Features Making the Case for Sherry
Making The Case for Sherry at San Francisco’s Gitane
March 2010

Years after he’d already been in the wine brokering business, a bottle of crisp Muscadet and a briny plate of fruits de mer in the Brittany countryside opened Sean Diggins’ eyes to the awesome pairing potential of food and wine. Diggins, who has since left the brokering business to become wine director of Gitane in San Francisco, is now looking to open eyes in turn, not only to the vast potential of food and wine pairings, but to the lesser celebrated pairing potential of food and…sherry?  

Yes, sherry. This centuries-old product of the Jerez region of Cadiz province, Spain, has been largely misunderstood on American shores for decades. The sheer popularity of the drink made it a prime target for unscrupulous peddlers, whose cheaper incarnations flooded the market and deteriorated sherry’s good name for the better part of the early twentieth century. Only in 1933, when the Spanish Wine Law made the Regulatory Council of the "Jerez-Xérès-Sherry," "Manzanilla - Sanlúcar de Barrameda" and "Vinagre de Jerez" official Denominations of Origin has sherry production begun its slow climb back to its original quality.

Diggins, for one, couldn’t be happier. The sugary swill imitations of yesteryear, with their cloying sweetness and overpowering alcohol, are a thing of the past. The challenge now is to get the word out, to signal the all-clear for sommeliers, beverage directors, and diners alike, which Diggins does from the enviable perch of Gitane. “San Franisco is definitely cutting edge in wine, for sure,” says Diggins. But one thing the food-forward region hasn’t incorporated into its wine-savvy is Diggins’ beloved sherry. And Diggins makes a strong case for it, nor simply with a well-stocked dessert list.

Compared to most wine directors and sommeliers, Diggins has an embarrassment of sherries, all of them suitable for pairing with chef Lisa Eyherabide’s bold Basque-inspired bistro fare. And, says Diggins, “we feature them quite proudly on the cocktail menu,” as much to draw the diner’s attention as to differentiate them from the contents of the wine list. “A lot of places feature a few sherries, maybe on the dessert menu somewhere, but they’re not very prominent,” says Diggins. “We wanted to put them somewhere where they’d almost get first billing.”

The tactic works, especially because sherries are classically suited to the start of the meal. “Fino and Manzanilla are probably the two most common aperitifs,” says Diggins. But the Gitane sherry menu doesn’t stop at aperitifs. “All the sherries on the cocktail menu are dry sherries,” says Diggins, suited to pairing, while the one of the cocktails themselves always contains at least a dram of the stuff.  “At any given time we have a cocktail made with a Fino, Manzanilla, or Amontillado,” says Diggins. The Adonis, for instance, pairs the almond notes and salty finish of famously dry Barbadillo Manzanilla sherry with sweet vermouth and orange bitters. The Sherry Flip combines seasoned richness of Dry Sack sherry with simple syrup and freshly grated nutmeg.

Cocktails like these introduce diners to sherry’s mixology potential, but dinner pairings are where sherry—and Diggins—really shine. Diggins maintains a list of about 20 dry sherries for savory pairings, a mixture of Finos, Amontillados, Manzanillas, Olorosos, and the even the rarer Palo Cortado (a sherry originally intended for the dryer fino or amontillado style that loses its yeast “veil” and consequently ages by oxidation, like a richer oloroso).

With this range of sherry types and producers, Diggins relies on different tools to train his staff about its pairing potential, chief among them Heston Blumenthal’s The Perfect Marriage: Pairing Food and Sherry Wines from Jerez. “It’s a little primer on sherry, arranged by Blumenthal. He got a group of chefs to talk about sherry and make a recipe to pair with it, explaining why the pairing works. I show it to my staff,” says Diggings, “not only back but front of house, to see the unbelievable range of stuff you can pair sherry with.”

Diggins, for his part, follows suit with creative pairings that capitalize on the characteristics of different sherry varieties. The results of a multi-variable process that’s been perfected and adjusted over the years, the sherries that make up Diggins’ list are the combined result of contact with a flor yeast veil, oxidation, and the vintage-stacking solera process, all in addition to the typical variables of grapes, soil, climate, and producer. The results of this intricate process, now thankfully regulated, are consistently complex and surprisingly affordable—no small attraction in a recession.

Diggins might pair a dish with “the brininess and saltiness and crisp apple qualities of a Fino or Manzanilla” or serve a plate of smoky barbecue flavors alongside a richer, complex Oloroso. “With a dry sherry you get sweetness in the nose, but acidity to cut through the fat of the meat,” he explains, “marrying it to the dish” where a port pairing might overpower with residual sugar.  In fact a key characteristic of dry sherry pairings is the contrast between perceived and tasted sugar. Dry sherries exhibit a “perceived aromas of sweetness,” says Diggins, with flavor notes that vary depending on type, “but they have a dry flavor.”

It’s this exact contrast—the sweet nose and dry savor—that makes sherry such a powerful pairing in Diggins’ arsenal. With a dish like chef Eyherabide’s Tolenas Farm Quail Stuffed with Chicken Mousseline, Raisins, and Shallots with a Port Demi-Glace and Truffle Oil, the golden sweet aroma Palo Cortado compliments the sweetness of the raisins and port demi-glace, while the first sip reveals its crispness and complexity, ideal to pair with the savory, gamey quail and mousseline.

And all it takes to convert a diner to this world sherry pairing, says Diggins, is one well-chosen glass—wine glass, that is. "I try to put sherry in a bigger wine glass instead of the traditional copita, because it warrants it," Diggins explains. Once the sherry is in a wine glass, Diggins knows, the intimidation factor and—perhaps more importantly—the cobwebs of old cultural connotations are gone. “As soon as you put a glass in front of them, they smell it and it’s just incredible,” he says. “People are just blown away by the nuances.”

No doubt owing (at least in part) to its saccharine reputation, Diggins puts serious thought into the dessert sherries on his list. No modest collection of mediocre cream sherries, Diggins’ dessert sherries exhibit a balance of residual sugar and complex character, imparted in part from the careful fractional blending of the solera process. A far cry from the syrupy, high-alcohol imitators of sherry’s inglorious past, these varieties are as rich and nuanced as a vintage dessert wine—and they should be treated as such. “Sweet sherry can be taken like any sweet wine when you’re doing a dessert pairing of sweet with sweet—you don’t want too much,” says Diggins.

Most of what sommeliers are just learning about sherry’s potential has been common knowledge in Spain for centuries. Basic pairings that are revelatory here are considered classics in Spain. For instance, pairing ice cream with a dark, mahogany Pedro Jimenez, with its rich notes of raisin and molasses, “is really common and really good,” says Diggins. “People in Spain would roll their eyes and say ‘We’ve been doing it for 400 years! What’s the big deal?’” But for the uninitiated—the very people to whom Diggins is preaching his sherry-gospel—the “classic” pairings of sherry’s distant past are a recent revelation to the New World. And Diggins is happily spreading the good word.