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The comeback kid

Published:  23 July, 2008

Sherry is making a comeback! These are the words the Sherry Institute and the gang from Jerez have been trying to put on the UK street for the past decade, and still the fight goes on.

The efforts have not been lacking in muscle, either. The Ten Star Tapas campaign was set up three years ago, grouping together heavy-duty, Michelin-starred chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Richard Corrigan, and turning them into ambassadors for the flailing category. Next the Copa Jerez competition was launched to find even more Sherry-sympathetic chefs, and then Tio Pepe turned up as the sponsor for two series' of ITV's Hell's Kitchen.

The big message, of course, is that Sherry and food is the new strawberries and cream, and anyone who hasn't cottoned on to this fact is, well, a little on the slow side. The problem, however, is that most of us are in the snail category on this one and although the trade has been listening, the average consumer still thinks Sherry is purely for old dears who don't know any better. Ronan Sayburn, group sommelier for Gordon Ramsay, observes: I have not seen many advancing opinions on Sherry. It's a bit like German Riesling - everyone who knows about it loves it, but this is usually restricted to people in the wine trade.'

Okay, so progress may be slow, but at least it is being made. Tapas-style restaurants are popping up all over the place and suddenly the wines of Jerez have found a small following. And it's not just the Spanish restaurants that have made an effort, there are Sherry lovers elsewhere too.

So just what do these open-minded establishments have to say about the movement so far? It's a challenge,' admits Martin Lam, chef proprietor of Ransome's Dock in Battersea, southwest London, it still doesn't tend to be the first choice for anyone under 60.' Lam lists eight Sherries, including four Almacenistas from Emilio Lustau, and is an enthusiast himself. The Sherry section is on the opening page of his wine list and he insists this is the only way to sell them'. He also includes a tasting note and an indication of a suitable food match. Giving prominence on the list certainly helps,' he continues, but it's still very rare that people will have Sherry throughout a meal.' Indeed, but one step at a time, and list positioning is to be taken seriously.

The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, is another non-Spanish restaurant to celebrate Sherry, and sommelier, Isa Baal, agrees on this point: We have a separate page for our Sherries and all 21 of them are available by the glass.'

It might be easier to sell Sherry in Spanish restaurants, but list positioning is still very important. Danny McSorley, restaurant manager at Moro in Exmouth Market, north London, comments: We keep the Sherries at the top of the list because we like to see people choose them as an aperitif and it's quite common for people having tapas at the bar to order them too.' Sherry is also the first option on both the wines by the glass and bottle lists at London's Fino restaurant, and owner Sam Hart confirms that sales are going very well.

Moreno Wines has recently taken on the premium Valdespino range and Christopher Payne, marketing manager, is similarly convinced of the need to use the wine list to give customers as much help as possible. List positioning is crucial. If Sherry is stuck at the back between the Port and the liqueurs then no one will touch it. It either has to go at the front as an aperitif or as part of the white wine list - it is a wine after all.'

Sherry as wine

The fact that Sherry is a wine seems rather an obvious point to make, but it's another tool of persuasion for restaurants, and all concerned see this as something to zoom in on. In Lam's view, it's very important that Sherry is promoted more as a wine. Fino in Spain is drunk as wine and drunk fresh. We have suffered for a long time in the UK from being served with stale Sherry.' Jeremy Rocket, marketing director for Gonzalez Byass, agrees: The key message with Sherry is that people must start to think of it as a white wine - you don't serve white wine warm and stale.'

David Furer, on-trade trainer for the Sherry Institute, comments: You can only hope that people are smart and realise that fresh Sherry is going to sell better.' Refrigeration, therefore, is vital and most people agree that the lighter styles of Fino and Manzanilla should be served chilled, and even the richer, heavier styles of Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Oloroso should be kept and served at cellar temperature.

This idea then leads down a route with a whole set of new obstacles, such as glass type, alcohol content, unit quantities and price. Furer is insistent on these points. Please put Sherry in a white wine glass, don't mess about with anything else - if you're serving wine in a 175ml glass then serve the lighter Sherries like this. Don't charge spirit prices, and use up Finos and Manzanillas within a few days. They are only gently oxidised and they go off in the same way as wine.' Hart at Fino admits to being slightly obsessed with this subject and says: If you're trying to persuade people that Sherry is a wine then it makes sense to serve the lighter styles in decent measures - at least 125ml - in a wine glass.' As far as alcohol content goes, Finos and Manzanillas tend to be around 15%, and as McSorley at Moro points out, the way alcohol levels are going up with New World wines, the difference with light Sherries is often only about one degree, if that'.

