The mass-market stuff might be in decline, but ‘proper’ sherry is definitely on a roll. Matt Walls talks to the flor-shionistas who are spearheading the revival
When Bar Pepito opened in Kings Cross in 2010 the London on-trade raised a collective eyebrow. It may be a small space, but nonetheless, a dedicated sherry bar? ‘Good luck with that,’ was the cynical response of many. Then the place became so popular it won Time Out Best New Bar 2010…
Numerous tapas joints that specialise in quality sherries have since popped up across the UK. ‘The sherry boom we have seen in London has been significant and continues to gather momentum with more sherry bars and Spanish restaurants opening all the time,’ says Christine Allen, marketing manager at Alliance Wines.
No doubt this new interest in sherry has been caused by the burgeoning interest in Spanish cuisine. But this is just one element that is driving the trend. So is this the start of a long-overdue sherry renaissance or just a flash in the pan?
Timing is everything
Bar Pepito is a collaboration between Camino, a Spanish-themed bar chain, and wine importer González Byass UK. ‘Interest in all things Spanish was hotting up at the time,’ says Richard Bigg, co-owner of Camino. ‘The timing was right as the English public became receptive to food and wine matching and experimenting.’
‘It was a risk,’ admits Jeremy Rockett, marketing director of González Byass UK. But by bringing a piece of Jerez to London Rockett believes they’ve proved to consumers ‘they needn’t be scared of it’. Meanwhile, last January, historic sherry brand Harveys opened its own sherry and tapas bar Harveys Cellars in Bristol.
‘The english know more than the
Spaniards about sherry’ Abel Lusa
Many more sherry-centric tapas bars have opened in London since then: Morito, Copita, José, Barrica and Bar Tozino to name a few. But this isn’t just a London phenomenon: you can find good sherry lists in Bournemouth’s The Larder House, Lunya in Liverpool and Iberico in Nottingham.
Spanish restaurateur Abel Lusa opened sherry bar Capote y Toros in London’s South Kensington in March 2011. It claims to have the biggest sherry selection in the UK: over 100 by the bottle, nearly half of which are available by the glass.
‘In our place, sherry is a growing interest,’ he says. ‘[These days] the English know more than Spaniards about sherry.’ Existing bars have also capitalised on sherry’s potential. Mediterranean restaurant Ambiente started out with just a couple of sherries when it opened in Malton, East Yorkshire, in 2007. On moving to York in 2010, owner Tim Sinclair upped the range to 30 and dedicated the front of the site to a sherry bar. He admits the drink still suffers from an image problem ‘but it’s changing… it’s getting over the stigma’. He has just opened a second outlet in Leeds.
Trangallán, a Spanish bar and restaurant in Newington Green, north London, opened in August 2011 with 15 sherries on the list; it now has 22. Co-owner Xabier Alvarez admits ‘to begin with I had some fears’ but the response from customers has been ‘double what I thought it was going to be… It’s no more than a niche, but it works well.’
Reports from the Consejo Regulador in Spain show that the UK remains the biggest export market for sherry. At nearly 30% of all sales, it’s only fractionally behind the domestic market.
Although the overall picture is still one of decline (data from market analysts Nielsen show sherry volumes here have dropped 35% over the past six years) this doesn’t tell the whole story, with dry sherries less affected than their cream counterparts.
Perhaps this is why all the shippers I spoke to were bullish about their sherry sales for 2012 – at least in the on-trade. Alliance Wine, which imports Bodegas Gutiérrez Colosia, reports a 5% increase in volumes; Mentzendorff, which represents Bodegas Hidalgo – La Gitana has seen an upswing in volume, driven by Manzanilla and En Rama in key on-trade accounts; and Fields Morris & Verdin is also up in both volume and value sales of Lustau.
The Sherry Institute estimates the number of companies importing sherry to the UK has doubled over the past 12 years, and established distributors are signing new contracts. Liberty Wines, for instance, took on Valdespino in October last year.
Richard Bigg points out that ‘grannies
and vicars’ are conspicuously absent
‘There is a younger generation that associate sherry with great food and exciting Spanish cuisine rather than the dusty bottle in the drinks cabinet,’ says Damian Carrington, sales and marketing director at Fields Morris & Verdin.
