Perfect aperitif

Drink - Victoria Moore discovers that granny wasn't so wrong about sherry

Poor old maiden aunt sherry. When my grandmother died, we organised a post-funeral ironic sherry buffet in her honour. The bottle of Croft made a stately centrepiece alongside the slivers of deliberately anaemic quiche and egg-and-cress sandwiches. Only the blue-rinse brigade (who loved it) took it seriously. Even John Radford, in his excellent book The New Spain, begins his chapter on sherry with a stab in the back. "There are wine regions of the world favoured with a perfect climate, rich soils, alpine altitude and noble and complex vine varieties, but Jerez is not one of these." On the other hand, Shakespeare's Falstaff was a great advocate, announcing that it "ascends me into the brain and dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapours which environ it".

We have been drinking sherry in this country for more than 650 years and now is no time to turn our backs on it. However, I'm not sure that packaging it (as Harvey's has done with its Bristol Cream) in one of those blue bottles that made water such a chic dinner-table accessory is going to give it youth appeal. But transforming it into a drink for connoisseurs might just do the trick.

Whatever you do, don't say sherry. I tried it the other day and even the barman could scarcely contain his derision. I definitely saw him peering behind me to check I was supervising a grandmother whose cognisance was faltering because her sherry drip needed topping up. The thing is, while voluntary utterance of the sh word is enough to hurl you beyond the farthest reaches of galaxy society, it's actually, well, if not quite cool then at least acceptable to say fino, manzanilla, amontillado or oloroso.

In Chelsea there is a tapas bar called Lomo where girls in gilets with friendship beads around their wrist and blokes who look as though they might be quite cutting and thrusting order from a sherry menu without embarrassment.

Perhaps part of the secret lies in disassociating the drink from its more familiar, fusty setting and returning it to the blue skies and dusty white chalk soils of Andalucia. Lomo doesn't exactly do that but its white walls help and thank goodness it avoids what seems at the moment to be an irresistible urge among restaurateurs to go buff. Not in the buff, but buff: beige, taupe, ecru, fawn, manila, camel. In a setting of such insipidity, the pale straw hue of a manzanilla would disappear into the soft furnishings, all bland and forgotten.

Because it is the perfect aperitif (grannies have a point here: it does seem to help the stomach to settle down from the day's wrenching anxieties without ruining your appetite), I choose a fino. Fino is the lightest and driest sherry, called manzanilla in the cooler coastal areas where the yeast (flor) in the sherry casks grows all year round. In the searing heat of inland areas, the flor dies back and the wines turn darker. I drink Puerto Fino, Lustau Solera Reserva, appreciating for the first time its fresh flavour and dry intensity. The menu suggests eating chorizo or seafood with it, so I do. My teeth tear at the spicy, chewy chorizo, then the tang of the sherry cracks at my cheeks jigsawing with the peppery flavour of the meat. It's too good for words.

The pungent flavours of tapas, "the sly piquancy of green olives, the sunny intensity of roasted vegetables and the salty lick of the anchovy" bring out the best in sherry. Next on the list is Manzanilla Pasada de Sanlucar, Lustau Almacenisa. The manzanilla itself has the primitive, salty flavour of the ocean which marries well with manchego and thin, green strips of sweet quince jelly.

I am too greedy for manzanilla to move onto the older amontillados or the olorosos - "darker, richer wines with an aroma of nuts and an arid finish" - but I will come back another time, now that I know that to enjoy a good glass of sherry you don't have to clown around with post-ironic irony.

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain