Sherry: Collision Course

Last week I posted a crash course on sherry. Sherry is a relic, a throwback from an earlier age of winemaking. No-one would set out to make a wine in the way that sherry is made; but it is precisely this process that gives it its unique properties. If you value intensity, complexity and length of flavour in a wine, few can match it. And with food, it works better than any other style. So explore it now – while you still can.

Fortunes are made and lost in sherry. It is big business, but one still dominated by proud individuals and families. The three pillars of Andalusian culture are flamenco, bullfighting and sherry. If his or her strengths don’t lie in the physical realm, the patriotic Andalusian can still stake a claim to greatness through the business of sherry. In the 1950s José María Ruiz-Mateos built his Rumasa business empire on it. At its peak, the group is said to have bought three banks. On a single day.

Today it’s more common to make your money elsewhere, and enter the sherry business afterwards. It’s easier to lose a fortune than to make one these days. As smaller bodegas struggle and fold, they are swallowed up by the bigger players. This doesn’t mean business is good for the larger houses. In order to survive, increasingly they are having to diversify. Whether it’s still white wines and Iberico ham (Barbadillo); stud farms and bottling spirits for other firms (Grupo Estevez); or red wines, brandy and energy drinks (Osborne); it seems like every house has other interests that help keep their sherry operation afloat. Osborne’s sherries now account for a mere 5% of its business.

'Inocente' at the Grupo Estevez stud, named after Valdespino's excellent Fino

The focus of production is polarised: value can be found most readily in two places. At one end is high volume, low margin wines like Fino, Manzanilla or Cream, and supermarket own-label contracts. At the other end is the more expensive, premium VORS sherries (Very Old Rare Sherry – Amontillados, Olorosos, Palo Cortados and Pedro Ximénez with an average age of at least 30 years). The market for these exceptional wines is very small, but the money made per bottle can make it worthwhile. After all, there are increasing numbers of struggling bodegas willing to sell off a barrel of their prestige wines at rock bottom prices to a more solvent neighbour to pay the bills.

An illustrative contrast is between the bottling line at Grupo Estevez (home to the Real Tesoro, Tio Mateo, Valdespino and Spanish market leading Manzanilla La Guita brands) and Bodegas Tradición (Wine & Spirits Magazine Winery of the Year 2011 who specialises in VORS sherries). Bodegas Tradición bottled 15,000 bottles of sherry in 2011; Grupo Estevez has the capacity to bottle 24,000 bottles an hour. Both are doing well.

Bottling line at Bodegas Tradición











Bottling line at Grupo Estevez









More and more small and medium-sized houses are going bust and getting eaten up by their larger neighbours. For us this means that the world of wine becomes smaller, with less variety to explore. The consequences for those employed are far graver. When you visit one of these proud houses, with reputations for excellence, and the people who work there have tears in their eyes, you can’t help but feel for them: “The market has collapsed”. Oversupply is a big problem, and it is driving prices down to levels that are problematic for all but the biggest players, or for those who are in it for prestige rather than profit.

Walking around the three sherry towns of the ‘sherry triangle’ – Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto di Santa Maria and Sanlúcar di Barrameda – they have the faded glory of so many English seaside towns. El Puerto and Sanlúcar are not without their charm, but remind you more of Hastings than Padstow. I asked a director of large sherry house what has kept Sanlúcar’s economy afloat, since sherry’s decline; his answer? “Hashish, probably”. I’m not sure if he was joking. During a visit to another good quality bodega, it was necessary for the guide to turn on the lights and bang on the door to disperse the bats before we entered. We were the only people on site for the duration of our visit. Their wines were excellent. They have gone into administration.

I endured some gentle ribbing during our trip: “The English are pirates. When they couldn’t steal it anymore they came and did it legally.” Some people have long memories. But there’s no denying it; in 1587 Sir Francis Drake mounted a raid on the port of Cadiz and stole ‘2,900 pipes’ of wine (between two and two and a half million bottles). By the late 1700s the English and Spanish had made up, and the British firms of Osborne, Duff Gordon and Garvey were well established – to be joined by a host of other familiar British names that you still see on sherry bottles today (albeit pronounced with a Spanish accent). None of this was mentioned with animosity; quite the opposite in fact: “the history of this wine is a common history” implored one bodega employee, pointing to his maturing barrels “…this is you.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom – at least not for us drinkers. Although this is a terrible time for sherry producers, it is an cold fact that for us there has never been a better time to explore one of the most unusual and rewarding styles of wine on the planet. Total vineyard capacity has reduced by 50% in the past 10 years – the first to be abandoned being the lowest in quality, meaning the quality of fruit is at an all time high. On top of this, ongoing reduction in demand has led to extraordinarily low prices. And just to make it that little bit easier, more and more tapas bars are springing up around the country offering sherry by the glass. In London alone half a dozen or more sherry bars have sprung up over the past few years. And though times are tough for many producers and shippers, there are still a number of them finding ways to spread the message despite limited resources. We’ve never had it so good.

To help our Spanish business partners and to do right by our intrepid ancestors, what is required of the British? To drink more sherry, and introduce it to our friends. Never has a less onerous task deserved a heartier pat on the back. Now is the time to explore this incredible drink.


Some highlights


Barbadillo ‘Solear’ Manzanilla NV
100% Palomino grapes from Jerez, Spain
£6.78 available from Underwood Wine Warehouse

Noticeable yeastiness (brown bread) on the nose after a long 6 years under flor. Medium-bodied, slightly meaty style of Manzanilla. 88 points, good value.

Sanchez Romate Amontillado NV
100% Palomino grapes from Jerez, Spain
£8.95 available from Imbibros

Classic spicy nose, with a touch of burnt corn. Liquorice and roasted nuts on the palate. Long, with a dry, savoury finish. Perhaps just a touch aggressive, but enjoyably punchy. 88 points, good value.

Solera 1842, Oloroso Dulce VOS, NV
100% Palomino grapes from Jerez, Spain
£26.95 available from Lea & Sandeman

A walnutty nose that smells like it’s going to be dry, but then has a hint of sweetness that helps round off the edges. Full-bodied, with tingling acidity and a savoury finish. Very long, and perfectly balanced. 92 points, good value.

Bogegas Tradición, Palo Cortado VORS, NV
100% Palomino grapes from Jerez, Spain
£59.25 available from Raeburn Fine Wines

Soft and fragrant, with aromas of hazelnut, walnut, orange peel, old furniture, leather, dried fruit and caramel; high-toned with a touch of spice. Medium-bodied with a silky texture. Very pure, long and direct. Perfectly balanced, with a rare lightness, delicacy and florality for such an old wine. Profound. 94 points, good value.


Thanks to Bodegas Barbadillo for taking us out for tapas.