Upping the ante on sherry

At first sight, the latest export data from Jerez’s Consejo Regulador make for some pretty grim reading. Total imports of sherry in the UK fell more than 1 million litres, from just over 12 million litres in 2012 to just over 11 million litres in 2013. This is typical of the downward trend that has dominated the UK sherry market over the course of the past decade.

And yet, depressing as the volume data looks, there might be light at the end of the tunnel. Even though the Consejo does not gather data on the value of sherry exported to the UK, making it hard to get a grip on the figures, there seems to be a general consensus among retailers that sherry’s fortunes may have started to turn a corner.

“Growth has improved a little,” says Waitrose buyer Nick Room. “Styles have stayed pretty much the same, but there are people who have traded up, looking for something more exclusive.”

“Our year-on-year figures for the Christmas period were up 4% by volume, but 10% by value,” says Majestic buyer Andy Lloyd. “We’ve spent a lot of time reinventing our sherry range, trying to tap into the apparent demand for better sherries by releasing our own-label almacenista selection.” (Almacenista sherries, produced by small bodegas, are the boutique wines of the sherry world.)

“The biggest change we’ve seen has been in the growth of sales of premium sherries,” agrees Melissa Draycott, UK sales director of González Byass. “This has gone hand in hand with a rise in popularity of drier styles. Cream styles are in slight decline but their volume is so huge that, overall, the market is static.”

One reason for the slow upward climb of premium sherries is that, after years of emphasising the consistency of production, some producers have shifted their focus towards a greater degree of innovation.

Spearheading the charge for premium dry sherries has been the recently introduced “en rama” category.

The term “en rama” means something like “in the raw”, and en ramas are bottled with minimal filtration, often unfined and not cold-stabilised. The easiest way of explaining the resulting wines is to describe them as turbo-charged finos and manzanillas — they tend to have more depth and character than standard bottlings.

It goes without saying, of course, that customers are expected to pay for the greater depth of flavour. The retail price for a bottle of en rama tends to carry a premium of somewhere between 30% and 70% when compared with a standard fino or manzanilla.

González Byass kick-started the market for en rama in the UK. The company’s first Tio Pepe en rama was released in 2010 and was an immediate critical success.

This year, although volumes are still small (the Consejo estimates that around 12,000 litres of en rama were shipped to the UK in 2013), nine of the 18 or so producers shipping fino and manzanilla to the UK will include an en rama in their range.

“En rama has been a bit of a phenomenon,” says Lloyd. “We have a relatively small allocation and it sells out really fast. It’s definitely a part of the sherry market that has captured the imagination.”

Part of en rama’s get-it-while-you-can appeal is that production is largely seasonal. Bottling takes place once or twice a year (in spring and, sometimes, in autumn) when the flor (the layer of yeast that protects finos and manzanillas from oxidation during their maturation period) is at its thickest. Most of this year’s en ramas will be launched either at the Big Fortified Tasting this month or at the London Wine Fair.

“It’s been difficult to find new things to promote in our sherry range in the past,” says Wine Society buyer Toby Morrhall, “but the seasonal thing with en rama is interesting — it gives you the opportunity to market different products.”

In addition to en ramas, the sherry category has now expanded to offer a whole slew of premium products. Wines with a greater or lesser degree of oxidation have been able to label themselves as being either VOS (with a minimum average of 20 years’ ageing) and VORS (with a minimum average age of 30 years’ ageing) for a number of years now, but some sherry producers have begun to include rare bottlings of vintage wines in their range.

These are, arguably, wines for the wealthy aficionado only — prices are steep and the wines themselves can be quite extreme in style. There is, perhaps, more mileage to be obtained from releases that blur the boundary between fino or manzanilla styles and amontillados — an area that’s being explored by companies such as González Byass (with its Palmas range), Emilio Hidalgo (La Panesa) and Hidalgo la Gitana (Pastrana).

While all this stylistic innovation is going down well with retailers, it would appear there are still some practical issues sherry producers might want to address.

“More half-bottles of manzanilla would be a good start, especially in summer months,” says Waitrose’s Room. “We’ve seen some half-bottles, but often they are priced quite high relative to a full bottle. You ideally want to have less of a premium to encourage people to dabble.”

Majestic’s Lloyd says: “I sometimes feel there’s an over-arching conservatism coming out of Jerez,” says Lloyd, “but we’ve seen some bright, colourful labels coming out recently and they do grab the attention.

“I’d like to see more of that energy put into innovation — maybe more single-barrel wines and innovative packaging. I’d like to see producers being a little more confident and proud about what they’ve got to offer the world.”

Wines to watch out for at the Big Fortified Tasting

Trendy: Tio Pepe Fino En Rama from Gonzalez Byass

Punchy: Fernando de Castillo Fino En Rama

Nutty treat: Blandy’s Verdelho 1998 Colheita Madeira

Characterful: Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage Port 1996

Rich palate: Stanton & Killeen Classic Rutherglen Topaque

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