A wine that is well over 10 years old, that is absolutely delicious, many-layered, dry, nutty and persistent — and retails in the UK for about £10 — surely flies off the shelves? It would if it carried any name other than sherry.
I’m not usually a fan of UK supermarket own-label wines, with their self-regarding brand names such as Finest, The Best, Exquisite Collection, Irresistible and Taste the Difference. But their own-label sherries have, for some time, represented the best-value wines available in Britain. Overstocked producers have been beaten down on price.
And yet, such is modern British opprobrium — or just indifference — towards sherry that the category has been virtually shrivelling on the vine. Even Waitrose (whose Jerezana Oloroso is described in the opening paragraph) and The Wine Society, each of which put more effort into buying sherry than any other UK retailer I can think of, have been selling less and less of it.
And the story is no better at small independent wine shops. Tom Fedrick-Illsley, from the Theatre of Wine stores in London, admits ruefully that most of the sherry it sells is to staff. While the rest of the wine world has been experiencing steady and sometimes exponential growth, sherry — once the Brits’ favourite wine — has become an insider’s secret.
This is despite the proliferation of tapas bars from Plymouth to Aberdeen. (I rang the Aberdeen branch of the Cafe Andaluz chain of tapas bars to ask whether it served sherry. “What?” said a clearly puzzled waitress, before going to find out. “Yes. Three sorts.”)
Demand in Spain remains fairly steady, though not throughout the country (I have had difficulty ordering sherry in Barcelona, for example). In Spain, more than half of all sherry drunk is the lightest, palest, driest sort, Manzanilla — typically in Andalucía in the far south and especially in the sherry towns of Jerez, Sanlúcar and Puerto.
Like Fino, this is the kind of sherry that makes a great, appetising aperitif or — being just 15 per cent alcohol and not remotely stale, oxidised or flat — it can be substituted happily for white wine at the table. In fact, sherry is such a good match for a wide range of foods that we once chose to drink nothing but a succession of sherries at one of elBulli’s notorious multicourse meals.
But it’s in its leading traditional export markets — the Netherlands and the UK — where the sherry tide is most obviously going out, and the Jerezanos seem content to sit on the beach watching it.
The sherry industry as a whole is paying the price for the 1970s and 1980s, when shortlived export subsidies encouraged the (over)production of massive volumes of cheap wine.
Two of the most august names, Harvey and Garvey, are now in the hands of Asian businessmen who have bought them mainly for their brandy assets.
The shrivelling number of brand owners have over the years dreamt up ruses such as flavoured sherries, sherry cocktails and the like, but nothing seems able to shore up the declining volume of sherry that’s exported.
More than 80 per cent of the sherry shipped to the UK is Cream, Pale Cream or described ominously as Medium. For those of us who love dry sherry — either pale Fino or Manzanilla, or the rather darker and stronger Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Dry Oloroso — it is tempting to believe that Britain’s increasingly sophisticated wine drinkers might be moving from sweet to dry sherry. But, in fact, exports of Fino and Manzanilla to the UK have been declining even more rapidly than those of sweet sherry.
Demand for the darker dry sherries seems healthier but they constitute less than 3 per cent of all sherry shipped to the UK. The only consolation for producers is presumably that — with the exception of those ridiculously cheap supermarket own-label bottlings, apparently ignored by the British consumer — these dark, dry sherries are sold at relatively high prices.
These are the sorts of wines that the most exciting sherry producers tend to specialise in. Sherry aficionados have been thrilled by the special single-cask bottlings of Equipo Navazos and by those of individual almacenistas (small-scale sherry stockholders) initiated by Emilio Lustau, as well as the relatively recent establishment of quality-minded bodegas such as Tradición and Fernando de Castilla, to name some of the more obvious sources of top-quality wines.
But we are also frustrated by what can seem from the outside to be almost wilful self-destruction — or at least Andalucían lassitude. From where I sit, there seems to be little generic promotion of sherry. The Consejo Regulador, the governing body in Jerez, holds an annual sherry and food matching competition — but it’s in Jerez, so it doesn’t make too many converts.
More promising, potentially, is the Big Fortified Tasting, the massive showcase of fortified wines held every year in London, which is so unusually comprehensive that professionals fly in from all over Europe.
Yet this year, of the 51 exhibitors, only nine were sherry producers. When I asked Peter Dauthieu of Williams & Humbert, producers of some very fine sherries, why he gave the BFT a miss this year, he said: “My feeling is that it’s more a port-minded event now, when before it was very much even. I also felt the date this year was again not best, smack in the middle of Easter.”
Godfrey Spence, a wine educator specialising in fortified wines, told me at the BFT how frustrating it was trying to prise sherries, virtually unobtainable in France, out of the Consejo for a weekend class he was teaching in Mâcon. He had to submit his shopping list of wines multiple times. His request for a tracking number went unanswered. The bottles did eventually arrive, however. On the Monday after the event.
My feeling, at the BFT, after tasting so many magnificent sherries — Spain’s most distinctive category of wine by far — is that not just consumers but winemakers from all over the world should fly to London to take advantage of the extraordinary diversity of styles, ages and sweetness levels on show there.
I suppose the only possible benefit from the sluggish sales of sherry is that the wine sitting in the tall bodegas — some of them cooled so atmospherically by Atlantic breezes that they are called cathedrals — must be getting older and more precious. Perhaps eventually there will be a new generation that truly appreciates how uniquely wonderful these wines are.
Buy the freshest, most youthful bottling of Fino and Manzanilla possible and keep it in the fridge. Serve all sherry in a regular wine glass. Wines listed in ascending price order per cl.
- Barbadillo, Pastora Manzanilla En Rama Pasada From £5.83 for 37.5cl Cambridge Wine Merchants and others
- Emilio Lustau, Puerto Fino Solera Familiar £15.35 for 75cl Berry Bros & Rudd
- Hidalgo, La Gitana Manzanilla En Rama From £15.95 for 75cl Tanners and many others
- Argüeso 1822 Fino £9.85 for 37.5cl Amathus Drinks
- Yuste, Aurora Manzanilla £15.99 for 50cl Dorset Wine Co
- Equipo Navazos, No 71 La Bota de Manzanilla £25 for 75cl Virgin Wines and others
- González Byass, Tio Pepe Dos Palmas Fino £17.99 for 50cl Laithwaite’s
- Argüeso 1822 Palo Cortado £20.50 for 50cl Amathus Drinks
- Fernando de Castilla, Antique Fino From £21.50 for 50cl from many outlets
- Emilio Lustau, Palo Cortado, Almacenista Cayetano del Pino £26.55 for 50cl Berry Bros & Rudd
- Fernando de Castilla, Antique Palo Cortado From £32.95 for 50cl from many outlets
- Bodegas Tradición, Palo Cortado 30-year-old £107 for 75cl Hedonism
Follow Jancis on Twitter @JancisRobinson
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