But can the prices be kept down to the level of light wines? This is a big issue,' says Rockett, historically Sherry has been treated like a spirit and marked up accordingly but this isn't how it should be.' McSorley adds: There is no need to charge really high prices, it doesn't help sales or turnover.' When it comes to the weightier, older and more premium Sherries, different rules apply - both the alcohol content and quality are higher here - but in Sherry-focused establishments, the lighter styles are definitely affordable and most start at around 4 by the glass. Ultimately, however, Sherry tends to be a more expensive product than wine, and this has to be reflected to some extent. I don't think Sherry should be promoted as a cheaper option to wine, but it definitely shouldn't be prohibitively expensive either,' remarks Lam. I see Finos charged at 8 per glass on some lists and I can't see how this is good for sales.'

If Sherry should be put in the same box as wine, the next topic on the agenda has to be food matching. It's this aspect that the Sherry Institute has been highlighting, underlining and writing in bold, but are people listening? Mark Jankel, head chef at Notting Hill Brasserie, won the Copa Jerez award in 2004 for his efforts with Sherry and food matching and he thinks there's plenty of scope here. Not all Sherries are good with food,' he begins. Personally I'm not too keen on using Manzanilla and although Pedro Ximnez (PX) is good with ice cream, I wouldn't use it with much else.' In general, however, he's fairly positive about the possibilities and thinks it's a great way to introduce people to Sherry. I've done a good few tasting menus for people, with Sherries matching each course, and customers have gone away saying, "You've really changed my mind about Sherry, I had no idea it was so versatile".'

Furer is equally enthusiastic about Sherry's food-fuelled future and explains that sometimes nothing else will do. Certain things will kill wine, such as vinaigrettes on salads, whereas Fino and Manzanilla can stand up to vinegar with no problem, which makes them a brilliant match for fish and chips as well. Game can also be a problem for wine; people will often choose Bordeaux and Burgundy, but game is frequently served with fruit-based sauces, which is too much for a dry red to deal with. A sweet Oloroso with high acidity and tannins can work incredibly well here.'

Tha tapas principle

Lam thinks the tapas principle is vital too: If you're serving lots of little dishes, Sherry can handle the different flavours better than most wines.' McSorley agrees the food angle is a winner. Food matching is the way I see things going. Richer Oloroso styles particularly need food to encourage people.' Sherry recommendations are therefore generally present on the Moro menu.

In terms of food matching overall, some people think Spain should be the focus. For instance, Hart at Fino insists: There is no doubt that Sherry goes best with Spanish food, it's where it grew up.' But Payne at Moreno argues: You can't just concentrate on Spanish restaurants, the market isn't big enough. Sherry is a product that goes brilliantly with most food, not just Spanish food.' Furer is on Payne's side and admits to emphasising non-Spanish matches on his training courses. I've just done some staff training for the Gordon Ramsay Group and the focus was on cheese. We went through eight or so and I didn't feel the need to use a single Spanish one. Livarot from Normandy is one of the hardest cheeses to match with wine because it's so strong, but with Oloroso it was the best match of the lot.'

He also reports on an interest in Sherry from high-profile Asian restaurants Roka and Hakkasan, as well as less-talked-about but critically acclaimed places such as No. 22 in Herne Hill, south London, which has a list of six Sherries by the glass. Fino and Manzanilla Sherries are particularly good with seafood and this is another key to the door of many restaurants.

Neil Mathieson at Eaux de Vie looks after four Sherry brands - Gutirrez Colosia, Herederos de Argeso, Snchez Romate Hnos and Bodegas Maestro Sierra - and the Manzanilla from Herederos de Argeso is on the recommended list at the Fish Works chain. Heston Blumenthal has also given Sherry a lift through its noticeable presence on the drinks list at The Fat Duck, and Baal comments: We use Manzanilla en Rama from Barbadillo with our tasting menu and the feedback is very positive.'

Rockett at Gonzalez Byass observes that even the gastropubs are getting in on the scene. I recently went into the Anchor and Hope near Waterloo and I was very pleasantly surprised to see Sherries actually listed on the main blackboard.' It's not just London, either, Oloroso in Edinburgh gives Jerez a decent nod (as it must with a name like that) and the chef and wine waiter team of Craig Sandle and James O'Donnell, from the Michelin-starred Number One restaurant at The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, have won the Copa Jerez 2006 for their own Sherry and food creations. Northcote Manor in Lancashire has also made a special effort and lists nine Sherries, all by glass and half-bottle, on a dedicated page at the front of its wine list.

