At Mateo Bar de Tapas, the book-your-reservation-a-week-ahead spot in downtown Durham, you can find sherry in an unusual place: prominently listed before the cocktails on page 2 of the lengthy beverage menu. Sherry offerings are also sprawled across an oversize mirror behind Mateo's bar (the only beverage to hold such light there).
Both locations are a far cry from sherry's usual placement. Michael Maller, beverage manager at Mateo, explains: "It's almost always buried at the back of the wine list. It's the last thing you get to and it may even be mixed in with dessert wines."
A common ingredient in many traditional cocktails, such as the Adonis, which adds vermouth and bitters to the fortified wine, sherry has found new life in recent years among mixologists.
At Mateo you can try the Rye Malvado, which mixes a hazelnut-hinted amontillado with Redemption Rye, Spanish vermouth and saffron. And the Conquistador combines a chestnut-hued oloroso with tequila, triple sec, vermouth, mole bitters and zippy Texas Pete.
Yet Maller wants the wine to have a place beyond those blends and dessert wines.
The latter is how most folks have encountered, or imagine, sherry: a sugary, syrupy drink to be enjoyed (or at least consumed) after dinner. There's a reason for this, Maller says: "People who are responsible for selling sherry ... think that is what sherry is supposed to be." Maller also credits the widely accepted notion that only sweet sherries have lengthy shelf lives once opened.
On the contrary, there are several dry varieties of the Spanish wine. Fino is a pale-colored drink that hints at the salty coast in the Andalucía region of southern Spain; oloroso, a darker, oxidized sherry, pairs well with steaks and stews. Four dry styles are available at Mateo, with multiple options in each category offered by the bottle or glass. Flights are also available for tasting.
Compared with most places, in the Triangle or otherwise, Mateo offers a staggering list. As spelled out on the top of the drink menu, the oft "under-appreciated" wine is "an extremely important part of [the restaurant's] wine program and the world of wine in general."
"It's super food-friendly and value-driven," Maller says. "Some of the greatest sherries that exist are more affordable than what people consider traditional wine."
Maller, whose experience in the food industry includes a stint at New York's Gramercy Tavern, says he's long admired sherry. But it wasn't until he visited multiple bodegas in Spain with André Tamers of De Maison Selections importers that he says he "fell in love" with the versatile drink. Since then, Maller admits he's become "nerdier and nerdier about it."
He is in good company. Tamers, who has offices in Chapel Hill and France, cites sherry as "one of the hottest trends." He was speaking on the phone from Washington, D.C., where he was about to lead a sherry tasting for some 30 sommeliers.
Of the individuals or restaurants already in the sherry business, Tamers credits Mateo as "one of the most important [sherry] accounts. It's right at the top of the category for people selling that product." And Tamers would know. As Eric Asimov wrote in The New York Times, " ... one of the best sources for great sherry is De Maison Selections, and its guiding light, André Tamers."
Another important sherry proponent is Peter Liem, who co-authored Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla. In 2012 he launched Sherryfest, a multiday celebration that featured more than 130 varieties of the wine. (A spinoff of the event, Sherryfest West, was held earlier this month in Oregon.)
As Mateo's neighbor, Noel Sherr, managing partner of the Durham wine store Cave Taureau, says, sherry-seeking customers often admit, "We just had this around the corner." Similarly at Durham's Vin Rouge, where Maller oversees the restaurant's beverage program as general manager, requests for sherry have become more frequent since Mateo opened last year. (Only two sherries—one sweet and one dry—are listed on the otherwise French menu.)
Mateo's success with sherry is no doubt linked to the beverage's growing national appeal. But Maller also believes that the Triangle's well-educated and curious community has been more willing than most to give sherry a chance—especially when it's placed in front of them. "I think we would sell a lot less if I put it anywhere other than the front page," Maller says. "People recognize that we find it to be super important."
Correction: Michael Maller's first name was incorrect.