Two Pair Wins
Both port and sherry have affinities for food, with many good and surprising matches.
“A glass of port is a great pairing to our chocolate fondue, and a great way to finish off a dinner,” says Paul Brown, beverage manager of The Melting Pot. The Tampa, FL-based fondue concept counts over 120 units; more than half offer fortified wines on their dessert menus.
“We are a celebratory kind of concept, and port is a celebratory wine,” adds Brown. Most port sales are by the glass, in the $12 to $15 range. “Our operators understand the importance of that add-on sale at the end of the evening and how port can enhance the guest experience,” he says.
“Sherry is the most pairable with food of all wines,” says Brown at Mockingbird Hill. “You can serve it as aperitif, with dinner and after. There are few wines you can drink from the beginning to the end of the meal yet match with every dish.”
At Vera, Mendez also sings the praises of the sherry match. She offers her guests this schematic: “Fino and manzanilla are your Champagne or aperitif; amontillado fits where you would use a white wine, oloroso pairs like a red wine, and then Pedro Ximenez and moscatel finish dinner in the dessert category.”
Enticing pairings can really bump up the average check, believes McGinnis. He suggests a briny manzanilla with an order of fresh raw oysters. And Estrellon’s Basque cake with sour cream custard is delicious with a splash of PX on top—and a glass of the sherry to match, of course.
It’s a hand sell, he notes: “That only works when the staff has tasted the combos and really gets behind the recommendations.”
While port and sherry are the best known, they aren’t the only fortified wines. Examples abound in just about every long-established wine region. Particularly, Madeira and Marsala can often be found in well-stocked American wine lists.
“People think Madeira and Marsala are only used in cooking, but they are delicious to drink, too,” says Derek Brown.
“At 360 Bistro, we have some aged Madeiras that sell well for us,” reports Allen. “Madeira is great with dessert,” he adds, “especially those made with chocolate, caramel or peanuts.”
WineStyles has offered Madeira by the glass “and found that our guests liked it better than sherry,” says Lampros. He has also held in-store seminars on Madeira—as well as on port and sherry. These are classroom-style events with expert speakers, PowerPoint presentations and tastings.
“We do a great business with Madeira at L’Etoile,” says McGinnis. That wine is matched with the tasting menu there, usually the dessert course. Marsala is paired that way as well. (For more, see “Marsala vs. Madeira,” left.)
For many restaurant and bar customers these days, cocktails are the first encounter with fortified wine. “Cocktails helped push sherry back into the mainstream,” says Mendez, “which is helping customers learn to enjoy fortified wine on its own.”
Vera’s list includes four cocktails featuring some type of sherry, as well as a seasonal White Port & Tonic. One of the most popular drinks is the sherry Boulevard, a variation on the Boulevardier (which itself is a variant of the Negroni) that substitutes sherry for bourbon.
Cocktails are a stepping stone: “People may not know sherry or may even be intimidated by it, but they aren’t intimidated by cocktails,” says Brown at Mockingbird Hill. The Sherried Old Fashioned adds PX to the traditional recipe. The Bamboo is a Manhattan variant, substituting manzanilla for bourbon.
“Using fortified wines is a way to producer lower-alcohol cocktails,” he points out. “With port, sherry and Madeira as a base, you get the same richness and intensity and an interesting flavor profile.”
At Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Valentine is busy experimenting with sherry cocktails in the company’s test bar. “Sherries are on the rise in a lot of our markets.”
Estrellon’s drinks list includes cocktails like the Albariza, made with Brandy de Jerez and oloroso, honey, lemon and cherry juices and bitters.
“Sherry and port seem always on the cusp of going big,” observes McGinnis. “There is recognition going on in New York, San Francisco and LA, and that seems to be penetrating from the coasts. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”