Why oh why don't people drink Spain's unique gift to the wine world? A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. For tasting notes on these wines, see Gems of Andalucía ignored.
A wine that is well over 10 years old, is absolutely delicious, many-layered, dry, nutty and persistent, and retails in the UK for about £10* surely flies off the shelves? It would if it carried any name other than sherry.
I'm not usually a fan of UK supermarkets' own-label wines with their self-regarding brand names such as Finest, The Best, Exquisite Collection, Irresistible and Taste the Difference. But their own-label sherries have for some time now represented en masse the best-value wines available in Britain today. Overstocked producers have been beaten down on price. And yet, such is modern British opprobrium, or simply indifference, towards sherry that the category has been virtually shrivelling on the vine. Even Waitrose (whose Jerezana Oloroso is described above) and The Wine Society, each of which put more effort into their sherry purchases than any UK retailer I can think of, have been selling less and less sherry.
And the story is no better at small independent wine shops where bottles can be hand sold. Tom Fedrick-Illsley of the Theatre of Wine stores around London admits ruefully that most of the sherry they sell is to staff. While the rest of the wine world has been experiencing steady and sometimes exponential growth, sherry, once the Brits' favourite wine, has become an insider's secret. And this despite the proliferation of tapas bars from Plymouth to Aberdeen. (I rang the Aberdeen branch of the five-strong Cafe Andaluz chain of tapas bars to ask whether they served sherry. 'What?', said a clearly puzzled waitress, before going off to find out. Yes. 'Three sorts.')
Demand for it within Spain remains fairly steady – if not exactly national. (I have had difficulty ordering sherry in Barcelona.) More than half of all sherry drunk in Spain is the lightest, palest, driest sort, Manzanilla – typically at one of the many ferias throughout Andalucia in the far south of the country, particularly in the sherry towns of Jerez, Sanlúcar and El Puerto de Santa María. Like Fino, this is the sort of sherry that makes a great, appetising aperitif or can happily be substituted for white wine at the table, being just 15% alcohol, hardly more than many a table wine – and not remotely stale, oxidised or flat. In fact sherry is such a good match for a wide range of foods that we once chose to drink nothing but a succession of sherries at one of elBulli's notorious multi-course meals.
But it is in sherry's major traditional export markets, the Netherlands and the UK, where the sherry tide is most obviously going out, and the Jerezanos seem content to sit on the beach watching it. The sherry industry as a whole is paying the price for the Rumasa era of the 1970s and 1980s when short-lived export subsidies encouraged the (over)production of massive volumes of cheap wine.
Two of the most august names, Harvey and Garvey, are now in the hands of Asian businessmen who have bought them mainly for their brandy assets. The shrivelling number of brand owners have over the years dreamt up ruses such as flavoured sherries, sherry cocktails and the like but nothing seems able to shore up the volume of sherry exported.
More than 80% of the sherry shipped to the UK is Cream, Pale Cream or described ominously as Medium. For those of us who love dry sherry – either pale Fino and Manzanilla or the rather darker and stronger Amontillado, Palo Cortado and dry Oloroso – it is tempting to believe that Britain's increasingly sophisticated wine drinkers might be moving from sweet to dry sherry. But in fact exports of Fino and Manzanilla to the UK have been declining even more rapidly than those of sweet sherry. Demand for the darker dry sherries seems healthier, but they constitute less than 3% of all the sherry shipped to the UK. The only consolation for producers is presumably that, with the exception of those ridiculously cheap supermarket own-label bottlings apparently ignored by the British consumer, these dark, dry sherries are sold at relatively high prices.
These are the sorts of wines that the most exciting sherry producers tend to specialise in. Those (few?) of us who consider ourselves sherry aficionados have been thrilled by the special single-cask bottlings of Equipo Navazos, those of individual almacenistas (small-scale sherry stockholders) initiated by Emilio Lustau, and the relatively recent establishment of quality-minded bodegas such as Tradición and Fernando de Castilla, to name some of the more obvious sources of top-quality wines.
But we are also frustrated by what can seem from the outside to be almost wilful self-destruction, or at least Andalucian lassitude. From where I sit there seems to be little generic promotion of sherry. The Consejo Regulador, the governing body in Jerez, holds an annual sherry and food matching competition, but in Jerez, so it doesn't make too many new converts.
Godfrey Spence, a wine educator specialising in fortified wines, told me how frustrating it was trying to prise sherries, unobtainable in France of course, out of the Consejo for a weekend class he was teaching in Mâcon. He had to submit his shopping list of wines multiple times. His eventual request for a tracking number went unanswered. The bottles did eventually arrive. On the Monday.
More promising, potentially, is the massive showcase of fortified wines held every year in London, so unusually comprehensive that professionals fly in from all over Europe for it. This year, of 52 exhibitors, only 12 were sherry producers. When I asked Peter Dauthieu of Williams & Humbert, producers of some very fine sherries and once one of the major exhibitors, why he gave the Big Fortified Tasting a miss this year, he said 'my feeling is that it's more a port-minded event now, when before it was very much even. I also felt the date this year was again not best, smack in the middle of Easter.' The BFT was held, in Church House overlooked by a proudly intact Westminster Abbey, the day after the Notre Dame fire on the Monday of Holy Week.
My feeling, after having tasted so many magnificent sherries at the BFT, all of them belonging to what is Spain's most distinctive category of wine by far, is that not just consumers but winemakers from all over the world should fly in to London to take advantage of the extraordinary diversity of styles, ages and sweetness levels on show there.
The only possible benefit from the sluggish sales of sherry, I suppose, is that the wine sitting in the tall bodegas, some of them so atmospherically cooled by Atlantic breezes that they are called cathedrals, must be getting older and more precious. Perhaps eventually there will be a new generation that truly appreciates how uniquely wonderful these wines are.
Buy the freshest, most youthful bottling of Fino and Manzanilla possible and keep it in the fridge. Serve all sherry in a regular wine glass. Wines are listed in ascending price order per centilitre.
Barbadillo, Pastora Manzanilla En Rama Pasada
From £5.83 for 37.5 cl Cambridge Wine Merchants and others
Emilio Lustau, Puerto Fino Solera Familiar
£15.35 for 75 cl Berry Bros & Rudd
Hidalgo, La Gitana Manzanilla En Rama
From £15.95 for 75 cl Tanners and many others
Argüeso Manzanilla San León
£9.85 for 37.5 cl Amathus Drinks
Yuste, Aurora Manzanilla
£15.99 for 50 cl Dorset Wine Co
González Byass, Tio Pepe Dos Palmas Fino
£17.99 for 50 cl Laithwaite's
Argüeso 1822 Palo Cortado
£20.50 for 50 cl Amathus Drinks
Fernando de Castilla, Antique Fino
From £21.50 for 50 cl from many outlets
Emilio Lustau, Palo Cortado, Almacenista Cayetano del Pino
£26.55 for 50 cl Berry Bros & Rudd
Fernando de Castilla, Antique Palo Cortado
From £32.95 for 50 cl from many outlets
Bodegas Tradición, Palo Cortado 30 year-old
£107 for 75 cl Hedonism
For tasting notes on these wines, see Gems of Andalucía ignored.
* I refer to this glorious wine, £9.99 reduced to £8.99 in May 2017 and now priced at £11.99 by Waitrose – still a steal.