Francis Drake’s galleons of sherry

If, as much of the world believes, we Brits are culinary dunces, how do you explain our longstanding passion for sherry? Leaving aside those latecomers, the cream varieties, the several styles of this fortified Spanish wine are all glorious and we've been importing them enthusiastically since Francis Drake sacked Cadiz in 1587 and made off with the Spanish Armada's allocation.

I consider myself a descendant of Drake - gastronomic, rather than biological. I'd certainly turn pirate for good sherry. I suspect Jack Lewens, wine buyer for Sam and Eddie Hart's trio of London restaurants - Fino, Barrafina and Quo Vadis - would, too.

We are considering the evolution in fino and manzanilla, those wondrous appetite inducers, which gain their salty, nutty flavour from flor, the carpet of oxygen-excluding yeast under which they snuggle during fermentation. Then it's a tot of higher alcohol and into the upper rung of a solera, or stack of ancient barrels, for a slow drip to the bottom. The grape used for this style (the only difference being that fino comes from Jerez while manzanilla is made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, nearer the sea) is palomino.

“No, it isn't," says Jack, pouring me a golden measure of Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino No 24, made from the other sherry grape, Pedro Ximénez. It's lovely: more luscious and pungent than your usual fino.

Once extracted from the solera, the sherry is filtered to stabilise it, then sold. "No, it isn't," murmurs Jack, upending a bottle of Bodegas Hidalgo's La Gitana Manzanilla "en rama" into my glass. En rama - unfiltered sherry, straight from the cask - is what the locals drink, so Hidalgo, like González Byass before it, is nicking an old idea and making a clever marketing gambit out of it (unstabilised sherry has to be drunk quickly). Drake, I feel, would approve. This sherry is heavier than their usual manzanilla and rounder on the tongue.

Palomino is such a great grape, I muse, it seems strange there's no one in Spain experimenting with treating it more like a traditional white wine. "Yes, there is," says Jack, offering me a palomino fino 2009 Navazos Niepoort, which ferments under flor like sherry, then gets whisked into a bottle before any of the fortifying can take place. The result is peaty yet light. I'm not sure Drake would have trashed a Spanish city for it but I'm liking the cut of its jib.

Worth pilfering

What's interesting about these sherry offshoots is that they presuppose a bouncing market of experimental sherry-fanciers so soused in fino, manzanilla and even the richer, sweeter forms that they are ready to try new products. Granted, if you drink in a bar called Fino, you're probably pretty keen on the stuff. But the story of sherry usually features a gentle decline from intrepid entrepreneurship - all right, piracy - to elderly ladies sipping cloying cream sherries while the rest of the lay population runs for the hills.

Lewens disagrees. Waitrose, he points out, now stocks good own-brand sherries made by Lustau, which has helped. So has the passion of the Spanish company Equipo Navazos, who bottle small amounts of obscure but lovely sherries and distribute them abroad. I would add the independent wine shops who pass their owners' sherry obsession on to a thirsty clientele; the dedicated sherry bar Pepito in King's Cross; and of course, Lewens's willingness to serve up to 20 sherries by the glass.

But the most important factor in sherry's rising status is its lip-smacking wonderfulness. It is, and always has been, worth pilfering. The British know this: we're a discerning bunch.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.