Waiter, these carrots are corked!

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Checking a wine for faults using the Plumpton-prescribed one nostril technique.

Whenever wine professionals get together rather than enjoy the wine, they are thrown into a state of anxiety that there may be something wrong with it that they haven’t spotted. The bottle will be opened, noses will go in and you’ll hear “mmmm the fruit’s just not there, I think a little TCA” or “yes very reductive, it’s those screw caps they insist on using.”

Every day it seem like I hear about a new wine fault. So in order not to fall behind, I went on a training day put on by CSWWC (|Champagne and Sparkling Wine Championships) and Plumpton College (like UC Davis but smaller and a lot more English.)  I was surprised by the sheer number of things that can go wrong at every stage of the winemaking process from fermentation to  bottling and even after. I am sure most readers will know about a corked wine (if not there’s more information below) but what about light struck? And what the hell is goût de souris? Stick your nose into a glass and you might find baby sick, mould or even rotting flesh aromas.

Here for your delectation are just some of the things that might be wrong with your wine so that you can impress your friends or thoroughly ruin dinner parties. Just to confuse matters, things that some people might think of as a fault can actually be considered an intrinsic part of particular wines. It’s enough to make you turn to hard liquor.
Brettanomyces aka Brett

The most common descriptor for this is sweaty saddles but as so few of us go around sniffing saddles these days an easier aide memoire is wet dog. You might also get barnyard aromas or even old socks! It’s caused by a yeast called Brettanomyces. It normally comes from infected barrels but according to Tom Stevenson from the CSWWC, it can also lurk in the vineyard. It is very very common, Tom estimated that nearly ⅔ of French wine has some. It used to be endemic in Australia but they have cleaned up their act in recent years. The funny thing about Brett is that in small quantities, it’s quite nice adding a savoury quality and crops up in some prestigious reds from the Rhone and, though less than before, in Bordeaux. I’m actually fairly Brett tolerant but in larger quantities it obliterates the fruit and can smell like a horse has just crapped in your wine.

Volatile Acidity:

Usually acetic acid, in other words vinegar. Most wines will have a tiny bit but if you can smell vinegar then there’s probably some sort of bacterial infection. Certain wines such as Château Musar from the Lebanon, old-fashioned rioja, and some Australian shiraz including the greatest of all, Penfold’s Grange, have high levels of volatile acidity. Madeira is pickled in volatile acidity. But you shouldn’t be getting it in an everyday red or white. Other volatile acids you don’t want include lactic acid which smells like baby sick. Lovely!

Oxidation:

Meaning that oxygen has got to the wine. Characteristic smells are cider (I’m talking farmhouse hard cider), nuts or sherry. Certain wines owe their character to controlled oxidation such as madeira, tawny port, amontillado and oloroso sherry. Then there are certain wines that flirt with oxidation such as certain Chenin Blancs from the Loire or Marc Sorrel’s famous Hermitage Blanc. But most everyday wine should not have oxidative notes. If you’re drinking wine by the glass and it smells raisiny then the bottle may have been open to long.

Reduction:

If you get a burnt sort of smell, it could be that you are drinking pinotage in which case stop immediately, or that your wine is reduced. Reduction is the opposite of oxidation, it’s caused by a lack of oxygen. Other smells that point to this include sulphur, garlic, struck match or rubber. Some varieties especially syrah are particularly prone to it and you are more likely to get it from screw caps than natural corks because they provide a less permeable seal. In small quantities especially in modern lean Chardonnays from Australia or Burgundy a touch is considered desirable. A lot of reductive smells will dissipate after time in the glass but if it smells like Hades then you might want to complain.

Lightstruck:

This is my new favorite one. Tom Stevenson gave us a champagne which smelled strongly of burnt cabbage. At its worst it can smell of rotting flesh. This is caused by the action of light on the wine. It can even happen in the glass if the sun is hot enough. It’s particularly common on rosés because they usually come in clear bottles. Dark green bottles help prevent it but dark amber is even better. Don’t buy any wine that you know has been sitting in a shop window especially in a clear bottle, it will almost certainly be ruined.

