‘AND EVERY YEAR …… IT ISN’T!

 

With Fino as its flagship, sherry is sailing in troubled waters. Every year we’re told: “This is the year a chilled glass of fino will take the UK by storm.” And every year… it isn’t. To change sherry’s fortunes, Jerez needs to steer a new course.

Sadly, it’s not only in the UK where sherry’s story makes scary reading. The total area of vineyards dedicated to the Palomino Fino vine has shrunk by two-thirds since the early 1980s. Global exports are less than a fifth of what they were in 1979. In 2015, information from Consejo Regulador de Los Vinos de Jerez, sherry’s governing body, revealed that sherry sales had all but collapsed in the category’s top five markets over the last decade, with exports having nearly halved since 2002. Sherry’s golden era has long gone.

Beltrán Domecq, president of the Consejo Regulador, is upbeat, however, “after closing the 2016 campaign at similar volume levels as 2015, growth in volumes is a matter of time”. Mauricio González-Gordon, chairman of González Byass, also hit a positive note at Prowein in 2017. “After a tumultuous few years the fortunes of sherry may be about to turn, with the IWSR predicting sales of premium sherry to grow 18% by 2021,” he announced.

All sherry fans hope that this optimism will bear out, but recent statistics (June 2017-18) tell a further worrying tale, showing that total global exports (32m litres) fell by 3.5%. Europe recorded a fall in sales of 4.3% (to 18m litres) and Asia a fall of 18.53% (to 196,000 litres). Exports to the US and the rest of America rose by 3.42%, but with total sales of 1.7m litres it’s nothing to write home about.

Happily, sherry’s domestic market has remained relatively stable since 2002 and, even though sales fell slightly by 2.9% from June 2017-18, it still accounts for 36.5% of sherry’s total sales.

Weighing in at around 20m litres in 2002, sherry sales to the UK, Jerez’s biggest export market, fell by 1.8% to 9m litres from June 2017-18. Within this period figures show fino exports to the UK totalling 982,000 litres, indicating that the category accounts for about 10.5% of total UK sherry sales.

Martin Skelton, managing director of González Byass UK, whose Tío Pepe is the biggest fino brand on the UK market, notes enthusiastically that sales of the brand have “risen consistently for the past three years – last year saw an increase of 7%”. That’s good news and supports the prediction of a global growth in premium sherry by 2021, but it’s a modest increase in a small sector from a very low base. The fino flagship may be surviving but it’s not thriving.

 

THUMBS DOWN

But there’s something else. For many years a wine course has formed an important part of the coveted Diploma at Tante Marie Culinary Academy in Woking, near London. The course, mostly attended by student chefs in the 18-30 age range from all corners of the world, includes a session on sherry and a tasting of a top-dollar fino.

Fino invariably gets the ‘thumbs down’ from the young international chefs. Many of their exclamations are unprintable.

The word ‘weird’ often appears in tasting notes that cross my desk. Fino’s crisp, citrus, yeasty, flor character rarely makes a friend. It’s an unscientific survey but, from a decade of painful facial expressions, it’s evident that fino does not fall well on the young palate – sadly, just the spot where the Jerez boys are trying to settle.

With many top international chefs passing through the Tante Marie gateway these reactions should also give those who promote fino as ‘food friendly’, food for thought. It is time for a change.

UK Manager Edward Butler is embracing change to reboot Williams & Humbert’s sherry sales. “Fino is a strange taste to many, so we’re giving the younger generation a choice. We’re finding that our 12-year-old oloroso and 12-year-old amontillado are fast gaining popularity in bars from London to Paris,” he says.

Dry oloroso as sherry’s new flagship? Served in large, fine wine glasses, not in those small, silly schooners, its attractive light brown colour, clean, dry, nutty flavours (without a trace of flor or yeast), would be a new blank-page experience to the young consumer. The higher alcohol may be a drawback in today’s health conscious market, but seeing the rise and rise of cocktails in trendy bars this brown beauty should fit well. The promotion of a new kid on the block could also kickstart an interest in other sherry styles.

