bottle offerings on wine lists. Was sherry finally gaining momentum; did it have its own movement? "I'm not sure I'd call it a movement," Alan said. "I think media has definitely given it a lot of love after a long, long period of quiet. But wine goes through cycles. That's the curse of wine. The pendulum may swing, everyone loses interest, and it takes time to get folks back into it." He added that sherry lacks the classic cycle of ups and downs most wines experience, and has mostly just suffered from downs. "Personally, I think it's the most amazing wine in the world for the price, and the reason it's so cheap is because nobody cares. But I think about these guys over there and their businesses. They are losing them because no one is buying their wine. It's a shame."
Because sherry demand stagnated for decades, the revival of interest in the wine -- even if it's as slight as a glimmer of light through a keyhole -- has not gone unobserved by its producers. "I think they are excited that people care," says Alan. "They are noticing that a lot of really young people are getting into it. For so long, it's only been an older generation who've been interested, and the market for the wines was driven by that group. But now we've got Peter Liem's reference book, one of the most valuable pieces of writing on sherry in a long time, with another on the way from Talia Baiocchi. Last week, the New York Times published a piece on amontillado and we actually sold out of it -- people came in looking specifically for it. We never sell out of a bottle of sherry!"
Alan tries to make a pilgrimage to Spain at least once a year to stay on top of wine regions and developments; last spring was his first visit to Jerez. He'd joined a group that included Carla Rzeszewski and Peter Liem; they spent several days visiting bodegas, meeting producers and, of course, drinking sherry at the source. "The problem with sherry is that it's not a flavor profile people are familiar with," Alan says. "The wines are superb with food. On that trip to Jerez, I don't think that fact had ever been more clear to me. We had a sherry pairing with a multi-course dinner, and I was blown away how well it worked together. Fino and ham is one of the greatest pairings in the entire world."
At Hotel Delmano, you'll find a handful of sherry-friendly small plates on the menu, including oysters, meat and cheese platters, steak tartare, and ceviche. The restaurant recently retained a new chef who will be bringing in a more comprehensive menu, hopefully by summer. "We don't have a proper kitchen; we have a very basic Brooklyn set-up," says Alan, so don't expect a full-blown dinner experience.
In an effort to lure sherry lovers out of their local haunts and over to Williamsburg, "Alan's Sherry Stash" page will debut on the menu this spring, showcasing what is essentially the wine director's private collection: "It will be very cool and will include all the La Bota I've been collecting over the last couple of years," he says. "It's gonna be outrageously expensive, but cheap for what it is. I am only going to be marking things up a minimal amount."
Alan also plans to make education a focus of the bar; he's arranging for seminars and tastings to start sometime in the spring. Interested folks can go their website and add their name to the email list to be notified of upcoming events. Alan says his primary goal working in the industry is to figure out how to turn wine into an integral part of Americans' lifestyles without the "hoity-toity part." He believes wine needn't be complicated, and that there are ways to simplify it without also oversimplifying it or dumbing it down. To that end, he's writing a wine blog called Wine Trek (trek referencing both a journey and his love of Star Trek); he hopes it will equip people with confidence while keeping things light and entertaining.
Wrapping up our chat, I asked Alan what he thought the future held for sherry. Did he have any predictions to make? Alan astutely remarked: "Sherry will be consumed like wine and not like port. If there's going to be any future for sherry, people need to understand that it's not just a wine for after a meal -- it can come before dinner, preferably during it, and maybe some sweeter ones can be enjoyed after."
"Also, sherry is wine, it needs to be in a proper wine glass -- please don't serve it in those dinky thimble size things." Good call. Let's toss out the Champagne flutes, too.
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