Corked:

Known in the trade as TCA, an abbreviation of the compound lurking in the cork that causes it. According to Tom Stevenson roughly around 3% of wines have TCA.  In most cases you will notice a strong smell of mould or wet cardboard. Some wines have TCA in such small quantities that you can only detect it by a lack of fruit rather than an overt taste of mould. I find if I’m not sure the best thing to do is get the waiter to try it. He should be familiar with how the wine is meant to taste. Though it’s usually caused by an infected cork, you can have TCA without a cork. In fact I’ve had garlic and carrots that smelt of TCA though I’ve never had the nerve to say, “waiter, take these carrots away, they’re corked!”

Mousiness

A few years ago I began to notice a new problem.  The wine would smell normal and to begin with it would taste fine even delicious but then at the back of the throat I would get a stale yeasty flavour or in the worst cases a feral animal sort of taste. This is mousiness aka hamster cages or in French, goût de souris. It is caused by an infection of lactobacillus. The reason it’s become so common recently is the trend for low sulfur wine making. It’s the most frustrating fault because it could so easily be cured by using tiny quantities of sulfur. It’s the main reason that I am wary of natural wine especially as some people, including some winemakers and sommeliers, can’t detect it. The worst mousiness I’ve ever had was in Armenia which actually tasted like a rodent was rotting at the back of my mouth when I swallowed. The winemaker smiled at me and said, “good isn’t it? No chemicals.”

Anyway happy drinking!

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in Food & Wine magazine.

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Whatever happened to the boozy publishing lunches?

Not that people ever ask me for writerly advice but a bit of advice I would offer to any budding hack is that an article is never dead. Even if it has been spiked some of what you put into it will at some point resurface elsewhere. You must never give up.

Last year an editor at the Spectator asked me to write something on literary mavericks tied to the death of publisher Peter Owen. I duly did lots of research, probably too much, spoke to everyone I knew in publishing and produced a thoughtful article that to be honest was a bit worthy It would have worked in the Bookseller but not the Spectator so I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t run it. The editor then left the Spectator and the article was finished.

Or so I thought. I spoke with Alexander Chancellor at the Oldie earlier this year and he liked the sound of something about publishing and suggested I talk to his deputy Jeremy Lewis who used to work in publishing in the 70s and 80s. After a long and amusing chat with Jeremy, I rewrote the article to make it a lot more gossipy. It was slated to run earlier this year when Alexander Chancellor died. I felt like Lena Dunham in that episode of Girls where her editor dies and all she can say at the funeral is “but what about my book?” Then Jeremy Lewis died. There was now no chance of my article appearing.

In April I had a boozy lunch with an old journalism crony in New York and I told him about my article. He asked to take a look and said that it might work for his website. I thought he was just being nice but I sent it to him last month and he liked it but said it needed to be even more gossipy and anecdotal. So rather than ask serious questions to serious publishers, I called up some gossipy journalist cronies and they all said the same thing: read Jeremy Lewis’s memoirs, Playing for Time, Kindred Spirits and Grub Street Irregular. They are perhaps the best books about publishing ever written. If I’d read them back in June last year then this article would not have had such a long gestation.

Anyway click below to read the article. I’ll put it up on my site in its entirety in a couple of weeks:

Mad Pen! Publishing Was a Better Business When it Was Fueled by Alcohol and Long Lunches

 

 

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Getting trolleyed in London – the return of old school dining

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Order a dish or a drink at some of London’s most fashionable restaurants and rather than a waiter put it down in front of you, don’t be surprised if you see your order making a stately progress from the kitchen on wheels. Yes the trolley is back, and how! At Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge they have a bon bon trolley, at the Oxo Tower they have a martini trolley complete with a James Bond paperback to read whilst your drink is prepared, and at the Berners Tavern they even have a pork pie trolley, £17 for a giant pie cut at the table with a choice of condiments.

