Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, last of her line, general, politician, linguist and lover, was worshipped as a god in her own time and feted as a goddess in ours; the distance between those two states of divinity is a depressing reminder of how little, in 2,000 years, has changed.
I often think of her when drinking sherry, despite the lack of obvious connection between that wondrous drink and the shadowy figure of a legendary queen whose habits of consumption were luxurious but odd. There is a story that she dissolved a priceless pearl in vinegar and drank it, to impress Mark Anthony – her second powerful Roman lover, after Julius Caesar. As a way of conducting power games, this has an impressive brashness to it. And the image of something glowingly beautiful vanquished is poignant but familiar. Vinegar is wine that has succumbed to time and oxygen. When Shakespeare wrote, of Cleopatra, that age could not wither her, he was expressing a universal wish: that there might exist some immunity to chronology’s cold-fingered grasp.
The Nile Delta’s fertile, dark soil is a long way, in every sense, from albariza, the porous Andalusian chalk that makes the thirsty Palomino grape work so hard for such parsimonious doses of moisture, but sherry too has a good shot at defying age.
The driest styles, Fino and Manzanilla, mature under a film of flor: the mysterious yeast that protects them from oxygen and bestows their distinctive nutty, savoury tang. They are then poured into the first of a stack of barrels that progressively mingles different years: the solera system. The result may be sold en rama (a more export-friendly version of the freshest unfiltered sherry plundered from the barrel) or may keep for years: Barbadillo, the biggest Manzanilla producers, are very proud of the 1890s wines that are still added, in minute quantities, to their top-end Reliquia range. This is a canny attempt to thwart the inevitability of the barrel’s last drop; it also makes me wonder how good that long-ago, pearl-adulterated vinegar might have tasted.
Manzanilla comes from coastal Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and combines so happily with pimientos de padrón, the large green salt-encrusted peppers, or with boquerones, anchovies marinated in vinegar, that there seems a beautiful reciprocity of thirst, whereby under-watered vines give forth the perfect cure for the parchedness induced by salty snacks. Other drinks cloy the appetites they feed, as Shakespeare didn’t quite write, but sherry makes hungry where most she satisfies.
Cleopatra has meant different things to different eras – ageing without withering, perhaps. Sherry, too, adds one damn thing to another until the final potion becomes as full of mystique as of Palomino grapes. This strong, piquant drink was comfort for conquered Christians, when Andalusia was ruled by Muslim Moors, then fuel for pirates: Francis Drake stole 2,900 barrels while besting the Spanish Armada, and the drink proved as popular as the victory. Later, it became a genteel aperitif for Victorian ladies, which may have hindered its evolving trendiness: the perception of sweet sherry as Grandma’s sickly tipple proved harder to dissolve than a pearl in vinegar.
But sherry’s desirability endured, and triumphed. Ageless appeal is the privilege of the sex symbol, enthroned or in barrel, and of the poet; the rest of us can only raise a glass, toast life or health, and drink.
Nina Caplan is 2018 Fortnum & Mason drink writer of the year.
This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war