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The iconic image of Madrid is the neon Tio Pepe sign in La Puerta del Sol, symbolising the city’s dedication to nightlife as well as sherry. When it was taken down in 2011, many thought it mirrored a decline in this most Spanish of wines.
Now the sign is back and, according to Martin Skelton from Gonzalez Byass, the company that produces Tio Pepe: “The sherry scene in Madrid is really taking off.”
Sherry is a fortified wine produced in Andalucia; flor is the yeast that delivers its unique flavour. It comes in many forms but the most popular style is fino, of which Tio Pepe is the most famous example. Fino sherry is a pale gold, bone dry, about 15% alcohol and, drunk very cold out of little glasses called copitas, makes the perfect accompaniment to tapas.
Sherry is the perfect bar-hoppers drink: it stimulates but doesn’t fill you up and it’s not too strong. Madrid has more bars per capita than anywhere else in the world and most, even the most simple, will offer sherry.
Just ask for a copa de fino or a copa de manzanilla and you’ll be given a glass of the house sherry, perhaps along with some olives or a little cheese. Just remember that Madrileños go out very late. Most bars don’t open until 8 or 9pm and people don’t eat until 10pm.
So, where do you go?
Skelton recommends Taberna Palo Cortado in the Calle Union: “The owner Paquito Espinosa has 100 well-chosen sherries and excellent tapas to match.” It’s also a favourite of British expat Andrew Ward, who documents his sherry adventures in a blog called Under the Flor.
Sommeliers love sherry because its savoury quality makes it so versatile with food. The award-winning sommelier Ian Adams even recommends fino with french fries and ketchup. Andrew is more keen on the tuna tartare at Surtopia in the Calle de Núñez de Balboa, where, he says, “the list of sherries (and even more manzanillas) has always been amazing.” Martin recommends A Barra in the Calle Pinar, where the sherry pairs perfectly with jamón.
Both Andrew and Martin rave about Angelita in the Calle Reina: “Not just a great sherry list but great for Spanish wine,” says Andrew. He also recommends Taberna Verdejo near the Parque del Retiro, “the watering hole of choice for winemakers passing through Madrid.”
Most bars used to offer just one or two sherries. Today, that’s changed. “There are lots of restaurants seeking out interesting sherries and competing to have to longest and most varied lists,” says Martin. The latest trend is En Rama sherry. This is a special bottling taken from the best barrels unfiltered for a richer, more pungent taste.
Tio Pepe offer an En Rama version as does its great rival, Manzanilla La Gitana. Manzanilla is a style of sherry similar to fino but it is matured by the sea in Sanlucar for a freshness and salinity distinct from fino.
“You have to go to El Mercado de San Miguel,” recommends Fermin Hidalgo, a member of the family who makes La Gitana. Along with its wide range of sherries, very good olives and other food, “there you can see our new invention, La Gitana on Tap.”
No trip to Madrid is complete without a visit to La Venencia in the Calle Echegaray: “The best and only place to go,” says Ryan Opaz, who runs wines tours in Spain and Portugal. Fermin agrees it is “probably the most typical and classic” sherry bar. Seemingly unchanged since it opened in the 1930s, it has original bullfight posters on the walls and sherry drawn directly from the cask.
Finally if you want to go off the beaten track, Fermin Hidalgo recommended a couple of places where tourists don’t usually go. El Doble in the Calle Ponzano with its football shirts on the walls, and Fide, a Marisqueria (seafood bar) in Calle de Breton de los Herreros, offer the authentic locals experience and are a little rough round the edges. Just order a copita and some tapas, though, and you won’t look out of place.