With trolleys comes the return of the sort of cooking that you thought died out in the 1980s. Coin Laundry on Exmouth Market offers chicken kievs and Ottolenghi in Spitalfields has avocado vol-au-vents on the menu.  Forget sous vide, foams, and liquid nitrogen, we want our chefs in whites, red check trousers and the puffiest of puffy hats not in lab coats and goggles.

45 Jermyn Street opened in 2015 in Fortnum and Mason but walk into the dining room and you might think it’s 1975. Your dover sole will be cooked on the bone and then expertly filleted at the table; there’s a trolley on which the waiter will whip up scrambled eggs to go with your caviar; best of all they offer a dish that combines two retro standards, a black forest gateau baked alaska – flambeed in front of you, naturally. This is cooking with shoulder pads.

Going even further back in time is Otto’s in Gray’s Inn Road. It only opened in 2012 but looks like it’s been around since before the war. . . . the First World War. They have starched white tablecloths, antique Persian carpets and a (nearly) all French wine list. Otto’s offers the sort of food one can imagine Edwardian aristocrats tucking into. The house speciality involves a whole duck, the breast cooked pink and thin-sliced at the table, the legs served crisp, then the carcass is crushed in an antique silver press and the juices transferred to a sauce prepared by the waiter in front of you. They do something similar with a poulet de Bresse or, if you’re feeling really fancy, with lobster. It’s a sumptuous treat for all the senses. As Lee Stretton from 45 Jermyn Street put it:  “the classic dishes lend themselves to theatre.”

He went on to say: “there is a movement to appreciate the art of service within the room. It is a reaction to all the stripped back restaurants which have good but simple and utilitarian service.” It makes a welcome change from the minimalist aesthetic that was so big in the 2000s where restaurants such as St. John’s In Farringdon had informal, casually-dressed waiters and no tablecloths.

The decor of 45 Jermyn Street with its bright red leather seating, immaculate white linen and table lamps compliments the theatricality of the service perfectly.  It was designed by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio who also created the interiors for some of London’s most chic restaurants including the Ivy, Scott’s and the Caprice. It’s all about glamour. Diana Henry author of Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours, told me: “I loved the look of the life that went with this food: hessian walls, bottles of Burgundy, women with chignons and men in lounge suits, red candles on the dining table, this is the life to which I aspired.” Richard Corrigan’s new restaurant in Mayfair even has a piano player to go with the comfy chairs and heavy curtains.

All this plushness absorbs sound making restaurants like 45 Jermyn Street the perfect place for a long seductive lunch or perhaps somewhere to take your hard-of-hearing aunt. Compare this with St John’s, a cavernous former smokehouse, where I  would  leave with my ears ringing and voice hoarse from shouting over the hubbub.

One can chart the beginning of the retro revival to the opening of the Wolseley way back in 2003. Offering classic standards like omelette Arnold Bennett and Wiener Schnitzel in glittering surroundings, it quickly felt as if it had always been there. Then Brasserie Zedel opened in 2012 with its “chariots de fromage” and subterranean art deco dining room, like eating on an ocean liner.

The retro food trend isn’t just confined to London. No less an authority than Anthony Bourdain has tipped old-fashioned French cuisine of the sort championed by Elizabeth David and Julia Child as the next big thing, think Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon. There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about these dishes. Rather than the shock of molecular gastronomy, it is about comforting flavours cooked to perfection. Diana Henry told me: “I grew up with ‘retro’ food, which is why I don’t quite see it as ‘retro’. I was making steak Diane aged 11 and I thought it was impossibly delicious. I still also think prawn cocktail is fabulous.”