Without exception, all of the above positive advancements are largely dependent on staff training, both in terms of ensuring the serving stipulations are adhered to and actually persuading the customers to try something. One side of this is addressed by the Sherry Institute, with the help of David Furer, and the other side by the Sherry companies themselves. Gonzalez Byass, for example, employs Andrew Sinclair as a business development manager for the London on-trade and in addition to working alongside the Sherry Institute, he goes door to door, talking restaurant staff through the different Sherry styles and demonstrating how they should be served.

Gonzalez Byass is one of the biggest advertisers and sponsors in the category, and Tio Pepe is on its way to becoming a household name, a notion that was recently helped along by a big sampling stall set out at Taste of London 2006, the event that brings together London's finest restaurants and chefs to prepare and serve a selection of signature dishes. But this sort of publicity also means that it's available in the mass market, which, conversely, could harm its presence in the on-trade. Rockett is aware of this factor but he doesn't think it's relevant. I can see why this might be suggested and I did go into a very pretentious restaurant recently, which said we were too commercial for them. I really can't understand this, though. If people are in a restaurant and decide to try Sherry for the first time, there's a good chance they'll go for a name they recognise. Anyway, I really don't know how anyone can call Fino Sherry commercial!'

Tasting and training

Sampling activity sits comfortably alongside staff training, and this is something that Beam Global Spirits and Wine is concentrating on to prove there's more to Harveys than Bristol Cream. Lucy Sewell, marketing manager, remarks: There is still a lot of work to be done to educate the non-wine connoisseurs and we are targeting consumers on a much broader scale, making Sherry exciting to existing and new audiences by linking sampling activity to events.' Sewell also reveals that Harveys will be attempting to light up the category later on this year with some new brands, designed to redefine and re-energise' the Sherry sector.

Another big factor that is helping Sherry to gain listings is small bottle sizes. Most restaurateurs agree that half-bottles, or even smaller, are essential for selling Sherry. Even adventurous customers are reluctant to order a whole bottle of Sherry, whereas the idea of having a glass and a half as an aperitif and first course accompaniment is decidedly more palatable. Half-bottles have become quite common among the Sherry companies, but the downsizing trend has further to go. Justerini & Brooks has just taken on a 20cl bottle of Tio Pepe, and Rockett observes, These bottles are not only good for freshness, it also means the brand is on the table.' Hidalgo, represented in the UK by Mentzendorff, has gone even further and introduced an 18.75cl version of its La Gitana Manzanilla, bottled under Stelvin. Brand manager Sarah Woodward explains: We've introduced this smaller format to help overcome consumers' inhibitions about the fact that Sherry is fortified. Both the 50cl and the 18.75cl have been particularly successful in the on-trade, where diners are looking to drink several styles of wine throughout a meal.'

There's really nothing wrong with the product of Sherry in itself, the problems lie with the way in which it's served and the fact that its image among average punters is about as cutting edge as Granny's apple pie. Reversing the damage of decades of abuse is no easy feat, but the Sherry Institute is determined to power forward. This was never going to be an overnight job and the Ten Star Tapas campaign was an inspired first step. The next move is to overcome the Spanish connection and introduce a new concept called Global Grazing, involving chefs from all walks and countries of cuisine, including Mark Jankel at Notting Hill Brasserie, Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nursery, Ferran Adri at El Bulli and Fergus Henderson at St John restaurant. The Institute will also be rolling out a Perfect Serve' initiative, which aims to launch a part education, part promotion and part event-based activity in designated venues.

The other big deal for Sherry, which has been seriously under-exploited as yet, are the results of a study carried out by the University of Seville, which found that a 125ml glass of Fino and Manzanilla contains only 15 calories, which is almost a fifth less than the calorific content of the same amount of white or red wine. Alcohol is often the biggest scourge of the conscientious dieter, which makes this particular calorie count something for the Sherry world to shout about very loudly.

Actually, there are plenty of reasons to get excited about Sherry, not least the prospect of a whole new range of taste sensations. The idea is not to replace wine but just to give people an extra chapter in their repertoire. There's really no excuse not to give it a try.