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Friday read: Not a match – why is sherry failing to find its groove?

Published:  25 November, 2022

November and December is the time when fortifieds come out to play. At least, they do in the press. Probably 90% of port and sherry’s column inches occur in the month before Christmas.

Does this translate into an avalanche of sales? It does not.

But that doesn’t alter the unwritten rule that every single Christmas drinks’ column has to include at least one, and probably two or three recommendations for them.

Sherry’s case is particularly perplexing. I’ve been writing about booze for 25 years, and I can honestly say that the drink has been the next big thing/cool with the hipster crowd/in the course of a revival (delete as appropriate) for that entire time. I may even have written some of those articles myself.

But if this were even remotely true, after 20 years at the supposed apex of drinking coolness, sherry would now be vying with Prosecco for consumers’ attention. The fact that it isn’t suggests that this story is largely wishful thinking on the part of importers, sherry houses and highly engaged restaurants, and has little to do with reality.

Go back 20 years and the antipathy was, on one level, understandable. Sherry was the comical drink of vicars and maiden aunts. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s would have been surrounded by these references and largely avoided the drink as not being for them.

But there is an entirely new generation of drinkers for whom those references simply don’t exist. For anyone under 40, sherry comes with no baggage at all. But still it’s not really on their radar.

The thing is that sherry is tough to understand and getting to like it requires effort and commitment.

“They’re artisanal products and it’s very gastronomic with complex flavours,” says Klearhos Kanellakis head sommelier at Ekstedt of the Yard.

Kanellakis didn’t grow up with sherry – he’s Greek – but he’s studying for his Master Sommelier, so he knows what he’s talking about. Particularly since he recently put together a five-course pairing menu, matching Andalucia’s finest with his restaurant’s Nordic cuisine.

It was the kind of menu to challenge preconceptions – an event for serious food and drink-lovers. But though it was pretty well attended, had it been, say, a Rioja dinner, Kanellakis admits it would have been a lot busier.

Most of the dishes that were on show that evening already existed on the venue’s a la carte or 12-course tasting menu. Of the five-course meal we tried, there was only one match where I felt a table wine would have been better. Two were good and two were exceptional – the kind of matches that you remember for years afterwards.

So, having tested the matches and found that they worked with the public, would sherry automatically be supplanting wine as the go-to pairing on the tasting menu for those dishes?

After a bit of internal wrestling, Kanellakis agreed that one of them – a magnificent palo cortado/lobster combination – would.

His hesitation was not down to what was happening on the plate or in the glass, but the likely reaction of his average restaurant customers.

“They are scared to even try sherry wines with food,” he said sadly.

And this, perhaps, is the problem. Those of us in the trade know how good sherry can be – particularly for unusual or complicated cuisine. As one respected head of wine used to say to me, “if no other match works, try sherry”.

But the ‘differentness’ that makes it so useful in the right hands is also what makes it difficult for the public.

It’s high in alcohol at a time when people are moving in the other direction, savoury rather than fruity, and complex in its many manifestations. Did you fall in love with fino the very first time you tried it, or did you need to learn to like it?

An expert palate matching it with food might be the perfect way to introduce the drink to people in theory. But it comes with a risk for the venue.

Serve the public something they don’t like on a £150+ tasting menu and they get annoyed. They might not come back, they might leave a lousy tip and they might give you a monstering on social media. If you can avoid this by giving them a Chablis (yawn) rather than a manzanilla, why wouldn’t you?

So, taking the safe option is understandable. But that’s not sherry. It’s gloriously, weirdly, excitingly not safe.

It’s why we love it. But it’s also what’s holding it back.

Maybe the answer is to have it sponsored by Red Bull and the extreme sports crowd: people pouring an oloroso as they jump off the Burj al-Khalifa in a wing suit.

I mean hell, they’ve tried everything else. And it has to be better than trying PX with your pudding this Christmas.