‘I went back to Jerez earlier this year. It has changed utterly’
Sherry waS the milk of my wine-drinking infancy. Bottles of tio Pepe and Bristol Cream would parade under our Christmas tree (my father was a vicar), making a glass before dinner not too infrequent a treat. It was also the invariable prelude to the Sunday lunch my mother laboured all morning over, served once my father got back from church. I loved it. One sniff takes me back; the years drop away.
My maternal grandparents lived nearby and, when my brothers and I were old enough, they’d give us a pretty little cut glass of Findlater’s Dry Fly Sherry to sip after the cake and the tea cups had been whisked away. at university, my anglo-Saxon tutor lubricated our vowels (and created bonhomie around the incomprehensible Beowulf) with lashings of amontillado. the staff of the local Unwin’s used to deliver bottles of Sherry to my wife’s first mother-in-law once she couldn’t get out of the house: it inspired much of the hilarity shared by the two in her declining years. My own mother now lives in the abyssal world of puzzles and mysteries common to alzheimer’s sufferers, but the Sherry she and my father continue to sip as dusk falls seems to bring some familiarity, warmth, comfort. you could write a sociology of Sherry in post-war, premillennium Britain. No wine mattered more.
Not unnaturally, one of my first visits as a junior in the late 1980s was to Jerez: an assured, bustling town seemingly packed with warehouses, and a stop on all of the grandest circuits. I remember the andalucian stagefright inspired at Lustau by the announcement that Lord Sainsbury was to drop in by helicopter – at teatime. tea for an english Lord? how would they cope?
I went back to Jerez earlier this year. It has changed utterly. One of the former Valdespino bodegas in the town centre is a supermarket; where the stacks of Inocente once slumbered out their solera years, the cars now park, their drivers grateful for the summer shade. Others, though, are rotting where they stand, like the terry’s bodega close to one of the towns prominent roundabouts.
the vineyard scene is even more striking. wheat is on the march, biting its way into hillside after hillside, laying green siege to the white farms at their summits, even on the finest albariza soils. Photovoltaic panels now stare like giant black sunflowers where vines once swayed. a wind farm stalks hungrily across Balbaina. the 23,000 hectares of vineyards there when I first visited have shrivelled to just 6,500ha now.
Names which seemed bank-like, a familiar and secure a part of the Sherry landscape, have been swept aside. the mighty Domecq, purringly urged on tV viewers by Orson welles and written into poems by Lorca, is dismembered. harvey’s Bristol Cream is owned by a Chinese Filipino billionaire called andrew tan; he also stewards a sizeable chunk of Gonzalez Byass’s assets. the multinationals have scarpered, littering their former brands on others, pending eventual expiry. Osborne remains significant, but you won’t see the silhouetted black bull glowering on the top of Jerez hillsides any more; this Spanish family company, now with major Chinese shareholders, prefers to distribute red Bull (yes, truly) and fall back on its pork and other food businesses.
there has been no more dramatic story in the wine world over the past three decades than this one. Someone should write a book about it…
and the future? Is this Götterdämmerung – or the proverbial, pre-dawn darkness? we’ll see. Some Decanter readers will remember the world I have described; for many, though, it will sound a little curious, in the same way that my parents’ stories of post-war rationing and dried eggs once sounded curious to me. those are the readers frequenting London’s lively Sherry-bar scene, tossing back authentic copas of manzanilla with their baby octopus and slices of jamón ibérico – and discovering the grandeur of one of the wine world’s unique wine styles for the first time, via single-cask bottlings, single-vineyard sherries, or innovative unfortified wines from the best surviving vineyards. what’s finished for Jerez is volume. will quality endure?