Rockett of González Byass agrees, saying that what he describes as a ‘huge growth spurt’ is down to new consumers coming on board; Camino’s Bigg points out that ‘grannies and vicars’ are conspicuous by their absence at Bar Pepito.
The rhyme and reason
This is just one part of the picture, however. Sinclair from Ambiente points to an increased consumer interest in ‘artisanal products no matter what the category’, such as farmers’ markets and craft beers. Consumers, it seems, like the idea of supporting small, artisanal producers.
Alvarez at Trangallán suggests two other driving factors. Firstly, the ongoing efforts of sherry producers and importers in keeping the spotlight on sherry by introducing new ranges and styles such as the Tio Pepe ‘Palmas’ range of en rama sherries. Secondly, the efforts of US and UK journalists in persistently presenting sherry in a positive light.
Those best placed to take immediate advantage of this trend are existing Spanish bars and restaurants, who can add a range of styles to their current list. But with the growth of small plates and ‘tapas’ of other cuisines, it need not necessarily be restricted to these businesses.
Ambiente’s Sinclair points out that he offers ‘Mediterranean, not Spanish tapas… it’s not important to have a link to Spain, just an enthusiasm for sherry.’ The Square and The Ritz, for example, both have good sherry selections by the glass, which makes sense: sherries work with a wide range of foods, and often match well where other wines can’t cope.
A sherry list not only gives an outlet a point of difference, it can be good for revenue. ‘I don’t feel the same price resistance as with white and red wines,’ says Trangallán’s Alvarez. He finds sherry drinkers are more open-minded ‘foodies and experimenters’ who are happier to pay higher prices for something interesting than typical wine or beer drinkers.
Site selection is important for success, however. Cristina Garcia-Catala, co-owner of Spanish restaurant Lola Rojo in London’s Battersea, opened sherry bar Rosita in Fulham in November 2012. She says that ‘people are drinking more sherry than we thought they would’ but adds, ‘the clientele from Battersea are open-minded, so here it will work. Somewhere else, I don’t know.’
Alvarez also stresses Trangallán has benefited from a local foodie clientele who are open to experimentation – and to encourage them in their journey, good staff knowledge is essential.
Back for good?
So, is the growth in premium sherry in the on-trade permanent? The feedback from those at the sharp end suggests that it is; that, in the medium term at least, this new-found interest in premium sherry by foodies, hispanophiles and lovers of artisanal products is here to stay.
It may not be a full-blown renaissance – it’s still easier to find UK tapas restaurants that don’t sell sherry than those that stock a good range – but the trend looks likely to increase, with noise in the on-trade transferring fervour to high street retailers.
‘With a swelling of demand from the public, the off-trade is also requesting sherry to sell to its customers,’ says Lorenzo Bakewell-Stone, fortified wine commercial manager at Mentzendorff. ‘The platform has definitely been built and I hope we will see the industry continue to grow over the next few years.’
Xabier Alvarez Trangallán, London
‘The copita is very touristy. It does little favour to the sherry industry, as it’s not possible to appreciate the sherry fully, it merely accentuates the alcohol. We should get rid of this and treat sherry as a wine. I want people to go through the meal with the sherry, so I use a Chianti-shaped wine glass… You need good examples of different styles – it encourages people to buy two glasses to compare. Groups naturally want to explore.’
Richard Bigg Bar Pepito and Camino, London
‘Put it in the right place on your list. Put the dry styles at the front with the aperitifs, and the others at the stage of the meal when customers would want to drink them; not all at the back of the list. Flights go down really well for those not confident but keen to experiment. Fino and manzanilla should be served ice cold; serve most of the other styles just cold; and just cool for very old sherries.’
Jeremy Rockett González Byass UK
‘If you want to sell sherry, you need to be pretty upfront about it. Just one on the list says you’re not that bothered. A dozen to 15 is about right – enough to say “I’m serious”. You need good examples of every style with a range of price points and qualities, but don’t go overboard – it’s got to be fresh. And too many can be confusing. Don’t look at sherry like a spirit – so no 50cl measures or spirits pricing.’
Tim Sinclair Ambiente, York and Leeds
‘It’s all about how you approach people and pitch it to them. As for the optimum number, we’ve probably passed it! Four to five of each style, around 20 to begin with. It’s good to have one to help ease people in who aren’t accustomed to sherry – we have Delgado Zuleta Amontillado.’