‘Please don’t mention the G word!’ someone from one of the big sherry companies pleaded with me when I told him I was writing something on the British and sherry. People in the trade get very cross when you link the words granny and sherry together but to people of my generation they go together like Morecambe and Wise. Sherry was once a staple like milk or bread, nearly every household in the country would have had a bottle, but the customers are dying off and not being replaced. Sweet strong brown sherry was a wine for a pre central-heating age.
In 2015, for the first time since about 1790, Britain lost its crown as the world’s biggest market for sherry to Spain. The sherry the Spanish drink is quite different from granny sherry: it’s usually a bone dry white wine which is aged under flor, a layer of yeast, that gives it a delicious bready sort of quality.
Not that the market in Spain is up to much either. I was on holiday earlier this year in one of the sherry towns, Sanlucar de Barrameda. At a tapas bar, Casa Bigote, I was the only one drinking sherry. Everyone else was drinking beer. The crazy thing is that they were both the same price, €1.20 (yes €1.20!) a glass, but one is a product that can be sold almost straight after brewing, the other requires ageing for around five years. No wonder the sherry business is in trouble.
I met with Fermin Hidalgo whose family make Manzanilla La Gitana. Despite being one of the world’s bestselling sherries, they almost went under in 2014. Family members had to put money in to save the business. Fermin took me around their cathedral of sherry in downtown Sanlucar with butts of wine stacked to the ceiling. The family want to push sales towards their more expensive wines like the gorgeous 40-year-old Wellington Palo Cortado that I tried straight out of the barrel (Hidalgo also make Napoleon Amontillado, a reminder that the family hedged their bets during the Peninsula war.)
But they are also branching out with a table wine that has something of the character of sherry but without the added alcohol and the need for long ageing. According to winemaker and historian Romero Ibáñez, the traditional style was unfortified. The strength came from drying the grapes in the sun. Adding brandy only became routine in the 1970s when sherry production was industrialised. He makes superbly individual wines in tiny quantities using rare grape varieties with no added alcohol and from a single vintage (most sherry is a blend of years.) Another producer in the region, Luis Perez, makes highly-regarded red wines. Again this is a revival, from the 16th to the 18th century reds known as tent, a corruption of tinto, were exported to England. Ibáñez thinks the future of the region are young unfortified wines with classic aged sherry as a premium product.
Dry sherry is something of an acquired taste to palates reared on Pinot Grigio and Malbec. It does, however, make perfect sense when eaten with a plate of jamón ibérico. The mighty global reputation of Spanish food is sherry’s great hope. Some Spanish restaurants in London are reporting booming sales. Young people are trying sherry who don’t have any prejudices about the wine. Millennials probably associate their grandparents with Oyster Bay rather than Harvey’s Bristol Cream. Sherry may never be a staple again but perhaps we have nearly reached the stage when you’ll be able to say, ‘Sherry?’, to an Englishman and response will be, “Yes please,” rather than the G word.