GSN’s One For the Road: Spain’s Great Match at Mercado Little Spain

I first tasted sherry in my 20s. Always game to expand my tastes and food technique, I bought a bottle of Lustau Fino.  I was living in Syracuse, N.Y., at the time, where a rich home life is a key to good living. The first sip was at my kitchen table.

My previous sherry exposure had been one part Mark Bittman and three parts Frasier Crane asking, “Sherry, Niles?” So, what was I expecting? Something dry and complex that would make my pork chops taste better? Something sophisticated for erudite cocktail hour?

I was a bit surprised then, at the strange taste it had. Had it been on the shelf too long? It didn’t quite seem spoiled. But it wasn’t entirely pleasant, either. Over a few sessions I got used to the flavor. But I’m not sure I understood why Niles and Frasier would drink this all the time.

On October 1, 2019, when I arrived at “Spain’s Great Match,” an event on Spanish wine, I was expecting to see riojas and tempranillos. I was not expecting sherry. Is sherry from Spain, I thought? Pause. Is all sherry from Spain? Naive questions both, and the answers are both yes. Sherry is grown and aged in the Jerez region of Andalusia, on the Atlantic coast of Spain and near the southern tip of continental Europe. Like port from Oporto, it’s a savage anglicization which produces sherry from Xérès and Jerez.

“Spain’s Great Match” is an annual event sponsored by the Trade Commission for Spain in New York, to promote Spanish producers and distributors of wine. The host Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, closed to the public on the day of the event, is a pristine, bustling venue under the High Line, showing off a coordinated range of Spanish food and drink offerings. It’s “a Spanish Eataly,” according to The New York Times, which is accurate, though the airiness and sprawling windows give it a feeling distinctly more Hudson Yards than Eataly’s Fifth Avenue digs. It’s a cute place to have a meal or visit for the afternoon, and I look forward to heading back sometime, particularly to Pan con Tomate, a vendor of the namesake tapa of garlicky fresh tomato sauce on toast.

Many of the guests were Spanish, and in the food and wine industry. I sat next to bartenders, sommeliers, restaurateurs, and distributors, and mingled with winemakers. More than one dude sported the look: jacket and slacks, leather slippers, pocket squares, wide-open shirts, and bushy eyebrows.

A Jerez-Xérès-Sherry “seminar” involved several tastings and a lecture presented by none other than the director of the denominación de origen. It was a real treat learning from someone so knowledgeable of sherry and passionate about sharing it with the world. I discovered that sherry’s unique character comes from flor, a yeast layer which forms from the Andalusian air and sits on the surface of the wine. Winemakers promote its development by targeting a certain alcohol percentage in the young fortified wine. By protecting the wine from excessive oxidation, flor facilitates a process called biological aging, which characterizes the fino and Manzanilla styles, sherries which are extracted early enough to avoid oxidative aging.

Of course the strange flavor I tasted in that first fino – that was flor.

The eight tastings showed the incredible range of sherry. A clean fino expressed the yeast, the palomino grape, and white and dusty soil called albariza. A Pedro Ximenez impressed sweet tea and prunes. A third, a blend, was unlike either the fino or PX: it was spicy, jammy, and sweet. One favorite was Fino La Barajuela 2016 from Luis Perez, boasting flavor of poached pear and apple and aroma of rich, mature dough. Another was Amontillado Cuatro Palmas from González Byass, offering pleasant yeast notes, a medicinal bitterness, and aromas of almond, cherry, and strawberry.

Though regulated, sherry is always made from one of three grape varietals moscatel, Pedro Ximenez, and most commonly palomino, producers on trend will emphasize the region’s diversity, particularly differences in slope, soil, and the races of yeast which predominate. Others bottle their sherries en rama, or naturally, filtering them using a large filter which leaves some living yeast cells intact, and not stabilizing them in the bottle.

The experience definitely made me want to drink more sherry! Well done, el señor.

It was time to venture out of Jerez to see what the rest of Spain had to offer. On the tasting-room floor I met someone representing the winery Parés Baltà. It’s a family-operated winery near Barcelona. The two women winemakers make a wide range of wines including a couple of my favorites of the day. The yeasty cava and Amphora roja 2018 were pleasant, and the Hisenda Miret 2017 was delightfully complex.

A distributor representing Rueda was pouring several verdejos, from the white grape, which ranged from very clean to very oaky, including the Nisia Las Suertes Old Vines Verdejo. One representing Ribera offered a range of tempranillos, including Boada Crianza 2016 from Groupo Yllera, Valduero I Cepa 2015 from Bodega Valduera. Another importer boasted a wonderful rioja alta, the Martinez Lacuesta Reserva 2010. Yet another, white and rose Cava coming from its denominación de origen in Catalonia.

The Rias Baixas is a Northern maritime region on the Atlantic, characterized by namesake low-lying estuaries. Owing to the region’s matrilineal history, its wine industry has historically been run by women and consists of majority women winemakers. Most grape growers have only 1–2 acres, a scale that makes growing more like people’s weekend projects than agribusiness. Neighbors cooperate and hold each other accountable. There’s a sense that helping each other improves quality and yields, and uplifts the region. From here I tasted nine samples of albariño, made from a white grape. The wines made easy drinking, with mineral and citric character. Two standouts came from uncommon winemaking technique. An aged wine, the 2012 by Paco & Lola was delightfully soft and round. Another treat was the Sensum Laxas 2017 from Bodegas As Laxas, a traditionally produced sparkling wine which was balanced and full, with toastiness and a pleasant salinity.

My last taste of the day was not a wine at all, but a rum from Sister Isles. In St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, the producer ages rum in a variety of spanish wine casks. A spirits lover at heart, I found these delightful, conveying subtle and not-so-subtle notes of the sherry grapes moscatel and Pedro Ximenez.

I appreciated getting to deeply explore a few of these regions, and the opportunity to connect the grape with the flavor and culture of these places. I find myself choosing Spanish wines as I continue to eat my way across Brooklyn and Manhattan every week. And I’m keeping my eye out for Parés Baltà, aged albariño, and these rums. My sherry interest is piqued. After a long absence I’m excited to return.

Written by GSN’s NYC based correspondent Paul Melnikow