Once upon a time, there was a Spanish duke at the edge of the known world, who had eyes in the back of his head. Even as he and everyone else looked west – Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the coastal town from which Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan left on their great voyages, was within his fiefdom – he also eyed the chilly island to the north, whose thirsty inhabitants had suffered a terrible reverse a few years before. Bordeaux – English since the 12th century – was won back by France in 1453. If handing over the source of the world’s best wines to your ancestral enemy doesn’t constitute a crisis, I’d like to know what does. I’ve never figured out why we waited another 200 years to have a revolution and then chose to do so over something as trivial as religion.
The duke, meanwhile, had wines to purvey and he believed that the discerning claret drinkers of England could be persuaded to consume a beverage that made up in accessibility what it lacked in prestige. So he abolished wine export taxes and gave English merchants in Sanlúcar preferential status, with pleasing results. By the time the pirate Francis Drake sacked the nearby city of Cádiz in 1587, pilfering 2,900 butts of its finest sherry, he would have had no trouble offloading his booty back home.
There can’t be many forms of beverage that are at once as mysterious and as straightforward as sherry. One grape, mostly. One place of provenance, more or less. No vintages to worry about, unless you really want to. As for accompaniments, dry sherry may be the greatest aperitif ever invented: so pick your poison – nuts, olives – and choose a fino or manzanilla (made in Jerez and Sanlúcar, respectively) to wash it down.
So where’s the mystery? It is the bafflement we feel when lifting a glass that was surely half-full just seconds before to find only a couple of drops remaining: time and liquid have apparently evaporated together. The story of sherry over the past half-millennium is of that evaporation on a grand scale but today’s sherry drinkers make up in enthusiasm what they lack in numbers.
London now has enough dedicated bars for a sherry crawl: start at Pepito in King’s Cross, wend to the chilly surroundings but fine list of Hispania, near Bank, then weave to the tellingly named Fino in Fitzrovia and fall gently into the nearby Drakes Tabanco, the newest addition and purveyor of the wonderful Fernando de Castilla sherries. These places serve the full range of styles, from salty fino to viscous Pedro Ximénez, treacle-black and twice as sweet, made from the grape of the same name (all other sherries are made from the palomino grape). The only kind they are likely to avoid is what most people here know: cream sherry, which originates from an attempt to preserve sherry’s tanginess while making it sweet. This is the stuff that Gran drinks and if you like it, good luck to you – but to my mind, it bears about as much relation to sherry as Spam does to roast belly of pork.
I am not a sherry purist. That would be impossible: all sherries are fortified and then aged convivially in a solera system, in which the youngest wines trickle gradually down rows of barrels; the dry styles only exist because a yeast called flor grows across the fermenting liquid, giving it that distinctive, fresh-baked tang. Nor is it the cream style I object to per se – but each type of sherry has a distinctive personality and I refuse to believe that to appeal to the majority, it is necessary to administer the vinous equivalent of a prefrontal lobotomy. Most of us aren’t Columbus or Magellan: we don’t go in search of the new. But bring us a novelty that tastes nice and we’ll thank you for broadening our horizons.