Although never officially recognised as such, sherry must be considered Spain’s national wine. It was the first to be exported, and the first to be declared a protected product with its own title of origin. Even before claret was known outside France, sherry had a flourishing export market and was drunk in England before Shakespeare’s time. Foreign merchants started the trade, giving many bodegas their original Anglo-Saxon names (e.g. Williams,
Humbert, Domecq, Garvey, Croft, Sandeman, Osborne, Harvey, Byass). Unless it comes from the enchanted triangle formed by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, this remarkable wine cannot be referred to as sherry. Unlike the young Rueda or Albariño white wines that are riding high currently, sherry’s popularity has been declining over recent times, but there are several good reasons why you should consider becoming an aficionado.
Historically the most under-priced wine in the world, a good dry sherry will today cost around six euros, and you are buying something that has taken many years to produce. There is hardly a top-line sherry bodega that is not now part of a larger national group or a multinational. Of the registered bodegas, only Caballero, Osborne and Barbadillo, together with a handful of the smaller ones, remain family-owned. These three big independents were faster on their feet and, instead of waiting to be taken over, acquired wineries in other Spanish regions to strengthen their core business. A case of eat or be eaten. 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. If it were not for the ferias of Andalucía sherry sales would be in even more trouble.
The traditional feria drink of Jerez, fino, was replaced by Sanlúcar manzanilla two decades ago, possibly because it was slightly less alcoholic, although both are now the same grade. Barbadillo sold half a million bottles of its Solear manzanilla at last year’s Sevilla feria, one-third of the total annual consumption and seven per cent of the annual production of all manzanillas – and that’s just one feria, though admittedly the biggest.
After the grape pressing the fermented must or grape juice decides for itself what it is going to become: Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso or Palo Cortado – a unique characteristic of sherry. Once it has made up its mind it is introduced into the multi-tier solera ageing system, where it will take years to travel (manually, not by gravitation) from the top row of wooden barrels that make up the first stage to the floor-level, ready-for-bottling level. During this period it will have absorbed the characteristics of the solera, meaning it will taste the same as the original wine produced many years previously already in the barrels. Providing only limited amounts are drawn off for bottling, the quality of the solera will remain constant. There is no other wine in the world that is capable of being blended with older wines in order to take on their characteristics. The magic of sherry…
The golden age of sherry was probably the last half of the 20th century, when demand outstripped supply, and if you belonged to a sherry family you did not have to work. There were around 800 Domecq family members in Jerez, for example, of which 180 were employed by the bodega. The rest lived off the dividends that were declared each year. Few people in Europe enjoyed as good a life as the so-called sherry barons, and the vast sums they invested in horses (a Jerez must), fighting bulls, country estates, luxury motor cars and travel has never been calculated.
At that time nearly all sherry bodegas were family businesses, Almost without exception foreigners had founded the important firms such as Domecq, Garvey, Williams & Humbert, Wisdom & Warter, Osborne and Mackenzie. Family ties are still strong, though, in the smaller wineries of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Maybe we can expect a rebirth. Finally it has been acknowledged that sherry was sold too cheap in an effort to satisfy northern European demand for a low-cost alcoholic drink. It is illogical that you can buy a bottle of wine that has needed, ultimately, many decades to bring it to maturity, for a few euros, when even a mediocre young red wine from any Spanish region will cost more. The owners of the remaining bodegas have very sensibly realised that they were underselling their product, so are currently rummaging around in the cobweb-steeped cellars to find butts of wine that have been there for centuries. These old wines are not cheap but, even if they cost 30 euros, how
can any wine aficionado deny that this is price worth paying for a significant chunk of the history of the oldest wine-producing region in Spain?