Sherry: The Fino Things

02 January, 2014

Hamish Smith has been to Jerez to see whether renewed sherry optimism closer to home in the UK has translated into sales

IF MATURE BRITISH WOMEN became a little less mature and young Spanish drinkers’ habits a little more mature, sherry might actually live up to all the talk that it is in renaissance. That’s simplifying what is a diverse and divergent market, but the truth – setting aside the pockets of optimism in London’s sherry bars and New York’s restaurants and cocktail scene – is that, without its core consumer groups, the sherry category has been, and still is, in decline. 

According to the sherry Consejo Regulador (all figures), volume sales are just short of 40 million litres annually, and are in 1.7% decline (year ending September 2013). Sales have been shrinking almost linearly since the 1980s, when northern Europeans were younger and drinking their medium and cream tipples by the proverbial bucket that they had yet to kick. 

And on the other side of the sherry story – the dry styles traditionally drunk in southern Europe and in particular Andalucía – there is also a narrowing consumer base. As we know, the Spanish have been gradually moving away from wine, so sherry is a casualty of a wider crisis.

Spain’s moving annual total is running at a 2.4% decline and is heavily focused on the manzanilla and, to a lesser extent, fino styles.  “In Spain we have a big problem that youngsters have moved off wine – consumption is going down,” says Pedro Rebuelta, vice-chairman of González Byass. “They go from soft drinks to spirits. You have to show consumers how to appreciate wine. Sometimes they see it as a too complex thing.” 

Sherry, with its manifold styles that range from of the sweetest PX to the driest Amontillado, and production techniques that offer aromas of acetaldehyde (when the flor yeast is encouraged) and oxidation (when the wine is left exposed to air), needs more explaining than most. It is an acquired taste, but then the best things generally are. 

Beltran Domecq, president of the Consejo Regulador and sherry veteran of some 43 years, explains how the sherry industry has evolved to where we are now: “Due to demand in the 1970s there was an overproduction of sherry, people started to sell sherry at an incredibly low price. Only now have we got the right level of supply vs demand.” 

According to González Byass, its harvest this year saw an a bumper yield of almost double 2012 but, unlike other wines which can suffer year-to-year supply/demand shifts, Jerez’s solera system means imbalances tend to be revealed over longer periods.

But, with the bad news done, let’s now indulge in the good news stories of sherry. First of all, we can say that the global volume decline is slowing. If the current down-trading is at 1.7%, things have come a long way since the 7.9% drop the year before. So perhaps events such as Sherry Fest in New York and Toronto and London’s Sherry Festival and Great Sherry Tasting – this year the largest sherry tasting ever – and the education push by companies such as González Byass will have had an impact (more on this later). 

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