Sherry On The Frontiers
It’s an emotive word; Sherry. It can instantly conjure up images of grandmas, trifles and tapas. A wine unlike any other, with a unique production process relying on heat, oxygen, bacteria and a deep sense of place, yet it’s fortunes have been on the wane in recent decades. A recent innovation is to try market Sherry as the driest of all white wines, an ideal cool accompaniment to toasted almonds, olives and Calimari on a hot summer’s day. This renovation is just the latest in a long list however, as Sherry has a vast and varied past which has seen it sipped at the decline and birth of some of the world’s greatest Empires. No other wine has toasted the rule of Carthage, become a national emblem on the back of piracy, or withstood the full force of Napoleon’s march. And yet, Sherry has.
The first vines to planted in Sherry’s home of southern Spain were probably brought over some 3,000 years ago. It was a great day for the south of Spain, and indeed history, when the Phoneticians brought the first grape producing plants over the Mediterranean from the Middle East. But the planting is only half the story – the deliberate oxidation of wine, which gives Sherry it’s trademark taste, comes as a natural consequence of the permeable nature of oak. The long sea voyages of the Ancient world would have presumably instilled this taste in the wine.
From those early plantings, the vineyards of Jerez or (Ceret as it was then known) serviced the tables of first the Carthaginian Empire and, after its downfall, those of Rome. From North Africa, to Spain, from Persia to Britain, Sherry could have been drunk by the great and the good across the then known world. The wines were widely regarded in the villas of the Roman elite, as the grape musts were boiled to concentrate the sugars within the wine. The first Pedro Ximinez style perhaps? When Hannibal himself marched across the Alps, it was a strong spirited wine he used to literally blow open a path through a particularly rocky gulf. Could Rome itself have been brought down by Sherry’s grapes of war?
With the decline of the Roman Empire, Jerez was brought under the occupation of the Moors of North Africa. Although alcohol was forbidden, the area did still cultivate some vines as part of the trade with non-Muslim neighbours. Jerez here became a border region, as the Christian Reconquest began in the North. A mixture of cultures from North and South, a multitude of religion and influence converged on this wine producing crucible. And still Sherry wine was produced.
But it was in the ‘Age of Exploration’ where Sherry really established itself as the wine of Empire and a true name of history. Barrels of it were loaded onto those great wooden behemoths which set sail to discover new lands in North and South America, India and the Indies. Here too, England’s taste for the stuff developed. The English were given preferential treatment in the ports of Southern Spain. In 1587 Sir Francis Drake captured 2,900 butts of Sherry and forever instilled the liquid as an emblem of England, Empire and extravagance. Who would have thought piracy could taste so good? As if anything could endear the English to the wine even more, than Shakespeare made Sherry (or sack as it was known) the favourite tipple of his comic hero Sir John Falstaff.
And finally, during the French occupation of the Napoleon Wars, it was the nearby town of Cadiz which became the bedrock for Spanish resistance with the founding of a new parliament and the withstanding of a two year siege. Being so close by, Jerez bore the brunt of a looting and pillaging policy and the blockading of any trade with the region’s main export nation – Britain. And yet when the French withdrawal finally occurred, the area bounced back remarkably. Despite the Duke of Wellington’s rather damning claim that Sherry “tastes as if it has been drunk before”.
And so I leave you with a quote from the great Falstaff instead – “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.”