When it comes to pairing sherry with entrees, I owe a lot of my knowledge to Ataula, a Spanish and Catalan restaurant located in northwest Portland. Unlike the home-cooked Spanish comfort food of its sister restaurant CHESA, Ataula is where chef José Chesa and his team push gastronomic creativity and the dining experience to its fullest potential.
Recently, they had a private ticketed event pairing Chef’s cuisine to the amazing sherries of González Byass. I was elated that my non-sherry loving husband would join me, and be sure to capture the experience. (I still have not mastered how to stay on task, capturing both pictures and conversation, whilst drinking my way through the sherry rainbow.)
Upon arrival, we were greeted by Emily Metivier, General and Beverage Manager for both restaurants, and Christopher Canale-Parola, Area Manager for González Byass. Christopher has been a wonderful mentor and networker for me since we first met at Ataula in 2015. His enthusiasm and knowledge for not only sherry, but for González Byass as well, is infectious!
To start the night, we had a lovely Tío Pepe Fino based cocktail created by Angel Teta. I’ve always been cautious about the sherry cocktail trend, but Angel’s creations are on point! As she described it, she added Ontañón Moscato, a touch of Aveze Genitian Apertif, watermelon syrup, Pares Balta Cava and a touch of saline, all garnished with fresh flowers. It was so refreshing, and both the watermelon and Fino came through. It was specifically paired to the amuse course, but I drank mine way too quickly whilst mingling with other guests. I hope she adds it to their main menu!
Once seated, chef came out to greet us and explained that sherry was always used in his home for cooking and Tío Pepe was always the go-to bottle. Pairing five sherry wines to Jose’s wonderful creations from the kitchen, he would explain the entrees and Christopher would explain the sherry wine and history of González Byass.
With a traditional tumbler of Tío Pepe Fino, we warmed up our palates with an amuse bouche of seared watermelon and fried anchovy or house cured boquerones. As Christopher explained, we’re in a time where sherry it taking a very important place in the world’s food and wine scene. And yet, it’s still a niche.
If you’re new to sherry, the important first thing to know is that the vast majority are bone dry. Some of them at the other end of the spectrum are intensely sweet. This is the reason why they are an absolute gift to gastronomy, chefs and sommeliers. You’re able pair some powerful flavors of the wine with powerful dishes without necessarily covering each other up, which is really something quite special. The potential, when paired correctly, is a flavor explosion!
First Course: Ajo Blanco – white gazpacho, marcona, red wine poached foie; Tío Pepe Fino en Rama, 2015 bottling
As Chef explained, tomato gazpacho is the most drinkable, fully vegetarian option in the summertime in Spain. In Malaga, they use ajo blanco the most. This dish used Marcona almonds with milk, sherry vinegar and a little salt and drops of olive oil. This particular dish, Chef has made for over 15 years. In the middle he added a slice of red wine poached foie gras – the four most beautiful words ever heard together! The dish was finished with olive oil pearl caviar from Spain and white currents underneath for texture. You know a dish is good when the room goes completely quiet!
The wine paired with this was Tío Pepe en Rama. This is award-winning wine is really quite new to the sherry world. Essentially, it is just the Tío Pepe Fino sherry, using 100% Palomino grape, fortified to 15% alcohol and then aged in 600 liter American oak barrels. This style of this wine is really almondy, intensely savory, and has an oyster shell component that plays really well with the Marcona influence of the dish.
En Rama is local jargon meaning totally unfiltered. Typically like most white wines, a Fino goes through a stabilization and clarification process. But this is a sample pulled fresh from the barrel. The most exciting thing about this is it was bottled April 2015, so it had considerable time in bottle with the natural yeast as well. These wines age in barrel under a fluffy blanket of yeast because the wine is never filled up to the top of the barrel like most wines in the wine world. This yeast grows on top and gives it a really pungent yeasty nose. Even more so after a year in bottle!
