The New York Times wrote last week that “fuddy-duddy sherry is taking its turn as a new hip thing.” Apparently the drumbeat has been heard in small specialty shops and restaurants. Not a fever, mind you, but “more of a mild warmth.” So my friend Mike and I set out to test the temperature of the East Bay drinking zeitgeist.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez, Spain, where it is called vino de Jerez. The term “sherry” is an Anglicization of Jerez, and throughout Europe, all wine labeled “sherry” must legally come from the region. After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy; most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later. In many ways, sherry has been rather underappreciated since Shakespeare extolled its virtues 400 years ago. “It ascends me into the brain,” he wrote in Henry IV. Much later, it was Agatha Christie character Miss Marple’s tipple of choice after a fox hunt. It remained a dusty alternative for reading by the fire and descended into cheap plonk for Seventies households.
César Latino (4039 Piedmont Ave., Oakland) offers a choice of twelve sherries. Matt, the bar manager, said it’s not ordered that often, as it’s still seen as a drink for the older generation. “It has to be hand-sold by someone who knows about it, as opposed to something like vodka that sells itself,” he said — though bartenders are beginning to use it in cocktails.The first sherry we tasted was a twenty-year-old Sandeman Royal Corregidor Oloroso NV from Spain ($10), a classic red dessert wine. “It has a sweetness that lingers, but it’s not icky-sweet, more like a tawny port,” Mike said. “It gets a little oakiness from the aging.” He also detected a faint taste of dates.
We also sipped a white Tio Pepe Palomino Fino Jerez Xeres. Mike found this sherry “cleaner, a little minerally, almost like a grappa.” It smelled herbaceous, almost medicine-like. I could detect apples. Matt used the Tio Pepe to make us a cocktail with mescal, smoked agave, cherry liqueur, and orange rind; it tasted fresh and complex. In the end, we decided the red would be good with blue cheese as a finish or aperitif, while the white was too austere by itself.
In the Temescal district, Barlata (4901 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) offered five sherries on the dinner menu, which were drier varieties made to drink with tapas. The restaurant also offered a range of sweet dessert sherries. We were recommended the white Tio Pepe Fino ($6). After a huge serving of seafood paella, we found it dry and chalky — but more interesting than the previous Tio.
In the end, the chalky whites were best employed in smoky cocktails using darker liquors. The more traditional and sweeter red ones — dare I say the Miss Marple ones — were still the most endearing. Well, quite.