Simon Hopkinson agrees: “the prawn cocktail is wonderful.” He’s the author of a book about retro food called appropriately enough, The Prawn Cocktail Years. He went on to say “these dishes have never really gone away. They are what are what cooking is all about.” He told me that the chicken kiev and beef stroganoff were originally restaurant dishes. They are hard dishes to get right in the home so it’s great to see them back on the menu and done properly. Some restaurants, however, never lost faith with the classics. Oslo Court in St John’s Wood has been offering duck a l’orange, veal holstein and napery you could use to soundproof a recording studio since 1982. It’s food that people love to eat and will be eating for years to come. When the sous vide machine is gathering dust in the basement, the trusty trolley will still be doing the rounds.

This is an early version of something I wrote for a luxury good magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Arak and a hard place

Last November I was fortunate enough to have dinner in one of Beirut’s best restaurants, Em Sherif, with a group of Lebanese winemakers. There was no menu, they just bring you seemingly endless small dishes such as Kibbeh nayyeh, finely chopped raw lamb with onions, or baby aubergines stuffed with walnuts. Each one was more delicious than the last though I made the schoolboy error of filling up on the insanely good hummus and flatbread at the beginning. Mezze really isn’t designed for greedy Englishmen. Along with the food we had some excellent local wines but one of the winemakers admitted to me that the best thing with mezze isn’t wine, it’s Arak. This aniseed spirit drunk diluted with water and ice, cleans the palate and sharpens the appetite so you’re ready for a bite of something different. I looked around the restaurant and most of the fantastically glamorous clientele (everyone in Beirut is very chic) were all drinking Arak.

Arak is part of a family of aniseed-flavoured spirits that exist all over the Mediterranean and Middle East. The word comes from the Arabic for sweat: a description of the alcohol dripping off the still. There’s Raki in Turkey, Rakia in Bulgaria and Ouzo in Greece. Further afield there’s Sambuca in Italy, Anis in Spain and Pastis in France. In fact about the only country in Europe that doesn’t do something similar is Britain.

Though Arak is similar to its Greek and Turkish cousins, it’s a generally a far superior product. Michael Karam author of a Arak and Mezze: the taste of Lebanon told me “the Lebanese are very quality driven. There is no industrial Lebanese Arak.” It’s only ever made from a spirit distilled from locally-grown grapes rather than the neutral alcohol more common in Europe. I visited Domaine des Tourelles in the Bekaa valley who make Arak Brun which according to Michael Karam is “considered by the Lebanese to be the gold standard”. It was November and they were still bringing in grapes for Arak production mainly Obaideh and Merwah but also some Cinsault. The grapes are gently pressed and the juice run off for fermentation in enormous concrete tanks. No sulphur can be added or it would be accentuated during distillation and they use wild yeasts for fermentation.

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Faouzi Issa from Tourelles with his arak-craving face

The winery is a living museum. They use a 19th century copper alembic that was made in Aleppo in Syria for distillation. The aniseed comes from Syria too, a village called Hina.. There are sacks of it piled high everywhere like sandbags, insurance in case the war cuts off supply. Damascus is only 40 miles away. The wine is distilled twice to create an eau-de-vie and then once more with aniseed. “We make arak 330 days a year,  making it in small batches like this is very costly” according to Faouzi Issa from the family who own Tourelles.  

They then age Arak Brun for one year and the Special Reserve for five in clay jars similar to classical amphora but with flat bottoms.  Recently they wanted to expand production but nobody knew how to make the jars. Luckily they found a 70 year old man in a remote village who was probably the last person with the requisite knowledge. They have now started a workshop making jars where younger men can learn the necessary skills. It’s a slow labour intensive process so they can only make 30 to 40 jars per year.

