Assuming you could invest in a stock that represented the sherry-making business, would it be a good idea? Looking back over the last hundred years there is little doubt that it would have paid off handsomely, and if that period were refined down to the last half of the last century, better still.
Those were the golden years of Jerez de la Frontera and of all the great sherry families whose names still chime with the older generation: Domecq, Gonzalez, Williams, Gordon, Terry, Humbert, etc. How things have changed. A small handful of these families still own sherry bodegas, but the majority have passed into the hands of multinationals or national conglomerates.
The grape harvest, once a jolly affair with hundreds of locals working in the vineyards and partying every evening, is now more often done by machine. Some things have not changed. With few exceptions the same brands and variety of wines persists, and prices remain as modest as ever. Or do they? Most sherry historians agree that the error that condemned the sherry region to sell its wine for give-away prices was the export boom to countries of northern Europe, where it was, frankly, consumed as cheap alcohol.
It is still possible to buy a bottle of fino sherry or manzanilla (the neighbouring town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda’s equivalent) for a few euros. Indeed a bottle of very mediocre young Rioja costs more than a fino that has been matured for at least two years in wood. Modern sherry is divided into three main classifications: fino, manzanilla, amontillado and oloroso; also palo cortado, a notch above the rest; and then the sweet wines made from the Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes.Four years ago I wrote, “Quite simply people no longer want to drink sherry. When did you last see anyone under 50 order a copita of sherry in a bar? Young people do not want to know about sherry, whether it be dry fino, salty manzanilla or lip-smacking oloroso. The trade has tried reinventing sherry in various ways but without success.”
Now I take back those words. Faced with total obliteration if it did nothing, the sherry-makers have finally begun to do what I suggested (no credit to me though). While sales of sherry continue to decline, all is not lost. The cheaper commercial wines, often sold in northern European supermarkets under their own labels, are in steep decline, while sales of the genuine natural old wines are growing. This increase is due to a large number of factors: international chefs and sommeliers have discovered how versatile sherry is with food, and the age statement is in fashion: 12 and 15 year-old wines matured in butts, and “en rama” wines, those bottled straight from the barrel.
The recent film “El Misterio del Palo Cortado” has also put sherry back on the consumers’ map. It is most unlikely that sherry will ever recapture the sales volumes of its heyday, and an increase in the number of producers is equally unlikely, but the independent bottlers and smaller bodegas are making huge efforts to revitalise the marketplace. Thankfully, a new generation of aficionados is seeking out the rarer and more interesting wines and is prepared to pay a fair price for their outstanding quality.One of Jerez’s oldest houses, Diez Merito (1876) – whose wines sell under the Bertola label – has realised where the future lies if it is to succeed, and produces a range of sherries (and brandies) that top out with 30-year-old amontillados and olorosos at prices of €75, and there are delicious finos and amontillados at around €7.
All are outstanding examples of the sherry-maker’s art, and always feature at the top in wine-tasting competitions.Bodegas Yuste (1920) in Sanlúcar has a justified reputation for producing some of the best brands of the region, and its La Kika manzanilla is always winning prizes. Jerez’s Bodegas Faustino González is unusual in that its range of superlative wines is all “en rama” (bottled direct from the wooden butt), but the prices are even more amazing, running from €10 up to under €30 for the premium Palo Cortado. These three are not the only bodegas that appear to have understood what is needed to bring drinkers back into the sherry fold.
The Navascues group makes a point of searching old cellars to find butts of ancient sherry that have been forgotten, bottling them and watching them being snapped up almost immediately. Hardly surprising when you appreciate that these wines are unique, are hundreds of years old, and will never be produced again in our lifetimes. For those who have never been keen on sherry generally, think twice and try some of the amazing varieties that are available these days. You will be pleasantly surprised. And if you stopped drinking the stuff perhaps because it was getting boring – as indeed it may have been – the “new” sherries offer more variety than a whole region’s worth of red or white table wine.