How Sherry is Like a Bullfight
A defense of sherry by way of Death in the Afternoon. My pitch to upgrade your everyday fino or manzanilla to a higher expression.
I admit this with a sigh: I’ve been re-reading Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, his 1932 book about Spanish bullfighting. I know, I know. I know. For a middle-aged male writer currently working on a book about Spain, this surely sounds alarm bells. “I caution you as an aging white dude,” said a concerned friend the other day. (Of course, I have also mined this vein a bit in my essay, “The Endless Siesta,” in the Washington Post a few months back).
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I have been surprised with the quality of the writing in Death in the Afternoon—actually quite good, unlike much of Hemingway’s later nonfiction. Clearly, he had not yet descended into the caricature of the coming decades. And yet it’s a relatively forgotten book. A google search on “Death in the Afternoon” is more likely to turn up recipes for an awful cocktail that mixes absinthe and Champagne.
On the first page, Hemingway writes, “the whole bullfight is indefensible…and I shall not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it.” A few pages later, he reaches for a fascinating analogy: The appreciation of bullfighting is like the appreciation of wine. “The comparison with wine drinking is not so far-fetched as it might seem,” he writes…
“a person with increasing knowledge and sensory education may derive infinite enjoyment from wine, as a man’s enjoyment of the bullfight might grow to become one of his greatest minor passions, yet as a person drinking, not tasting or savoring but drinking, wine for the first time will know, although he may not care to taste or be able to taste, whether he likes the effect or not, and whether or not it is good for him.”
It worries me a little, but I kind of agree with Hemingway. Maybe not all wine, but one wine in particular: Sherry. And specifically the dry sherries—fino, manzanilla, amontillado. I can attest to this: A person who drinks a dry sherry for the first time seems to know “whether he (or she or they) likes the effect or not, and whether or not it is good for him (or her or them).”
I have served many people their first dry sherry. Too often, unfortunately, these people immediately do not like sherry or its effects. The taste can just be too bold, too strange, too foreign, too old-fashioned, or too whatever for the American palate. It’s a classic, love-hate litmus test.
We’ve covered sherry’s lack of popularity here before, and so I won’t go too deeply into again, except to say—with a sigh—that I wish things were different.
As it happens, I was recently in Jerez de la Frontera, in Andalusia, with my friend François Monti, where we indulged in both sherry and bullfighting. This was in May, during the annual Feria de Jerez, an amazing bacchanal that dates to the middle ages. The fair happens in a huge park on the outskirts of the city center, which is transformed into an entire village full of bars and restaurants called casetas. These casetas are filled with hundreds of people, many in traditional Analusian dress, who come from all over to drink and dance until the wee hours of the morning. The drink of choice at the feria is the rebujito, the classic mix of fino sherry, lemon-lime soda, and mint, which I wrote about it in June.
I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a million rebujitos were served during the Feria de Jerez (I certainly don’t have an exact number). But I can say that François and I consumed somewhere between a dozen and 900 rebujitos by ourselves during our several days in Jerez (again, unofficial numbers). By some industry accounts, more than 40 percent of the fino sherry in Spain is consumed during various ferias throughout the country, mostly in rebujitos.
Which is to say that a lot of cheap fino sherry is poured and consumed during feria. Which is to say that I believe this may be part of sherry’s current predicament in the marketplace.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with cheap sherry. Readers know that I am a value wine shopper who recommends vinho verde, carignan, and Puglian primitivo. I often keep a $16 bottle of Lustau or Tío Pepe fino around (a decent sherry can last at least 3-4 weeks in the fridge). But I believe that years of promoting low-cost sherry, as well as the endless pitch for sherry in cocktails (especially by Jerez’s Consejo Regulador) has taken too much of the focus away from sherry as a wine, to be enjoyed on its own. There is a world of sherry just above the entry level, and this is a case where the more you spend, the better you get.
We visited several cellars in Jerez, including one of Lustau’s famed almacenistas, independent sherry makers who historically produce and age small stocks. Lustau’s series of almacenista bottlings (mostly in the $35-50 range) is well worth seeking out.
In Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where manzanilla comes from, we visited Barbadillo, which dates to 1821. There, enologist Montse Molina, took us on a deep tasting journey stabbing her venencia into old barrels and pouring exquisite wines. At one point, we tasted a VORS amontillado, one of Barbadillo’s oldest wines.
“The Consejo says must be 30 years old,” she said. “But I can tell you it’s much older than that. It was gorgeous, complex, and full of life: struck stone, toffee, bergamot, grilled fruit, peppery and salty, and a lively, citrusy finish. “If you work the way we do, you can make eternal wines,” Molina said.
You can find the whole range of Barbadillo in the U.S. But if you like sherry—or even think you might like sherry—I implore you to splurge on one of Barbadillo’s VORS bottlings. The fact that you can find an amontillado or oloroso sherry of this quality for under $70 — here or here — is mind-boggling.
The culmination of our visit to Jerez was tasting with legendary sherry man Eduardo Ojeda. For more than two decades, Ojeda was the technical director of Grupo Estévez, maker of Valdespino, La Guita, and other sherry brands. In 2005, Ojeda and a partner launced Equipo Navazos, which sourced and released very special barrels of rare sherry from small bodegas around the region.
“We don’t value time,” Ojeda said, as he poured from his venecia. “But as I get older, I’ve really started to value the time it takes to make the things I love.” We spent a couple of hours tasting both sherry and brandy in the Grupo Estévez cellars with him (followed by several more hours at a wine-soaked lunch).
The highlight of the tasting was a 90-year-old palo cortado, always a strange, nebulous category that begins life as a fino or amontillado, only to mysteriously become more long-aged, like an oloroso. Ojeda gave perhaps the best explanation of palo cortado I’ve ever heard: “It’s like you have a son and you want him to be a doctor, and so you send him to medical school. But then, after a couple of years, he wants to be a writer.”
Bottles of Equipo Navazos are very difficult to find in the U.S. But PM Spirits has released a series of exquisite cask-selection sherries, in partnership with Equipo Navazos. If you like sherry and haven’t tried them yet, run don’t walk.
Even as I say all this, imploring you to splurge, I know that some of you dear readers will still say “no” to sherry. And I get it. I don’t judge.
When François and I were at Feria de Jerez, we attended one of the annual bullfights. I’ve seen them before and it’s always with deeply mixed feelings. Don’t worry: I’m not going to describe it in detail like old Hemingway. Suffice to say that, afterward, a little queasy, we repaired to a bar across the street from the bullring. We ordered a round of rebujitos.