A Sherry Renaissance?

The following was originally intended to be a magazine piece, which alas found no home.

On 1st December last year BBC Radio was in the unique position of having to cancel a feature on Sherry as it coincided with a program on the very same subject due to be aired on the same day.

Whether or not this is anything more than cosmic coincidence is something on which I would not like to speculate. However, the implication of a “renaissance in Sherry drinking” that more rash speculators might infer from such an event was indeed the exact topic of conversation on the remaining article broadcast on Women’s Hour that day. Sarah Abbott MW and Alvaro Marcos García (wine buyer for Home House), discussed with host Jane Garvey how Andalucía’s most noble beverage is becoming “increasingly the tipple of choice for the positively fashionable”. The drawer of the short straw was a feature to involve Richard Bigg discussing the opening of the UK’s first dedicated Sherry bar in the form of North London’s Bar Pepito.

The fact that the first is set to be rivalled by a second, a José Pizarro venture (London again) coupled with the expansion of choice of Sherry available on the high-street would seem indicative of a more diverse – if not necessarily greater – public demand.

So, anecdotally at least, the prospects for Sherry in the UK could not seem to be better. In my own shop we have all noticed how fewer and fewer people are suspicious when we recommend them Sherries as table wines and how more and more are actually coming in to buy them of their own volition. I’m even sure it will be only a matter of time before articles like this will be written without any reference either to Granny or trifles.

Anyway, whilst taking a welcome break from my walking holiday in the Andalucian hills I had the chance to discuss these things and more with Jan Peterson of Bodegas Fernando de Castilla.

Jan originally moved to Spain from his native Norway as a young undergraduate and after various incarnations, including a stint as a Red Bull salesman, now finds himself running a small but highly reputed Bodegas in the heart of old Jerez. His wines are sold mainly to the on-trade and small independent retailers in the UK.

On meeting, after mutual declarations of adoration to our favourite tipple (in which Jan admitted, like most of us, to have positively disliked his first taste of Sherry) we got down to the more sober matter of sales and markets. Jan kicked things off by joyfully announcing that now was the first time in history that Spain can be considered the largest consumer of Sherry

One of the first things he told me was that now is the first time in history that Spain may be considered is the biggest consumer of Sherry in the world, recently overtaking the UK in both sales and volume. He explained that this can only partly be attributed to an increase of consumption within Spain but the primary factor is the decrease of sales in the major export markets of the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.

So what then of this Sherry Renaissance we have all been so much hearing about? Well, my host went on to state that even though last year net sales in the UK dropped by a massive 19% the sale of “quality” Sherries (Fino, Manzanilla, dry Amontillado, Palo Cortado, PX etc.) are actually going up. As for those wines made exclusively for export (Pale Creams, Mediums and so on) Jan described as literally a “dying market”. Or as Sarah Abbott on Women’s Hour tactfully phrased it – that particular demographic is hastening to the “great Sherry tasting in the sky”. For Jan, younger people are the most receptive to the cause of Sherry: “their parents didn’t drink sherry but their grandparents did. It is people whose parents drank sherry that are more difficult…”

Now, rather than representing a warped alternative reality where all Sherry is sweet and drank almost exclusively at Christmas, the UK market is beginning more and more to resemble the Spanish one. “The big difference between the Sherry market in Spain and those in other countries”, Jan continued “is that in Spain Sherry has always been consumed with food. That’s why you will not see in Spain the types of Sherry that are predominant in Europe and North America.”

Yet as the UK consumer, arguably, continues to cultivate a more sophisticated relationship with food and drink, coupled with a renewed interest in the physical origin of foodstuffs, unique cuisine oriented wines such as Sherry can but benefit. One thing, however, that looks set to remain starkly different from Spain is the dominance of the supermarket own brands, which Jan asserts represent around 70% of UK Sherry sales. This provides the opportunity for lucrative deals and much welcome investment for the larger houses but is potentially a barrier for the smaller ones to secure a foothold on the British market.

The relatively inexpensive shelf price of Sherry makes it an easily accessible product to most consumers, although as you might expect the producers are somewhat more ambivalent on this point. I think it would be safe to say that the general consensus of opinion is that since Sherry has become such a low-cost commodity that most people have gotten out of the habit of considering it as a serious wine; one to be evaluated and appraised in the same way in which a Bordeaux or Rioja would be as a matter of course. On a visit to Javier Hidalgo of Bodegas Hidalgo he, however, stressed how Sherry is quite singular in terms of the gap between its high repute within the industry and the more lowly status awarded to it by the public at large.

I chatted to Jan about an old 1989 price list from Fortnum and Mason’s wine shop I had recently had chance to flick through. A 1982 magnum of Mouton Rothschild, for instance, at that time was selling for £200 a bottle, while a bottle of Fino was going for a reasonably respectable £6.95. Today I’m sure you might be able to put a couple of zeros on the tag of the Mouton, whereas you would be hard pressed to put more than a couple of pounds on the price of the Sherry. Jan, although mildly amused, was by no means surprised, trumping my anecdote with the recounting of a price list from the 1870s in which some of the more expensive Sherries from Duff Gordon were selling in bulk at more than £1 per litre – “…and there are Sherries selling today at £1 per litre as well. I say to my friends at González Byass, why are you selling Tio Pepe so cheap? It is a good wine and it should be sold at least three times the price. They are the leaders in the market, and when they don’t up their prices, it’s very difficult for someone else to do it.”

The Bodegas do, nevertheless, have one distinct advantage over most other winemakers – as the style of the final product is so heavily determined by winemaking practice (the difference between a base wine that goes to make Fino and one that goes for Oloroso is extremely marginal) they can respond to changing consumer demands far more quickly than the producer who has to grub up their Sauvignon Blanc, plant something else, then wait several years before even thinking about first vintage by which time everybody has decided they were right the first time round.

In a sense they have come to realize that they are actually no longer selling Sherry; this is quite clearly no longer what the public wants to buy. Instead they are selling Fino and Manzanilla; Palo Cortado and Amontillado; Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez. “On my bottles” gestures Jan “you need to look very closely to find the world Sherry. It is there but you need a magnifying glass. If I put the word Sherry on the label in big letters I’m sure it would sell much less.” Sherry despite its recent change in image remains to an extent enslaved to its past. It cannot retain the same positive connotations that these “new” and exotic words so readily soak up. Like the ex-convict Jean Valjean it must use aliases to go peacefully about its business, waiting until one day when all is forgiven and its can pronounce its name without fear of surprise or reproach.

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