Sherry On Top: Why Fortified Wines Are Gaining Traction

As one of the most versatile wines in the world, ranging from bone dry to rich and nutty to the dessert styles, sherry is “a pairing dream, whether in a Spanish restaurant or not,” says Elizabeth Mendez, proprietor and beverage director of Vera Restaurant & Wine Bar in Chicago. “While port is a little less diverse in the range of dryness, it is also enjoyable with a wide range of food.”

Vera carries more than 50 fortified wines, mostly sherry, but also port and Madeira, as well as a diverse range of Spanish vermouth. Prices range from $6 to $22 a glass. Bottles of sherry, mainly 375 ml., range from $28 to $65. The restaurant sells 50 to 100 glasses of sherry a week. Amontillado, says Mendez, is by far the best-selling style.

Although port and sherry both fall into the fortified wine category, their on-premise presences are strikingly different. Port claims a long-standing niche as a traditional after-dinner indulgence, with a cheese course, chocolate desserts or on its own to end the dining experience.

Sherry, because of its unusual flavors and range of styles, is a harder sell and there’s lower penetration in the market. Restaurants often promote these fortified wines by pairing them with food. And bartenders are discovering port and sherry can be flavorful, low-alcohol bases for inventive cocktails.

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Mockingbird Hill’s owner Derek Brown says that sherry is “the most pairable with food of all wines,” plus sherry works as an aperitif, with dinner or as an after-dinner drink.

Port Tack

“Port is ‘sneaky popular’; Sales are steadier than you might think,” says Ryan Valentine, director of beverage for Columbus, OH-based Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. Most port sales are post-dinner. Every restaurant in the multiconcept portfolio carries a selection of ruby, tawny and vintage ports, says Valentine.

“We have seen an uptick in port sales over the past year or so,” says Brett Allen, general manager/beverage director of 360 Bistro in Nashville. The fine-dining restaurant stocks a dozen ports, ranging from $10 for a glass of 10-year tawny to $30 for a 30-year-old, as well as some vintage ports dating back to 1970 for about $375 a bottle. The bistro typically pairs ports with its cheese selections, Allen says.

As for sherry, 360 Bistro sells a good deal of entry-level Tio Pepe, but not much of the more interesting styles. “People are more familiar with port than with sherry, at least in our market,” Allen notes.

“Ports are more accessible than sherries. They are sweet and easy to like, while sherry is more complex and more complicated,” says Arthur Lampros, owner of the WineStyles Tasting Station in Montclair, VA. WineStyles, a franchised hybrid wine shop/restaurant, offers a bistro-style menu with by-the-glass selections as well as off-premise bottle sales. Lampros also owns Giorgio’s Restaurant next door.

WineStyles always offers two ports by the glass for $8 to $12, and an example or two of each of the port styles by the bottle. Bottles start at $10 for a simple ruby and run up to $150 for a few of the higher-end colheitas and vintages. Giorgio’s offers one port by the glass.

“We sell more of the lower-end ports off-premise, but more of the higher end on-premise,” says Lampros. And if guests don’t finish the bottle, they can take it home. “That’s a good selling point,” he adds.

Customers seem to have a sweet tooth, because WineStyles sells more of the honeyed PX styles than dry finos. But Lampros thinks that might be a factor of his suburban location. He sees urban audiences learning to like drier finos and amontillados. “The hipsters are discovering sherry.”

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Estrellon, a new restaurant and tapas bar in Madison, WI, currently carries 16 different sherries with six by-the-glass selections.

Sherry School

“Sherry is a hidden gem; there’s so much to explore, and all of it is excellent,” says Stephen McGinnis, wine director for Estrellon restaurant and tapas bar in Madison WI.

Part of the four-unit Deja Food Restaurant Group, Estrellon currently carries 16 different sherries. There are six by-the-glass selections, but McGinnis will open just about any bottle if there is interest; any leftover wine is used for staff education.

Most sherry sales are by the glass, because there is less trial risk for the guest; prices range from $6 to $18 a glass. The bottles top out at $150 for a half bottle of El Maestro Sierra Amontillado “1830.” Estrellon also offers a flight of ports.

Sister restaurant L’Etoile has a number of sherries and ports, which pair well with the seven-course tasting menu.

“We hang our flag on sherry at Mockingbird Hill,” says Derek Brown, owner of the self-proclaimed “sherry and ham bar” in Washington, D.C. The wide selection of over 60 sherries by the glass as well as special, small-production bottles attracts aficionados and the curious. Various flights offer newbies an opportunity to taste through the wine’s range of styles.

Prices range from $7 to $30 a glass. Brown makes the point that sherry is a vinous bargain: Top quality bottles are inexpensive and even old and rare sherries are readily available and relatively cheap.

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