Sherry makes a fashionable comeback
Who knew sherry would have its day again? Robin Lynam explains how the young crowd is embracing an old favourite
Sherry is one of the world's great fortified wines and a favourite tipple of both Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff.
Since then its fortunes have been mixed. Worldwide sales peaked in the 1970s, and until recently were in steady decline. The drink had come to be regarded as a sedate tipple for the elderly, rather than as a stimulant for royalty and revellers.
Even members of the older demographic tended to buy it only once a year, just before Christmas, so a glass could be left out with a mince pie for Santa Claus. Bottles languished in cocktail cabinets, and by the time they were dusted off the contents were often no longer fit to drink.
One thing nobody was calling sherry until recently was fashionable - but there are distinct signs that it is making a comeback.
Sergi Rostoll, the Asia-Pacific sales director for Gonzalez Byass, the sherry company which makes and owns the world's bestselling sherry brand, Tio Pepe, says the drink is now popular internationally.
"Young people are drinking sherry. Successful restaurant concepts are going for sherries. In London there are now around 10 sherry bars, most opened recently and doing well. TapaVino, the first sherry bar in Sydney's central business district, was one of the bars of the year [runner-up best new bar of 2012, The Sydney Morning Herald].
"In Hong Kong, 22 Ships, a successful restaurant concept by Jason Atherton, is selling lots of sherries. In Shanghai, the newly opened Shangri-La is going also for sherries in its bar, The 1515 West, Chophouse & Bar. People are waking up to the fact that the world of beautiful wines doesn't end with whites and reds."
The sherries younger drinkers are sipping, though, are not the sweeter styles favoured by their grandmothers.
Tio Pepe has proven more resilient than other brands, partly through aggressive marketing, but also by stressing its dry fino style, contrasted with the sweeter "cream" sherries that used to dominate Spanish fortified wine exports.
Volumes are unlikely to get back to their old levels, but the value of exports is going up with sales of premium priced, more sophisticated sherries climbing.
"We believe there was a lost generation that didn't want to drink sherries because of a prejudice against the sweet, sugared ones older people drank at home. But the new generation doesn't have that problem, and are open and looking for quality and character," Rostoll says.
At its best sherry certainly has both those things to offer. In 2008, master of wine Jancis Robinson - ahead of the trend in coming to sherry's defence - called it "the world's most neglected wine treasure".
So what exactly is this treasure? Sherry is a fortified wine made from grapes grown in a region of Andalusia in Spain, near the town of Jerez De La Frontera. Both "Jerez" and "Sherry" are corruptions of Xeres, the name given to the town during the Moorish occupation.
Wine has been made in the region since around 1,100BC, and it is now a Denominacion de Origen (DO). Wines made in a sherry style elsewhere cannot legally be called "sherry" within the European Union.
All sherry is made from the palomino, moscatel or pedro ximenez grapes - mostly palomino - fortified with grape spirit, and aged in a system called a solera in which old wines are regularly topped up with younger ones, a process known as "fractional blending". Some soleras functioning in Jerez date back to the 19th century.
In terms of style, sherry is much more diverse than non-aficionados tend to think. It ranges from dry fino and manzanilla to intensely sweet dessert wines, made mostly from pedro ximenez.
In between those extremes are the amontillado, oloroso and palo cortado categories, along with the now despised "Cream" sherries which are naturally dry wines sweetened with grape must or small quantities of moscatel or pedro ximenez.
Few bars or restaurants in Hong Kong carry the full range, but sherry selections on offer are improving.
According to Luca Luise, managing director of Gonzalez Byass' Hong Kong importer, Amorosso Fine Wines, good selections of the bodega's stylistically diverse range of sherries can be found in Quemo, FoFo, Tapeo, Il Milione, Catalunya, Olé Spanish Restaurant, the Sheraton's Sky Lounge and Cafe Deco, among others.
"No longer thought of as a short drink, sherry can now be seen on wine lists in the trendiest bars and nightclubs around the world," says Luise.
Luise is aiming to attract younger drinkers with sherry-based cocktails such as the Tiojito (1/3 Tio Pepe, 2/3 Sprite, fresh mint and lime) and the martinez, which he says "is a real classic made to perfection at Il Milione with Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Sherry, 30 Years Old".
At 22 Ships in Wan Chai, which has the town's longest sherry list, restaurant manager and sherry evangelist Josef Murray is placing the emphasis more on the wine's role as a companion to food. The restaurant serves it not at room temperature in the all-too-common tiny pub glasses, or even in the traditional Spanish copita, but in white wine glasses, chilled.
There are 16 sherries on 22 Ships' list, shortly rising to 21, and Murray intends to keep adding to it. I asked him to recommend three favourites.
"I would go for the La Guita manzanilla. It's amazing with seafood. The Lustau amontillado is my favourite, because it's so rich in flavour. The other I'd choose is the Gonzalez Byass Apostoles Palo Cortado Muy Viejo 30 Year Old, which is fantastic. The Apostoles has the structure of a drier style of wine for savoury dishes, with a delicate semi-sweetness that can also go with desserts, so it's flexible," he says.
Palo cortado is a style between amontillado and oloroso, and develops through a natural process which takes place in the solera, by chance, to small quantities of wine. It is therefore rare, expensive, and according to the 2013 edition of Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book, "V fashionable".
Rostoll will be in town on September 3 for a dinner at Cafe Deco under the theme "Wineries Around the World Unite", for which eight courses will be paired with eight wines, including the Apostoles, which will be matched with a Brie de Meaux sandwich with sweet onion relish.
He, too, is a keen advocate of sherry as a food wine, and will be explaining to those attending how it can play that role.
Murray bought several bottles from the Sotheby's auction of the El Bulli cellar for 22 Ships, acquiring some old numbered bottles from the Osborne Sherry Company, which established its solera system in 1772.
The restaurant is also receiving samples of fortified sherry-like wines from places other than Spain. The day I met him, Murray had received a sample of a Chip Dry palomino fino from Australian winemaker Andrew Birks, who won a trophy for best fortified wine with it at the 2010 Royal Sydney Wine Show.
Murray is keen to help sherry drinkers find a style that suits them, to which end 22 Ships plans to introduce a system of sherry flights with tapas plates to encourage experimentation.
"It will give people the option to try something they might not normally order. Different sherries suit different individuals. It's a question of finding what your style is. My favourite cold sherry on a hot day would be an amontillado, but for a lot of people it might be a glass of fino with a bowl of olives or some salty anchovies," he says.
He also has plans for a "sherry and ham bar" in Ship Street, close to the restaurant, where people can sip a civilised aperitif while they wait for their tables. Bookings are not accepted at 22 Ships.
"A lot of sherries pair well with Iberico ham, and sherry can be amazing with or without food," says Murray. "While we sell a fair amount of sherry, I wouldn't say it's a huge amount. Sherry is still growing in Asia.
"Hong Kong needs to embrace it a bit more, but it's all about us getting people to try it."