Sherry producers are determined to win back lost customers with clearer labelling, better marketing – and some truly great sherries.
Like the grey film of dust that coats the vines from the region’s famous albariza soil, a thin veil of sadness hangs over Jerez – at least for wine enthusiasts. You don’t always see it, for this is sunny, exuberant Andalucia, but it’s there.
Some bodegas are on the edge of town, as you’d expect, close to the vineyards. Others are right in the heart of old Jerez, their vast, whitewashed cellars taking up whole streets. But many aren’t there at all. Since the crisis of the early 1980s, Jerez has seen a score of sherry houses disappear.
To stage a robust recovery, sherry has its work cut out. It’s gone out of fashion. It’s also confusing, with a plethora of styles, from bone dry to very sweet. It’s often served at the wrong temperature, from a bottle that’s been open far too long, in mean little pleasure-killing glasses. And its price is askew. A complex, finely crafted drink which a few decades ago cost as much as good claret has been forced to drop its prices so low that wine-loving consumers are sometimes too suspicious to give it a try.
Those are the problems sherry faces in the overseas markets on which it depends for 80% of its sales, notably in the UK, Holland and Germany. On home ground it has other difficulties. The Consejo Regulador, the council which regulates production, is accused of being over-bureaucratic (‘it has gone into decline – it has oxidated,’ one small producer told me in exasperated tones). There have been tales of in-fighting and disharmony which have held sherry back.
But this isn’t the whole story, thank goodness. The most striking aspect of a recent visit to Jerez was a new sense of energy, a real determination to move forward. July 2003 saw the introduction of a new law requiring that the regulations governing production be updated within 12 months. On the administrative side, two of the key figures are young, dynamic, streetwise about international marketing and bursting with enthusiasm.
César Saldaña worked for Arthur Andersen, then Gonzalez Byass and Sandeman, before taking up his post as director general of the Consejo Regulador. ‘The new law will be a great opportunity to put a bit of order on various things like labelling, which may be affecting sherry adversely at the moment,’ he says. ‘The situation continues to be tough. But I feel much more confident now because we have a four-year plan in place since 2002 – a common strategy uniting the whole industry.’
Bosco Torremocha, general secretary of the shippers’ association Fedejerez, was a lawyer, banker, model booker and Madrid restaurateur before he moved into wine, spending two years with Wines of Spain in the UK. He too is realistic but upbeat. ‘We have a lot of work to do but it’s a beautiful task.’
The past year has been the busiest ever in terms of international promotion, cashing in on the cool image of Spanish food, culture and fashion. Central to this, and stirring up huge interest, is the message that different styles of sherry suit many different foods, oriental as well as European. ‘I remember that years ago, when my dad was in the business, visiting journalists were fascinated to see sherries of various kinds drunk throughout the meal,’ explains Ignacio Lopez of Sandeman. ‘We’ve been pathetically slow about getting this message across.’
New markets are being explored. Canada, Australia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Finland and some petrol-rich Russian states are responding positively, reducing sherry’s reliance on its key traditional targets. Sleek new packaging is another aspect of sherry’s forward march. The relaunch of Tio Pepe two years ago – ‘turning sales from negative to positive in six months according to Gonzalez Byass regional sales director Martin Skelton – has encouraged other companies to make their sherries look more modern, and more like wine. Slim, translucent bottles are replacing squat, dark ones, with the word ‘sherry’ downplayed on front labels.
Jan Pettersen, a Norwegian who studied economics at Edinburgh University, worked for Osborne before bravely launching his own bodega, Rey Fernando de Castilla, four years ago. He signed up brand consultancy Design Bridge in London to create spectacularly stylish packaging, especially for his Antique range in narrow, clear glass bottles. It should be on sale any day now in selected UK outlets.
By making older sherries like these available, many producers hope to appeal to connoisseurs and raise the overall image of their undervalued drink. Now that the VOS and VORS categories have been successfully introduced (their Latin names translate conveniently into Very Old Sherry, averaging 20 years or more, and Very Old Rare Sherry, averaging 30 years or more), plans to highlight 12- and 15-year-old wines are in the pipeline.
The release of very old single-vintage sherries, previously kept in limited quantities for blending purposes or private use, may enrich the picture further – while also complicating it for sherry lovers who have just about got their heads around the solera system from which most sherries emerge as multi-vintage blends.
‘The average consumer doesn’t have a clue that even the youngest, driest styles spend from three to five years in cask,’ says Torremocha with a sigh.
So what’s the solution? Education, education, education. ‘That’s definitely the way forward,’ says Jane Ward of Lustau, who has watched sherry’s fortunes ebb and flow in Jerez for the past 30 of its 3,000 years. ‘It’s just a matter of deciding how many people you can put out on the street to get at it.’
In the meantime, there’s consolation for the producers. Sales of sherry have begun to pick up. And sales of sherry vinegar are booming. ‘Vinegar is the most dynamic part of the sherry business right now,’ says Pettersen. ‘Mine’s three times as expensive as the others and I can’t keep up with demand.’
Fan though I am of vinagre de Jerez, it’s a minor delight compared with the thrilling wines that emerge from ancient casks in this town’s pillared, cathedral-like bodegas. Buy a decent sherry this Christmas (or even before) and I bet you’ll agree.