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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
1 Oct 2016

A slightly shorter version of this is published by the Financial Times. See tasting notes in London's great sherry tasting and Sherry galore

The recent misfortunes of sherry, arguably the most distinctive wine in the world and one that is produced only and quintessentially in bodegas around the sherry town of Jerez in Andalucia, could be said to have been determined in Deerfield, Illinois. 

This is where the spirits company named after Jim Beam whiskey is based. In 2005 the American company found itself the owner of the two most famous names in sherry, Harveys and Domecq, and, according to most observers of the sherry scene, proceeded to run them into the ground. 

Poor little sherry with its shrinking market was a sort of corporate football, of relative insignificance compared with the lucrative, globally famous spirits brands that were seen as the real prizes in the sharing of the spoils in the boardrooms of the world's biggest drinks companies.

Pedro Domecq is the oldest name in sherry and Domecq the noblest name in a town of sherry aristocrats. For many years the name graced the pages of the Financial Times when the Domecq family sold out to Allied Lyons in 1994 to form Allied Domecq. But in 2005 the French drinks company Pernod Ricard swooped on Allied's most profitable spirits brands, selling off what it didn't want to Diageo and the owners of Jim Beam whiskey, then known as Fortune Brands, subsequently renamed Beam Global and, for the last two years, known as Beam Suntory since Deerfield now has to kowtow to new owners in Tokyo.

So it was that the American whiskey company, almost incidentally, came to wield extraordinary power in the little sherry town. They quickly sold off Cockburn, the port equivalent of the venerable Harveys, but were left with the sherry bodegas, a host of brands, and their stocks, including the all-important soleras that take generations to build up.

Inexplicably, they decided to suppress the name Domecq, selling it off to Pernod Ricard. They also chose to sell off Domecq's most famous brand La Ina, with Gonzalez Byass's Tio Pepe the most loved Fino (light dry sherry) in all of Spain. The current owner of La Ina is Emilio Lustau, who slowly and painstakingly moved the La Ina soleras to their own bodega from Domecq's in the old town of Jerez.

Presumably in Deerfield the real jewel of Jerez was seen as Harveys Bristol Cream, the single best-selling sherry, even if, with its added sweetness and distinct stickiness, Cream is regarded as an irredeemably British invention by Jerezanos, who are much more likely to drink a pale, dry light sherry such as Fino and Manzanilla.

In the early 1970s, thanks to the marketing genius of those then in charge of wine merchants Harveys of Bristol, Harveys Bristol Cream sold a million cases a year in the UK alone, and had a highly profitable international reputation. Until then Harveys hardly owned any sherry vineyards and only one small bodega, but they had contracts to buy and they certainly knew how to sell. The UK wine merchant side of the business was one of the most respected names in wine, the alma mater of global wine luminaries such as Harry Waugh, Michael Broadbent and a host of other early Masters of Wine. This Unilever of wine had one of the first-ever wine museums at the company's offices in central Bristol and also provisioned gentlemen's cellars from smart premises in London's clubland. The replica of a 1647 sherry flask shown below came from the Harveys Wine Museum and is typical of the good taste associated with the brand in the mid to late twentieth century when they commissioned the exalted likes of Edward Ardizzone to illustrate their wine lists. Jane Hunt MW, who used to work for Harveys in the glory days, is seen above trying her hand as a sherry venenciador.  

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Today, Harveys Bristol Cream sales are only about a quarter of what they were at their peak, and all of the energy in the fragile but growing sherry category is in fine, quirky, mainly dry wines. Beam's contribution to the sherry market was to devise a flavoured drink, not even technically a sherry, called Harveys Orange. It is no more.

One sensible thing the Beam team did in Jerez, apart from favouring the historic Domecq premises over Harveys' more industrial site on the outskirts of town, was to put the scion of the Domecq dynasty, Beltran, nephew of the famous José Ignacio Domecq, 'The Nose', in charge of winemaking. Under the stewardship of this grandee, the soleras of old wines acquired when Harveys went on a buying spree while relocating their sherry business from Bristol to Jerez were developed and maintained. We can now buy the absurdly underpriced fruits of this in the relatively new, modestly labelled Harveys VORS range of wines that are more than 30 years old. Apparently it will be some time before stocks of these very fine wines need replenishing and I strongly urge you to take advantage.

It must have been bittersweet work for Beltran Domecq to create these wines, knowing they would be carrying the name of a longstanding rival, not to say upstart (although John Harvey & Sons was founded in 1796), in the world of sherry. In 2012 he was appointed president of sherry's governing body so had to give up his affiliation to any particular producer, but he approves of the latest chapter in the fortunes of Harveys.

Towards the end of last year, with what one imagines was a deep sigh of relief, Beam managed to sell off its sherry interests – yet again to someone whose chief focus is spirits. The current owner of the Domecq bodega in Jerez's beautiful and increasingly valuable old town is Andrew L Tan, Chinese owner of Emperador, the world's biggest-selling brandy. He is based in the Philippines and presumably was most interested in Spain's favourite brandy Fundador, acquired by Harveys along with Terry, one of the two bodegas it bought in 1985.

Today, the old Domecq bodega has been rebranded Bodega Fundador, with the contents of the old Harveys wine museum having been transported there from Bristol. Beltran Domecq is heartened by the fact that Mr Tan has also bought the historic sherry house of Garvey and is currently renovating an old convent in Jerez, presumably a sign of some commitment to the town that last year received 400,000 'oenotourists'.

For the moment, Harveys sherries are currently and somewhat incongruously represented in the UK by the team at Whyte & Mackay, the Scotch whisky business picked up by Mr Tan for £430 million in 2014. At the generic sherry tasting in London last month, Harveys sherries were poured by the Luxury Specialist Manager of The Dalmore distillery.

Sherry needs, and deserves, more interest from genuine wine lovers.

SOME SERIOUSLY SENIOR SHERRY
All in 50-cl bottles, retailing at £20 to £35 apiece. Selfridges, Harrods and Fortnum & Mason are expected to list them soon.

Harveys VORS 30 Year Old Fine Old Amontillado
TheDrinkShop.com, The Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt, Amazon

Harveys VORS 30 Year Old Palo Cortado
Waitrose, TheDrinkShop.com, Amazon

Harveys VORS 30 Year Old Rich Old Oloroso
TheDrinkShop.com, Amazon

Harveys VORS 30 Year Old Pedro Ximénez
Waitrose, TheDrinkShop.com, Bablake Wines, Amazon