Second Course: Pulpito – spanish baby octopus escabeche, tomato sofrito, confit, marrow bone; Viña AB 12-year Amontillado
Chef cooked the baby octopus escabeche with vegetables, extra olive oil and sherry vinegar. Under the marrowbone was tomato sofrito – onions and tomatoes cooked for five hours. The maltodextrin powder was made using the marrowbone fat.
This was paired with Viña AB, an Amontillado style sherry. This side-by-side tasting from Tío Pepe Fino en Rama to Viña AB Amontillado is one of Christopher’s favorites in the wine world simply because of tasting exactly the same wine at two completely different stages in its life. The Tío Pepe en Rama is bottled around four years average, where as the Viña AB has been in the solera blending system for up to an average of twelve years.
That nice fluffy duvet cover of yeast on top of the wine is an organism coming to the end of its lifecycle, and is breaking away and floating down to the bottom of the barrel. So for the first time the wine breathes. This oxidation process turns the color slightly browner, the flavors more intense, the alcohol starts to creep up a bit to 16.5%, but my goodness does it concentrate all those phenolic compounds. That almond character concentrates into more of a hazelnut character now. That oxidation gives you a slight sensation of sweetness, which is tricky because it’s not really sweetness, but just oxidation playing with your palate. Because it’s more structured, it goes well with more structured dishes.
Third Course: Pato – seared muscovy duck breast, corn, quicos, foie; Leonor 12-year Palo Cortado
By this course, the sherry was flowing and the conversation volumes growing. It was getting harder to catch Chef’s detailed technique explanations. To compensate, Christopher began speaking louder and faster. From what I gathered, the Muscovy duck breast was seared and placed on a bed of corn puree and foie gras.
The wine paired with this was Leonor Palo Cortado. It is a very special style that starts off like a Fino and quickly redirected into a life of oxidation. It’s actually fortified up to 18% alcohol in the very beginning so that the yeast is never protecting the wine. You get a light style in the beginning, but with oxidation over time, you get something much more intense. The wine is aged a minimum of 12 years, similar to the Viña AB Amontillado, but this time a totally different expression. It’s made for these types of meats. Still bone dry, but oxidized to trick your brain to expect sweetness when it isn’t there.
Fourth Course: Bou – painted hills ribeye, charred torpedo onion puree, vegetable menestra; Apostoles VORS 30-year Palo Cortado
The ribeye was nicely charred on the bottom and plated with jus and chanterelles. It was paired with the very special “very old rare sherry” Apostoles. Similar to tasting Tío Pepe much later on in its life, this began as the 12-year Leonor Palo Cortado, but instead of bottling it, it was removed from the solera and placed in another to age for a minimum of 30 years! These wines are often referred to the sacred wines. Nearly all the blend is the Leonor with a little addition of 13% of Pedro Ximénez – another white grape, dried in the sun to concentrate the sugars. Just a touch of PX to the blend adds a natural richness, which creates a very special pairing for red meats.
Once America realizes the flavor potential between Palo Cortado and red meats, I’m going to go on vacation because it’s going to take over! But we’re not quite there yet, so I hope to win over a few hearts every step of the way.
Final Course: Textures – valdeon cheese, strawberries, chocolate; Noé VORS 30-year Pedro Ximénez
Sadly, I don’t think I’m the only one who completely missed the description. By dessert we were very “happy” and dove right in. It was light and refreshing. The classic pairing for Pedro Ximénez is ice cream or cheese. Chef was smart to combine both to conclude this amazing dining experience!
Noé is very simply 100% Pedro Ximénez showcasing the rich sweetness of the greatest dessert wine of the world. Hand harvested, these grapes are dried in the sun for two weeks. This VORS is nearly 40 years old. It is incredibly sweet, yet dark and savory at the same time with a lot of smoky cigar elements and strong aromas of fig.
Noé has around four times the sugar content of Coca Cola, so it’s not a diet wine.
What a fantastic evening that truly delivered and went beyond expectations. I’m still surprised that I ate baby octopus. It only took three glasses of sherry to overcome my aversions. I truly appreciated not only the passion and detailed execution, but also the down-to-earth kindness of everyone involved. It is very rare to find a place like this that truly makes you feel at home time and time again.