Twelve years ago when I would ask for a sherry in a bar, I would be greeted with a suspicious look as if I was taking the mick and then, realising I was in earnest, the barman would reach for a dusty bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream. He would pour a warm stale drop. It tasted disgusting and always such a small glass. In the late 90s nobody drank sherry except maiden aunts, vicars and a few people in the wine business. It was like belonging to a secret club which was just how I liked it. Now if you go to that same bar it might well have an extensive menu of sherries ranging from light, gluggable mazanillas to a super sweet Pedro Ximenez. One can go to specialist sherry bars such as El Pepito in King’s Cross, a note perfect rendition of an Andalucian tapas bar complete with excellent ham (though sadly with London prices.) In September I attended the largest sherry tasting ever put on in Britain with over 150 wines. It was packed not only with long-nosed wine bores like myself but also with trendy youngsters with fixed-gear bicycles and moustaches. The wines were, almost without exception, exquisite. The VORS, very rare old sherry, category is attracting collectors rather as old bottlings of single malt whisky do. Companies have sprung up such as Equipo Navajos who don’t make any wine, they just bottle rare sherries that they find in other people’s cellars. They taste a bit like single malts too: medicinal, tangy, uncompromising. Actually that should be the other way round, whisky tastes of sherry as it is aged in barrels that contained sherry.
From London it looks like sherry is in rude health but news hasn’t reached the sherry towns of Jerez, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria which have an air of faded glory and, in some areas, outright dilapidation. Sherry used to be big business, like the wool trade in Bradford or cars in Detroit. It was big business in Britain too. Some of the biggest names in Jerez have British names, Williams & Humbert, Harveys, Osborne and Gonzalez-BYASS. Sherry used to sell by the barrel to every bar, pub, restaurant, hotel, club and large house in the world. A few thousand people in London drinking a glass of fino a week and then writing a blog about it will not bring back the glory days. In April 2011 the Tio Pepe neon sign was taken down in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to make way for an Apple store. This advert had been in place since 1936 and was as much part of the Madrid skyline as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Though Gonzalez-Byass, makers of Tio Pepe, say that it will find a new home for the famous sign, one can’t help thinking its removal is an ill omen. It’s as if the ravens have flown the Tower of London.
Sherry missed out on the wine boom of the last 25 years. It doesn’t appeal to the modern drinker brought up on Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc nor does it have the status to appeal to the newly rich in China and India. Yet it’s expensive to make and the wine cannot be sold straight after vintage. Producing good sherry relies on holding large stocks of maturing wine, as in most cases sherry is a blend of different vintages. The idea is to have a consistent product made to a house style, again there are similarities with whisky.
Most the famous names are now owned by conglomerates for whom sherry is a prestigious but small part of their business. Having a sherry bodega is like owning a racehorse, a labour of love rather than a profitable business. Any money to be made is either at the bottom end turning out supermarket own label wines – incidentally some of them are excellent* – or at the top end selling rare bottling for £30 a go. The middle ground has gone. And there is no room for the small player either. Bodegas are going broke every year and are swallowed up by the big boys. Or they’re selling off their priceless old wines in a desperate bid to stay afloat. The growth in rare bottling is a warning sign. Most bodegas would prefer to keep rare old wines to add complexity to their brands.
So what’s the answer? Drink more sherry obviously and remember that 30 years ago Scotch whisky was in crisis with distilleries closing every year. What saved Scotch was canny marketing of the big brands in emerging markets and the growth of single malts at home, the US and Japan. Sherry could learn something from this. The quality is there and the interest is increasing. It may never rule the world again but it might once again make good business sense.
A longer version of this article appeared in Sunseeker Magazine.
*I’m currently drinking Waitrose Jerezano Dry Amontillado made by Lustau which offers absurd quality for £8.99
Click here for some more sherry recommendations.