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A Crash Course in Sherry by Way of San Sebastián

A Crash Course in Sherry by Way of San Sebastián

SEPTEMBER 19, 2014   story: ZACHARY SUSSMAN  illustration: NATALIE K NELSON

Welcome to "The List," a column exploring the country's most notable wine lists. Up first, New York columnist Zachary Sussman visits Donostia, an Iberian pintxos taverna in the East Village with an unprecedented sherry list.


It’s lucky that Donostia—the narrow sliver of a tapas bar that opened last year on the northeast corner of Tompkins Square Park— didn’t call itself “Fino” or “Amontillado.” Given the untimely demise of spots like Manzanilla in Gramercy or Brooklyn’s Palo Cortado, all evidence suggests that New Yorkers don’t particularly care for restaurants named after styles of sherry.

To be fair, a sherry reference would have also been misleading. No matter how much attention the list lavishes upon the legendary wines of Jerez, the fact remains that “Donostia” refers to the Basque word for the city of San Sebastián. Rather than in Andalusia, it was here, along Spain’s north Atlantic cost, that owners Jorge de Yarza and Marissa Miller found their inspiration. Specifically, the concept references the Basque tradition of the pinxtos taverna—the ubiquitous incarnation of bar or tavern where locals gather to snack on small plates (called pintxos)gossip, tell stories, and most importantly—drink.

Although the “small plate” format has become a fixture of NYC dining, Donostia joins the ranks of the select few spots in the city that pay faithful homage to the tapas tradition as it is practiced in Spain. “Tapas,” after all, refers not to the size of the plate, but a specific culture of eating—an invitation to linger and graze over drinks for long periods of time. There’s a reason why the marble-topped bar encompasses more than half the space.

Still, there’s one major difference between throwing back a few glasses at Donostia as opposed to some remote seaside bar in San Sebastián: Ironically, you’ll probably drink better at the East Village spot, where the range of choices far exceeds that of the average Iberian equivalent. Extending beyond the official borders of the Basque Country, the beverage program reads like an encyclopedic compendium of Spain’s regional drinking cultures. Leaning predominately towards the country’s northern viticultural regions (with the notable exception of the wines of Jerez), the list runs the gamut from old classics (like Rioja and Cava) and new classics (a handful of fresh albariño and mencia bottlings from Galicia) to more obscure offerings from the Canary Islands.

In this way, Donostia operates on two levels at once. On the surface, it epitomizes the kind of casual neighborhood spot where you can stop after work for a quick beer and a bite of tortilla. Probe a little deeper, however, and the space offers up a much more serious dose of liquid education. It’s the kind of place where you can learn to distinguish between the regional styles of Basque versus Asturian cider (there are several examples of each, with a few options available on tap) and choose from any number of preserved seafood conservas (razor clams with lemon zest and white bean puree, for instance, or baby squid in ink and caramelized onion).

But it’s the unlikely inclusion of sherry within the bar’s northern concept that is perhaps most notable. Over two pages long and organized by style—from fino to pedro ximénez—the list might just represent the city’s deepest and most comprehensive celebration of the great fortified wines of Jerez.

Even at a time when the category has enjoyed a wave of attention, thanks to campaigns like Sherry Fest and growing evangelism among industry professionals, Donostia’s devotion to sherry might still seem extreme. “We opened with 22 sherry offerings by the glass,” says de Yarra. “Everyone told us it was too much and we’d have to scale back to no more than ten, as the public wasn’t educated enough.” Since then, however, they’ve only increased their selections, and currently offer over 40 sherries by the glass.

By integrating sherry so seamlessly into its taverna concept, Donostia has accomplished something quite meaningful. In effect, it has managed to rescue the category from the realm of hipster esoterica and return it to its native context as one of the world’s most versatile food wines. Rather than treat the wines as a newish fad or curiosity, the list facilitates an encounter with sherry in the true Iberian spirit: up at the bar, surrounded by friends, with simple, delicious food to eat.

WHAT TO DRINK

The real question should be “What to drink first?” Given the wide scope of options, it can be difficult to know where to begin, especially since navigating such a specialized list requires more than a just a passing familiarity with the geekier corners of Spanish wine.

One obvious point of entry, of course, is sherry. Due to the fact these fortified wines tend to hold up longer on the shelf (particularly the oxidatively-aged amontillados, olorosos and palo cortados), virtually every bottle on the list is available by the glass as well. Collectively, the available choices constitute an ideal primer for anyone eager to learn more, with equal footing given to large bodegas like González Byass (including their limited-release, minimally-filtered Tío Pepe fino “en rama”) and boutique producers such as Gutiérrez Colosía and Equipos Navazos. You could easily spend an entire night incrementally working your way up from the delicate finos and manzanillas to the richer, nuttier expressions of the sherry spectrum, such as the saline yet caramel 15-year-old oloroso from El Maestro Sierra (just $9 per glass) or the rare “Bota Punta” #48 palo cortado from Equipo Navazos. Suffice to say that the experience can’t easily be reproduced elsewhere in New York.

In some respect, ordering wine by the bottle might seem counterintuitive to the idea of the taverna: Ultimately, Donostia aspires toward the kind of setting where you want to hover by the bar ordering round after round. This vibe, however, is reflected in the bottle program’s pricing.

Take, for example, the unprecedented range of txakoli (currently, there are 12 bottles in the rotation, including three rosados), which is larger than anywhere in the city. Other than a magnum of the 2011 Hijo de Rubentis from legendary producer Ameztoi, only one selection exceeds the $60 mark. The same principle applies to the robust lineup from Galicia, which allows access to such regional touchstones as the A. Coroa Godellofrom Valdeorras or the juicy, Beaujolais-like D. Ventura Ribeira Sacra Do Burato for what feels like a pittance in terms of the quality: $48, respectively. Even at the higher end, one would generally pay much more than $78 for cult producer López de Heredia’s 1998 Viña Tondonia Rioja Blanco Gran Reserva at a different restaurant.

From its embrace of obscure, far-flung regions like the Canary Islands to the adventurous roster of sherry-based cocktails and Spanish vermouths, Donostia’s beverage program encourages exploration. The effect is at once uncanny yet familiar. “Our time in Basque Country refined what was already a pretty detailed outline of a concept,” de Yarra explains. “We were reminded that we would not be reinventing the wheel with our concept, but rather importing an existing and celebrated model.”

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