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The case for sherry

Helen Coburn offers a timely defence of sherry's unique merits

sherryThe other day, I walked into a bar of a four star hotel and asked for a glass of Tio Pepe. The girl behind the counter looked at me blankly. She hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. I explained. She rummaged behind the counter and brought forth a bottle of Bristol Cream. No? Try again. This time a bottle of manzanilla was placed upon the counter. It was half empty. Did she know when it had been opened? Sadly, no. Resignedly I allowed her to pour a glass. It was dull but drinkable, its salt and nutty character quite subsumed into hot alcohol. Such is life for the sherry fan. There seemed little to be gained by pointing out grumpily that dry sherry should be treated as a white wine, and preferably sold in half bottles so it can be consumed quickly before going stale.

Global sales falling

After something of a false dawn in the early noughties, when some progress was made in selling fino sherry as a pub drink, things seem to have toughened up again for the sherry makers. The figures make dreary reading. The slide in global sales has not been arrested. In 2008, the UK drank 14.5m litres of sherry; in 2009 it wasn’t quite 14m. In Holland, in 2008, they drank almost 10.5m litres of sherry; in 2009 it was 8.76m. And so on. Globally, the export market for sherry fell by almost 9% in a year.

 

Bar managers will tell you that they stock very little because customers ask for very little. And of course, customers ask for very little because they see it very little. Sherry usually lurks behind the spirits bottles, in all its half opened shabbiness, waiting till a youthful barman, shakes his head and chucks it in the bin. So what can be done, when so many consumers think sherry is something your granny drank and bar staff don’t know their cream from their oloroso?

Trade should educate consumers

It has to start with the producer. Young drinks trade staff are now so far removed from the generations that drank sherry regularly that they hardly know what it is and producers are going to have to tell them. It has always been a cry within the sherry sector that there’s insufficient money for sustained promotion, but that just won’t do. It is time that the industry recognised that nothing sells itself. At the same time, there’s no point in trying to make sherry “fashionable”, with campaigns aimed at trendy youths and which don’t seem to have much follow through. There’s a risk that promotions like the Sherry and Tapas campaign of a few years ago result in a sales bulge which fades as quickly as it flowered. What’s needed is continous liasion with the trade and consumer which is aimed at generating steady sales with repeat purchases.

The producers have to educate and persuade the trade and then the trade can work on the consumer. But when was the last time you were at a sherry tasting? Were you ever, in fact, at a sherry tasting? And yet, this is where, surely, a new campaign must start. Tutored seminars with tastings of the various styles, practical food matching, and education packs showing how sherry should be stored, served, displayed and explained could work wonders. And they wouldn’t cost half as much money as fancy media advertising.

What would have happen if those tired old bottles, hidden and opened, were fresh half bottles prominently displayed near the counter, in nifty ice buckets, beside a little copita glass and a tempting bowl of nibbles? What if colourful descriptions were distributed to off licencees so that they could brighten up those dusty sherry corners with tasting and food matching notes, and pictures that conjure up memories of holidays in the Spanish sun? What if bars were supplied with small sherry menus offering a sherry of the week, sold by the glass or half bottle? What if restaurants had small displays of sherry, recommending suitable starters with the dry styles and some luscious PXs for pudding?

Get it out there

Sherry has been so far forgotten by the consumer that it seems to me that, as well as educating younger members of the trade, producers need to get those bottles out there, physically, where people can see them. Maybe, just maybe, older drinkers would then be reminded of the lost pleasure of these wonderful wines and young drinkers might be tempted to try what, to them, is often totally new.

There’s no royal road to growing sales. Champagne makers and producers of sparkling wines have turned their category into one of the most dynamic in the industry, largely through relentless promotion which, yes, eats up a huge proportion of their budgets. Sherry producers will argue that their wine, though expensive to produce, is sold relatively cheaply, meaning there’s nothing left for promotion. The answer is this: being drunk by fewer and fewer people won’t make sherry any cheaper to make.

Try your own sherry tasting

So how about having a sherry tasting yourself, for your friends or for staff? Take two dry- say, Hidalgo Fino La Gitana and Lustau Manzanilla Paprirusa- and see if you can distinguish them blind (if a dry sherry has any fruit at all it’s generally a fino). Then compare Valdivia Oloroso with Valdivia Dorius Amontillado. Try them with food as well; slices of cured ham, nuts, olives, pastrami sandwiches, smoked fish. Finally, get out some slices of fruit cake or ice cream and try Lustau East India Solera Sherry, Gonzalez Byass Canasta Cream (trust me, it doesn’t taste half as naff as you’d think) and Valdivia Pedro Ximinez. After you’ve finished tasting, just pour a little of the Solera Sherry around the ice cream- pure bliss.

Hidalgo sherries are imported by Nicholson, Lustau by Mitchells, Valdivia by Febvre and Gonzalez Byass by Findlater.

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