Here's Why You Should Be Drinking 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.