It’s the first rule of pessimism that when things are bad they invariably get worse. Just ask Sarah Ferguson or the nine Sherry bodegas who were recently fined E6.7m by Spain’s National Competition Commission. At a time when the region is mired in the mierda, some of the biggest names, including Emilio Lustau, Gonzalez Byass and Williams & Humbert, have been fingered for fixing the price of supermarket own-label Sherry.
The Andalucian authorities and Sherry’s governing body, the Consejo Regulador, have also been implicated in a scandal that has received worldwide coverage, even if some commentators have supported the alleged cartel against the bullying supermarkets. There are even more pressing worries for the Sherry industry. Local unemployment is running at 30%, the cellars are full of stocks of unsold wine and the price of grapes is at an all-time low.
The situation is particularly bad in the UK, traditionally Sherry’s biggest market, where the drink appears to be in slow, but terminal decline thanks to its association with vicars, tweedy academics and sweet, sickly styles labelled as “cream”. In other places, notably Japan and the United States, Sherry is gaining ground as a wine that works brilliantly with a range of dishes.
Sherry has its supporters here, too, most notably my colleague, Heston Blumenthal, who claims that certain compounds in Sherry, known as diketopiperazines (DKPs), accentuate the flavours of foods, such as cheese, mushrooms, meat and fish, that are rich in umami, one of the five basic tastes.
Maybe that’s why Sherry is so popular with wine waiters and restaurateurs. When I went to El Bulli, Spain’s most celebrated eatery, a few years ago, the sommelier recommended three Sherries (out of the seven wines and a beer we drank) to partner our 39 courses. At the Gramercy Tavern in New York, ordering a glass of amontillado Sherry as an aperitif got me upgraded to a better table. Or, as the maître d put it: “Sir, the chef has decided to reprioritise your meal”.
If you’re put off by what can seem like complex labelling (what’s the difference between a manzanilla, a manzanailla pasada and a manzanilla fina?), why not get a copy of the just-published “Manzanilla” by Javier Hidalgo and Christopher Fielden (£14.99, Grub Street), which focuses on the lightest style of Sherry, but talks about the others, too.
Sherry is simpler than you think. It can be divided into two main styles: those that grow a porridge-like layer of yeast, known as “flor”, and those that don’t. The former group includes fino, manzanilla, amontillado and palo cortado; the latter oloroso and pedro ximenez, or px, made from raisin-like grapes. Flor protects fino and manzanilla from oxygen, which is why they are the freshest styles of Sherry, whereas it is allowed to die on nutty, amber-coloured amontillado and palo cortado. Oloroso, on the other hand, is fortified to a higher degree (18% alcohol plus) and deliberately oxidised, making it the richest style. With the exception of px, most Sherry is dry.
Cream, incidentally, is a sweetened-up anomaly aimed at the British market. It’s also a wine that puts a lot of people off Sherry. Unfairly so, because this is the greatest fortified wine of all. If you can get past your prejudices, a world of flavours awaits.
Taste the Difference 12-year-old Dry Amontillado Sherry (£6.86 per 50cl, 19%, Sainsbury’s)
One of the great bargains of the sherry world, this nutty, dry, burnt toffee and ground-coffee scented fortified wine is wonderfully mature and complex.
Tio Pepe Fino, Gonzalez Byass (£6.99, 15%, Waitrose)
A quaffing fino that never lets you down, Tip Pepe is what the Spaniards drink too. Salty, tangy and refreshing, it tastes even better with a plate of almonds.
Emilio Lustau Oloroso (£8.99 per half, 20%, Laithwaites, www.laithwaites.co.uk)
The merchant house (almacenista) firm of Lustau makes some of my favourite sherries. This is savoury, toasty, walnutty and bone dry.
Hidalgo Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana (£9.99 each for two, 15.5%, Majestic)
Hidalgo’s basic Manzanilla (La Gitana) is very good, but this aged example (pasada) is even better with a little more weight and yeasty concentration.
Fernando de Castilla Classic Manzanilla (£11.75, 15%, www.caviste.co.uk; woodwinters.co.uk)
It would be hard to find a better example of the Manzanilla style: salty, briney and refreshing with remarkable length of flavour and intensity.
Williams & Humbert 20 Year Old Don Guido PX (£14.50 per half, 18%, www.theatreofwine.com; £15.99, www.flagshipshipwines.co.uk)
Prunes, figs and raisins in a glass. This is incredibly sweet and sensuous, with masses of palate-coating, sun-ripened concentration.
Originally published in The Times