Back to all articles
  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
7 Jun 2008

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

Do you remember one of the prime reasons that sherry died a death? In the 1960s sherry was so commonplace in Britain that it featured in the cost of living index and in the 1970s Jerez was one of the most dynamic centres of the world's wine trade. But sherry's fortunes declined sharply in the 1980s as table wine systematically took its place. This was not just because the watchword was dry and so much sherry was sweet. It was because sherry was perceived as being inconveniently strong.

In the 21st century, this seems rather odd. Many wines made today in places such as California and Australia, indeed many wines made in Spain itself well north of Jerez, are more than 15% alcohol, the strength at which so much sherry is sold at today. And the real irony is that sherry at its most wine-like - pale, bone dry Fino and Manzanilla - is only as strong as 15% because of the rigidity of EU wine laws.

Although sherry comes in many different strengths, sweetnesses and styles, the sherry producers know that Fino and Manzanilla are the styles most likely to rescue them from the doldrums. Like all sherry, they are made from Palomino Fino grapes grown on the rolling, chalky hills that surround the sherry towns of Jerez and Puerto (where Fino is aged) and the whitewashed fishing port of Sanlucar de Barrameda (where Manzanilla is aged, supposedly taking on a particularly marine tang).

The young wine is fortified by adding neutral spirit to just the right alcoholic strength - 14.8 to 15.2% ideally - to encourage the famously dough-like flor yeast to form a protective layer all over the surface of a Fino or Manzanilla in a partly filled barrel, or butt. This particular yeast is a local speciality (known hardly anywhere else in the world) that protects the sherry from oxygen and harmful bacteria, keeps it delicate and makes it one of the freshest, tangiest wines in the world. In the bodegas where these sherries have traditionally been aged, in a series of up to a dozen stages involving fractional blending called a solera, doors and windows facing west are kept open so that damp air blowing in off the Atlantic will keep the flor layer usefully thick. (Climate change is affecting the incidence and behaviour of flor, however, and the most modern bodegas control temperature and humidity.)

One of the marvels of sherry country's atmospheric high-ceilinged, dirt-floored bodegas, or 'cathedrals', with their stacks of blackened, mouldy, often cobwebbed barrels, is the contrast between the container and the delicacy of what it contains.

While Fino and Manzanilla are ageing, the flor consumes not just copious amounts of oxygen but also alcohol so that the natural strength of a Fino or Manzanilla straight from the cask could easily be only 14% - exactly the same as so many unfortified wines nowadays.

The problem is that the EU has a regulation that says that all 'liqueur wines', one of those bits of Brusselian jargon that applies to sherry, port and so on, have to be at least 15% alcohol. So the sherry producers have to add more neutral spirit to bring the strength of their wonderfully resonant, bone dry, nervy sherries up to 15% - which strength, ridiculously, means that bottles shipped to the US have to be labelled "dessert wine" to comply with American labelling regulations. This late, second fortification used to be necessary to ward off unwelcome bacteria but nowadays, with hugely improved winemaking, most Fino and Manzanilla would be perfectly healthy and stable at 14% or possibly even lower. But until the Spanish government has successfully petitioned the EU regulators, alcohol will continue to be added superfluously.

The EU is not viewed with much affection by the sherry industry. The late 20th century sherry boom was a major factor in helping Spain out of its economic gloom and sherry shippers were rewarded with tax rebates aplenty - helping the old Rumasa empire, built on sherry, to swell to include banks and hotels. As I was told last month at the regulatory body in Jerez on my first visit there after a shamefully long time, "we were swimming in money then. EU entry [in 1986] was a complete disaster for sherry. All the subsidies stopped." The sherry industry is still trying to recover from the double whammy of the withdrawal of economic support and changes in consumer taste.

One man who believes passionately that sherry's fortunes depend on reasserting itself as one of the finest wines in the world is a complete outsider. Jesús Barquín is a respected criminologist at the university of Granada but in his spare time this affable 41 year-old is the best ambassador the sherry region could have. "I am opening doors and hoping other people will follow me through them," he told me when explaining the Equipo Navazos sherry bottling company he has formed with fellow sherry lovers, including Eduardo Ojeda of the Estévez group, one of several groupings of bodegas into which much of the sherry business seems to be coagulating at the moment.

Together they spend long days touring the region's most quality-conscious bodegas, tasting every single barrel while patient cellarmasters draw sample after sample with their long-stemmed venencias (they are much more interested in the cellarmaster, or capataz, who knows the history of every butt, than the owner), selecting individual superior butts for bottling under their carefully numbered labels 'La Bota de...' (the cask of...). The business began with them simply sharing tiny quantities of top quality sherry with friends but the secret is now out and both Vinites in London and Eric Solomon in the US import small quantities of their irreproachable sherries. "We are not doing this to make money," Barquín says. "Our main motivation is to find a good response".

Over two solid days of patrolling soleras and sharing some great Andalucian food with Barquín, I learnt to discard many of the current myths surrounding sherry consumption. It is a popular misconception, apparently, that these light, dry styles of sherry must be drunk as soon as possible after bottling (many of them have a bottling date on the label nowadays). Barquín, an assured wine writer and a cosmopolitan wine taster who hauls his family around the world sharing great wines with top winemakers, is convinced that in fact these wines are at their worst two months after bottling and at their best between about four and eight months afterwards. He also dispenses with the convenient belief that the contents of a bottle of Fino or Manzanilla deteriorate immediately on opening. He believes that a light, dry sherry actually improves over two weeks in an opened bottle, kept in the fridge of course, for these are wines to enjoy cool.

An old Amontillado, dry but dark and nutty, actually improves in an opened bottle over a much longer period, he insists, and his cellar is full of bottles of sherry which he is carefully ageing. Many textbooks, possibly some of mine, claim that sherry is ready to drink when bottled, but I know of no-one with more experience and love of fine sherry than he, so I defer to his superior knowledge.

In Britain we thought we were sophisticated by weaning sherry drinkers off tiny thimble-sized glassed on to the tulip shape called the copita in Andalucia but when Jesús and Eduardo serve their careful selections, they treat them like any other fine wine: decanting them (do not fear deposit) and serving them in the finest large burgundy glasses.

We have much to learn, and even more to unlearn, about sherry.

See my specific recommendations.