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Arak ageing at Tourelles

At Clos St Thomas just up the road from Tourelles, they make Arak Touma. Here I tried the pre-aniseed eau-de-vie which tastes a little like an unaged Armagnac crossed with rum. The flavour of this high quality spirit doesn’t need disguising with sugar which explains why good Arak is so refreshing.  Said Touma, the patriarch of the family, showed me how to add water from a height into the arak so that it goes cloudy, “louching” is the technical term. You generally drink it in a ratio of two parts water to one Arak with ice. I was gently reprimanded by Michael Karam for adding too much water – “your Arak looks a little weak” he told me.

The ageing and care at every stage of production makes Lebanese Arak so much smoother than Ouzo or Raki. In fact for a drink so strong, usually around 50%, it’s dangerously drinkable. Once you’ve acquired a taste for it you’ll be like Faouzi Issa who said that when he is away from Lebanon: “I crave Arak” .  Michael Karam told me “as one drinks sake with sushi, I dream of the day when people will eat Lebanese food and drink arak.” With the growth of Middle Eastern food across America and Europe, Michael’s dream might just come true.

 

A version of this article appeared in Food & Wine magazine.

 

 

 

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Whole Lotta Rosé

There’s a genre of music from the late 70s/ early 80s dubbed yacht rock: smooth, heavily-produced music made by virtuoso musicians with too much money.  Think bands such as Steely Dan, Hall & Oates and the Doobie Brothers. And to drink on your yacht with such music? There can be only one candidate: Provencal rosé, the more expensive the better.

You can’t miss these wines in your local store. They come in a bewildering array of bottles from the amphora-shaped, to bowling pins, squared-off shoulders, and even entirely square bottles. Then there’s the distinctive colour, Provencal rosés have to be as pale as possible. It’s all a far cry from when I worked in a wine shop in the late 90s when rosé was zinfandel blush, bright red Spanish rosado or sickly sweet Rosé d’Anjou. Nobody would have dreamed of spending more than £6 on a bottle.

In contrast yacht rosés (I’m trying to coin a new genre) can sell for up £100 for the Chateau d’Esclans Garrus. It sounds outrageous but this is a drop in the ocean for their target market. Sacha Lichine from the Bordeaux family that own Esclans was quoted recently as saying: “I knew we had arrived when I got a call from a top yacht-builder wanting the dimensions of our three-litre double-magnums. . . . . He wanted to make sure he built a fridge on a yacht that was big enough.”

Esclans are best known for their more prosaic Whispering Angel brand (around £20 a bottle). Other names to look out for include Minuty, Domaine Ott, Chateau Gassier, MiP (made in Provence) and Miraval. The owners of Miraval, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, are to rosé what Jay Z is to champagne. Indeed yacht rosé shares some similarities with champagne; they both sell on image as much as content. The crucial difference is if you spent £80 on a bottle of champagne, Pol Roger vintage for example, you’re going to get a lot of flavour compared with a £30 bottle. Expensive champagne tastes expensive, rosé’s pleasures are more ethereal. British wine writer Andrew Jefford who lives in the south of France tried to explain it to me:

“The art of crafting great rosé is the art of understatement.  It’s all a question of nuances, subtleties, suggestions, hints and whispers.  The more forceful a rosé is, the less good it is. A blockbuster red can be great; a blockbuster rosé would be a comprehensive failure.  The reason being that sippability, drinkability is even more important for rosé than for most wines.”

These delicate wines are made by lightly pressing red grapes, mainly cinsault and grenache, so that just a little colour seeps into the wine. Sometimes this is done so subtly that the wine is almost indistinguishable from a white wine. The rosé paradox is that the most expensive are often the least intense. With a little reflection and enough money in your pocket you might notice flavours of strawberries, peaches, herbs and sometimes a faint nuttiness.

The production process requires technology, inert gas to keep the grapes free from oxygen, and ideally they should be harvested at night for maximum freshness, but these are not expensive wines to make. And unlike champagne which needs to be matured, rosé can be sold the summer after vintage. Rosé is catnip to accountants.

