Last week’s sherry extravaganza Copa Jerez 2021 culminated in the final of the international sherry-pairing competition, with Belgium’s chef/ sommelier duo from Paul de Pierre winning the coveted top prize. The standard and inventiveness of this ninth edition of the biannual event was staggering, writes David Kermode, who also attended the event’s conference on key future developments in the world of sherry, visited estates, gala dinners and tasted… well, quite a lot of sherry actually.
“Panel discussions included the significant changes to the DO rules governing sherry, coming into force next year subject to approval by the European Commission, permitting non-fortified Sherry for the first time,” writes Kermode.
In its ninth year, the biennial Copa Jerez 2021 – a gastronomic sherry pairing contest – was declared to be “the most groundbreaking and ambitious yet” by the head judge as the Belgian team took the title for the first time, for a pairing menu described as “classic, yet creative.”
Josep Roca, the sommelier and co-owner of the triple-Michelin-starred El Cellar de Can Roca, presided over an august – and exclusively male – panel of six international judges, also comprising accomplished London restaurateur José Pizarro; Quique Dacosta, owner and chef at the eponymous three-starred restaurant and two-starred El Poblet; Andreas Larsson, named the World’s Best Sommelier in 2007; Peer Holm, President of the German Association of Sommeliers and leading Spanish food critic, José Carlos Capel.
If the esteemed names sitting behind the judging table on the stage of the Teatro Villamarta were not terrifying enough, then the challenge of creating a three course meal, paired to different styles of sherry, in a space at the back of the stage scarcely big enough to manoeuvre a pantomime cow must have been all the more intimidating. Nerves were jangling.
After an unanimous verdict from the judging panel, the Belgian team, sommelier Paul-Henri Cuvelier and chef Fabian Bell of Paul de Pierre in Maarkedal, took home the trophy, as well as the awards for best sommelier and best chef, for a menu that began with mackerel, dashi, chorizo, artichoke, pak choi and lovage oil, paired with Fino Viña Corrales from Bodegas San Francisco. For the main, lamb, hazelnut, celeriac and sesame purée, zucchini flower stuffed with Manchego, shiitake mushrooms and rosemary-infused potato confit was matched with an Oloroso from Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia, while the meal was rounded off with a pudding of pear in tobacco and spice syrup, lemon cream and goat’s cheese ice cream, accompanied by Medium Old Harvest from Bodegas Ximénez-Spinola.
Of the victorious duo’s meal, Roca said: “in so many ways it was a classic proposal, but with an ability to reinterpret the scene, both on the plate and in the glass,” adding that “this year’s contest was of an extraordinarily high level. We were amazed by the depth of knowledge that each of the participants had of the wineries, of all the aspects involved in food and wine pairing and also about the current trends in gastronomy and how to match them with sherry wines.”
In all, eight teams took to the stage, each a duo of chef and sommelier who had already won their national heats, with 55 minutes to cook, present and correctly serve their three-course meals, being judged on each element. Though ostensibly a pairing contest, the Copa Jerez is also about presentation skills, not least demonstrating an innate understanding of the matching potential of sherry. Much like Masterchef the Professionals on the telly, the ambition is stratospheric, the time tight and the tension palpable.
The UK was represented by a dynamic duo of Italians, flying the flag for London’s River Cafe. Mattia Mazzi, a member of its sommelier team, joined up with an old friend, chef Vincenzo Raffone, who now runs a 12-strong crew at Swinton Park Hotel, near Rippon, North Yorkshire. Offering a menu “that cheekily plays with the senses”, according to Raffone, it began with butterbean soup with mussels and guanciale, paired with Manzanilla from Equipo Navazos, followed by a main course of roast rack of lamb, charred baby artichokes and romesco sauce, matched with a 12-year-old Amontillado from Bodegas El Maestro Sierra, completed with a pudding of sribsolana with spiced creme Catalan and orange compote, offered with a delicious Palo Cortado Apóstoles, a 30-year-old VORS from Bodegas Gonzalez Byass. In his own presentation on stage, Mazzi touchingly dedicated the meal “to the women who made the River Cafe such a beautiful place.”
Reflecting on the contest in a full-length interview for The Drinking Hour with David Kermode, José Pizarro heaped praise on all those entering the high-octane competition: “I think the standard was incredibly high, amazing in fact. My mind was blooming, with the creativity and passion. I learned and I enjoyed. Sherry is a treasure of Spain and it makes me very happy to see so many people around the world enjoying it.”
Copa Jerez 2021 was more than a sherry pairing competition
The contest happens on the first morning, with the results announced the next night at a lavish gala dinner at the Jerez bodega of Gonzalez Byass, however the Copa Jerez is also a conference and showcase for the world of sherry.
Panel discussions included the significant changes to the DO rules governing sherry, coming into force next year subject to approval by the European Commission, permitting non-fortified sherry for the first time, providing the minimum alcohol level is 15%. There was also talk around the increasing focus on vintage-specific sherry, the new varieties being approved for use in the region to help combat the effects of climate change and the scope for further experimentation, perhaps even including approved sparkling wines from the Sherry Triangle.
There were also food pairing masterclasses, including live audience tasting, and how sherry can best harness the power of social media. Outside the auditorium, it was standing room only in the ‘showroom’ where in excess of one hundred styles of sherry from a range of producers both big and small were offered for tasting.
Delegates and journalists were also treated to a range of fascinating bodega tours, most also including paired lunches or dinners from the venerable names of sherry, including Williams and Humbert, Bodega Osborne, Barbadillo, Emilio Lustau and Gonzalez Byass, all of them offering serious innovation alongside tradition.
Sherry’s renaissance has been talked up for a long time, but if anyone still doubted its manifestation, then the energy, passion and conviction, not to mention the relative youth, of those entering the Copa Jerez would surely have silenced the sceptics.
You can listen to David’s interview with José Pizarro on the latest episode of The Drinking Hour with David Kermode, in partnership with the IWSC and The Buyer at Food FM from 5pm on Friday 19th November.