Freelance Spain
The Sherry Biz

THE WINES OF SPAIN -THE FOOD OF SPAIN - MORE INSIGHTS ON SPAIN  

At one time, Sherry was a wine legend. But can it seduce today's drinker? By Mark Little

Different types of Sherry"When you drink a glass of Sherry, you’re not just drinking a wine, you’re drinking a bit of history," says Jesús Flores, President of the Spanish Sommeliers’ Association in Madrid. "Sherry is to taken slowly, enjoying it one slow sip at a time."

Yet Sherry is different things to different people. To the Andalusians of southern Spain, it is the crisp, chilled dry fino or manzanilla enjoyed at fiesta time. To most British and Americans, it is a sweet cream Sherry. To many connoisseurs, the true essence of Sherry is the golden amber color and rich aromas of a dry oloroso or an amontillado... Yes, there are many shades of Sherry, but one thing everybody agrees is that for it to be Sherry, it has to come from the area around Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain. Here, the combination of Palomino grapes, abundant sunshine, damp sea breezes, chalky soil, and the unique criadera and solera method of blending different vintages has given rise to one of the world’s classiest wines.

Sherry is a naturally dry wine, but in the US as in England the most familiar sherries have traditionally been the creams and mediums, which are sweetened with grape must or sugar. In America, where the best-selling brand is Harvey’s Bristol Cream, sweet sherries account for around 75% of sales. That could be changing, however, with the emergence of a savvy new generation of American wine drinkers: young urbanites in the large metropolitan areas, where Sherry is becoming a fashionable drink. In general, they are going to the lighter, drier styles of Sherry: the finos and manzanillas.

THE RISE AND FALL OF SHERRY

Following the end of World War II, exports of Sherry climbed steadily, reaching 725,000 hectoliters (19 million gallons) by 1970. It seemed sales would go nowhere but up, such was the demand, especially in the traditional markets of the United Kingdom, Holland and Germany, and acreage and stocks were increased. In the record year of 1979, 1,660,108 hectoliters (44 million gallons) of Sherry were sold, 90 per cent of that for export. The emphasis was on producing quantity, but the temptation to cut corners was great and as a consequence the quality of the wine suffered. A good indication is that in 1979, just over 63 per cent of Sherry was being shipped in bulk (by contrast, today practically all exported Sherry is bottled).

Jerez became a victim of its own success. The eighties brought a reduced demand as drinkers in the traditional markets turned to "trendier" tipples, while the wineries were left sitting on excess stock which they were forced to sell at bargain prices.
Fortunately the wine makers started to trust their instincts less and to listen more carefully to their professional middle managers. In a long and painful process, the wineries streamlined their operation and thousands of workers were laid off. Vineyard acreage was reduced by half, from 18,000 hectares (45,000 acres) to the present 10,500 hectares (26,000 acres), and the amount of stock in the wineries cut back by half to just over half a million butts, each holding 132 gallons.

Around this time, the big multinational drinks companies started to take an interest in Jerez. They were especially attracted by the potential of Jerez brandy on the world market. The most famous merger was that of Allied Lyons and Domecq, creating Allied Domecq. Some houses such as Osborne refused to sell, while in 1997 Gonzalez Byass bought back the 30 per cent share they’d sold to International Distiller Vintners in 1992, and is now 98 per cent family owned.

While brandy is the big cash generator Sherry is what gives the wineries their historical image, and their efforts are now directed towards promoting their quality Sherry brands.

"Premium" is the buzzword in Jerez these days. At the top of the range are the rare, very old sherries which have been aging in the cellars for decades, and also vintage sherries which, unlike most sherries, are made from a single year’s harvest. Some of these sherries fetch prices in the region of $150 a bottle. That is, if you can get hold of one, for production is limited in most cases to a thousand bottles or less. In the more affordable category, the premium finos, olorosos, and amontillados offer exceptional value for money. They are especially popular among the new generation of drinkers in America, who are seen as the big growth market of the moment.

The US is the forth largest export market for Sherry, but with 700,000 gallons it still lags behind the three top markets, the UK (6 million gallons), Holland (5.8 million gallons) and Germany (3 million gallons). Much of the problem has to do with overcoming Sherry’s old fashioned image. It’s more than a question of placing an ad in The Wine Spectator. The Sherry companies are embarking on ambitious marketing programs which rely heavily on hands-on, one-on-one contacts and tent-revival tactics, with demonstrations, lectures and wine tastings targeted at restaurateurs, specialist shops, wine writers, retailers and the consumers themselves.

Copyright © Mark Little. This is an extract from an article originally published by Wines from Spain News magazine.
Photograph by J D Dallet

See also: 
"El Priorato"
by Sarah Andrews
"Spanisk wine"
by Mark Little
"
The Secret of Sherry"
  by Mark Little

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