The 2016s are just about to arrive in shops but the better quality rosés are usually at their best in the autumn, just as the sun is beginning to disappear. Those ethereal flavours take a little time to come out. The very best rosés from the fishing port of Bandol can age for ten years or more. Bandol apart though, rosé is essentially background music. You’d never have a conversation about a rosé like you might a Santa Barbara Syrah or a good Burgundy. But whether you own a yacht or even a pair of white trousers, when you’ve just been paid, the sun’s out and I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) comes on the stereo, nothing tastes better.

Here are five that are worth drinking:

William Chase 2016 rosé – £14.90 Tanners

Made by an English producer in Provence. It looks and tastes the part from the stylish bottle to the subtle but persistent fruit and, best of all, it’s not that expensive.

Chateau d’Esclans Les Clans 2015 – £30 From Vineyards Direct 

My favourite of Esclans wines. It’s floral with delicate red fruit and a creamy texture from some very discrete oak ageing. If you even notice that price, you can’t afford it.

Le Secret de Chateau Leoube 2015 – £25 Wine Direct 

Made by one of the cult names in rosé, this is textbook stuff: gentle orange and peachy fruit with a distant scent of wild herbs as if you’re smelling Provence from your boat.

Domaine Tempier Bandol rosé 2015 – £25 Lea & Sandeman have the 16 vintage 

A rosé worth talking about. The 2015 was one of the finest I’ve drunk with spectacular depth of flavour, gorgeous fruit and balance, and a long finish.

Rouviere Bandol rosé 2015 –  £19.99 Yapp Bros have the 16 vintage

Some of the magic of the Tempier but at an everyday price. Quite full-bodied with rosemary notes and a little almond-like nuttiness on the finish. It offers power with finesse.

A version of this article appeared in Food & Wine magazine.

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Literary Festivals this summer and the Fortnum & Mason Awards

I’m going to be talking about my book, Empire of Booze, at a few festivals this summer:

Saturday 27th May 6pm – talk at the Greenwich Book Festival in conjunction with Meantime Brewery (which means free beer!) Tickets from £5

Saturday 6th June 6pm (time TBC) – talk at Stoke Newington Literary Festival with beer legend Pete Brown. This is a bit of last minute thing so it’s not up on their site yet. Will update when I know more.

27-30th July – Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall. I’ll be giving a talk at some point during the festival. Not sure when yet. Should be fun.

Finally on Thursday night I won Best Debut Drink Book at the Fortnum & Mason Awards. Here’s a picture of me with Claudia Winkleman and Ewan Venters (I’m the one in the middle with an peculiarly long head.)

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After the sherry boom

Do you remember when sherry was the in thing? First some seriously good tapas bars opened like Barrafina and Fino in London, and Oloroso (the names are a bit of a giveaway) in Edinburgh. Then there were new things happening in the category with rare bottlings from Equipo Navazos, unfiltered en rama finos and the launch of the Great Sherry Tasting in London in 2011. Suddenly you couldn’t move for sherry in the lifestyle pages.

Ten years since Barrafina opened is a time as any to look at how sherry is doing after the PR boom. In 2005 22 million bottles sold were sold in Britain. By 2015 it was 10 million sold. Britain, probably for the first time since 1790, is no longer the world’s biggest market for sherry. It appears that the much-hyped sherry revival was only taking place in a few bars in big cities. For a proper recovery it needs to get out of the tapas ghetto.

One person who is trying to do just that is Helen Highley who started a specialist importing business, Sherry Boutique, 18 months ago. She pointed out that at customer tastings she puts on “sherry has still got an image problem. People tell us that they used to drink this with granny at Christmas and it is quite hard to get them to try it again.” Marcin Schilling, London Business Development Manager for Gonzalez Byass, begged me not to mention the G word in this article but it does point to a truth, sherry’s traditional drinkers are dying out and not being replaced fast enough.

