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.
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