González-Gordon thinks young consumers don’t understand sherry, saying that “education is its biggest challenge”. Wise words indeed, but the UK wine trade is not too bright when it comes to consumer education, so it’s hoped that any new campaign doesn’t get too clever with its soleras, palo cortados, specific vineyard pagos, and en ramas. No matter what market, ‘keep it simple’ is the name of the game.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. To its credit the switched-on branch of the Jerez Club has realised that pouring traditional styles ‘solo’, be it fino, manzanilla, amontillado or oloroso, no matter how good the wine or the promotion, will not bring back the good old days. The new branch has cleverly embraced the new marketplace – the growing number of Spanish restaurants and bars that are springing up in the UK’S major towns and cities and the capitals of Europe. Among the glitter, sherry is now an exciting part of the colourful and lucrative world of cocktails. “We must not be frightened of new things,” says William & Humbert’s Butler. “The bottom line is that we need to sell sherry and innovation is the way forward. The cocktail scene is a great way to open doors.”

 

NEW GENERATION

The old farts of the UK wine trade who insist that sherry should only be enjoyed ‘solo’ have thankfully fallen silent, no doubt aware that this alternative approach may be sherry’s escape route. They’ve also realised that the modest growth in fino is due, in part, to its contribution to a new generation of cocktails. That said, many still cringe at gaudy cocktail lists peddling Verano Verde (fino), Thunder in Paradise (oloroso), No. 8 (palo cortado), Miracle of 7th Street (amontillado), and Criadare (manzanilla), convinced that ‘hipsters’ are highjacking their beloved wines.

The purists should check sherry’s history, for it’s not the first time that Jerez has gone off-piste to boost sales. Pale cream sherry broke the mold back in the 1960s when International Distillers & Vintners used the name of its port subsidiary Croft to sell sherry from the old Gilbey soleras. The new product, Croft Original, was revolutionary – a sweetened fino, fortified to 15.5% and blended with concentrated sweet Palomino must, resulting in a tooth-tingling 110gs/litre of sugar. The wine was an immediate success, challenging Harvey’s Bristol Cream for the top-selling UK position.

Harvey’s Bristol Cream is still on top. “Harvey’s Bristol Cream takes 30% of the total UK sherry market and we’re continuing to invest in the brand,” says Jen McCormick, head of sherry at Whyte & Mackay. With the cream sherry category taking an impressive 44% of the total UK market (4.1m litres, June 2017-18) it’s evident that a sector often pooh-poohed by many aficionados is playing a major role in keeping the UK sherry market afloat.

It’s interesting to note that cream and pale cream sherries are a ‘UK thing’, for surprisingly they hardly register elsewhere. The US, cream sherry’s second biggest market, takes a meagre 620,618 litres. A marketing opportunity for Jerez?

Croft Original is still part of an important pale cream market that accounts for 24% of total UK sherry sales (2.2m litres, June 2017-18), meaning the cream and pale cream sectors together take an impressive 68%. Now as then, the wine trade waxes lyrical about fino, manzanilla, palo cortado, amontillado and oloroso while Joe and Josephine Public plump for the sweeties. It’s a brave man who suggests cream sherry as the new flagship but…

Gonzalez Byass is looking to kickstart the sluggish sherry market with the introduction of a new product, Croft Twist. A pre-mixed, slightly sparkling fino-based wine with an English ‘twist’ of elderflower, lemon and mint and a lightweight 5.5% alcohol by volume, it’s a reflection of Rebujito, the famous Andalucian ‘long fino’ that’s also benefitting from the cocktail boom. Breaking news: rumour has it that Fino & Tonic is edging favour with the Gin & Tonic brigade.

Hats off to those pushing boundaries to find new expressions of sherry for a new audience. Fino as the flagship isn’t working. It’s time for change and to build on a cocktail revolution that’s throwing a lifeline to a struggling sector of the global wine market. It’s a big ask but, sadly, if it doesn’t navigate a new course, sherry is set to continue its depressing journey.

 

The article first appeared in Drinks International magazine.