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Don’t mention the g word

It’s not just the geriatric image that puts people off. Robert Boutflower, Private Sales Director for Tanners in Shrewsbury, told me that for young drinkers sherry has “the wrong flavour. It’s not fresh and fruity. It’s about as far from pinot grigio as you can get.” Sherry needs explaining to potential customers. Kiki Evans from Grape Night In, a pop up wine company based in Tooting, told me “we’re on a mission to encourage more people to enjoy the nectar of sherry.”

It tends to be the sweeter styles that newcomers like best. “What they drank with granny they still enjoy” Helen Highley said. But Marcin Schilling tells me that it is not so clear cut: “half will go for sweeter styles, half will go for drier styles.” Everyone I spoke to agrees that the easiest style to sell is  super sweet Pedro Ximinez though this is largely a Christmas purchase.

The more challenging styles go best with food. “They (En Rama sherries) are wines rather than sherries, freshness, purity and steeliness lend them to certain foods” Alistair Viner from Hedonism wines in Mayfair told me. Doug Wregg from importer Cave de Pyrene is also a restaurateur with wine bars in London: “once you taste an amontillado with some hard cheese, the wines begin to make sense” he said. High end restaurants seem to get sherry: at Le Gavroche they serve their cheese souffle with Palo Cortado Apostoles.

The trick is to get sherry listed alongside the table wines not alongside aperitifs, digestifs or spirits. Doug Wregg said: “it is important that customers understand that these are wines.” He went on to state the importance of “training, training, training until staff feel comfortable talking about the properties of different sherries. ” The key is “to have a very good sommelier” according to Robert Boutflower.  And serve the sherry in decent size glasses, cool or cold for fino.

Gonzalez Byass in particular are very active in spreading the word. They run the Tio Pepe challenge to encourage barmen to make sherry-based cocktails. “Demand for sherry in cocktails seems to keep increasing” Keivan Nemati, bar manager at the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell told me. He makes a special Cobbler using Hidalgo sherry.

All of the activity is now taking place at the premium end of the market. According to IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record) premium sherry sales have doubled between 2011 and 2015. “We sell a lot of top end sherry” Alistair Viner from Hedonism told me. Tanners have also done well with specialist sherry but Robert Boutflower told me that it’s based on a small number of loyal customers: “before I send out an offer. I can almost tell you the names of people who are going to buy it.”

“They are the most undervalued drinks on the market. Look at price for age of liquid you are getting a bargain” Alistair Viner said. Barbadillo have been more ambitious by releasing their Versos sherry last year at £8,000 a bottle. “We are still to sell one” Alistair Viner told me “the price is higher than it should be. Versos is trying to appeal to scotch and cognac market.” Boutflower is sceptical of this targeting of spirits aficionados: “whisky has a progression from beginners to collectors. With sherry there are not enough people coming in at the bottom.”

He went on to say: “our customers are two lots of people – people who have bought it for a very long time and a very small number of bright young things.” Helen Highley from Boutique Sherry also worries that sherry is polarised between the old customers and the tiny hipster market: “we don’t want it to be too cool for school. We want it to be mainstream.”

Marcin Schilling is confident that sherry can make new converts: “younger drinkers like to try new things.“ “We are now so much more interested in diversity in wine than we were ten years ago” Helen Highley agreed. Today’s consumers, however, are not loyal like the proverbial sherry-swilling grandma. Adventurous wine drinkers might buy Greek wines, natural wines from the Loire, or Vin Jaune instead of sherry.

It looks likely that sherry sales by volume still have much further to fall. But Robert Boutflower is convinced that sherry isn’t going to die out: “it will always be around because Spanish swear by it and back it up with sales. It will become a specialist drink like sake.” Getting and keeping new customers is an extraordinary amount of work compared with say selling malbec or prosecco but there is something about sherry that captures certain people’s imagination and turns them into evangelists. It may never be mainstream again but if producers can keep building the premium market then perhaps in a few years we can talk about sherry without mentioning the G word.

This article originally appeared in Harper’s Wines and Spirits

 

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