Fifty Shades of Sherry

Barbadillo ReliquiaSherry can be the colour of coffee stains on a cream carpet, the colour of lemon-curd sandwiches or the colour of lacquered mahogany. It is the diversity of sherry which makes it so appealing, a surfeit of styles with a gradient of colour. You can taste a light and breezy Manzanilla from the Sanlucar coast which has a sea salt crunch or a treacle black Pedro Ximenez like a wedge of your grandma’s Christmas cake.

It is this exciting diversity of style which is driving a renaissance in Sherry popularity today. Once the bottle which languished in your kitchen cupboard, dragged out for formidable old aunts at wedding parties; it is now the drink of choice for savvy Londoners, knowledge of the different styles bringing kudos among your friends. Tapas bars are popping up all over the city and there are many who hope these bars will replace coffee houses as the new ‘ultra-fashionable’ meeting places. There are certain similarities, most notably in the diversity of coffee styles: mocha, espresso, cappuccino, frappuccino! London may yet return to its sixteenth century heyday as major exporter of sherry for consumption in raucous Thames-side bars.

It is the unfathomably complicated winemaking process which accounts for the differing styles of sherry. Grapes (namely Palomino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel) are grown in dazzling white soils in southern Spain. The winemakers harvest them and then ferment them under a layer of bacteria (flor). This flor protects the wine from oxygen and also adds a nutty, tangy flavour to the wine. The skill of the winemaker is then tested as they taste the casks to separate out styles: lighter wines becoming dry Finos and heavier more complex wines chalked up as Olorosos. Neat alcohol is then added into the mix to fortify the blend before it gets dribbled through the solera system. This stack of barrels is where sherry is mixed from various vintages to add complexity and structure to the finished product.

Wine competitions consistently award top scores to sherries. The International Wine Challenge awarded over 10 Gold medals to various sherries and the International Wine and Spirits Competition even awarded golds to sherries from supermarket shelves. These awards go a long way in proving the new found importance of sherry in the wine trade, but it is the export figures which are the most encouraging as over the first 8 months of 2011 sherry exports to the UK were worth €208 million. There is a growing interest in sherry and increased consumption, but there is still an image problem and sherry needs to radically reinvent itself, dropping the dowdy winter’s night image and instead slipping into a sultry and sophisticated pose.