Julie Bindel

Give sherry a chance

The stuff our grandparents drunk was appalling

  • From Spectator Life

My grannie, a proud working-class woman, had a fake crystal decanter on display in a glass cabinet, filled with weak tea. We all assumed it was sherry, and she didn’t disabuse us. I discovered the truth when I opened the lock with a hairgrip and took a swift glug. My face must have been a picture.

Grannie worked in service, cleaning the house of a well-to-do family on the other side of the tracks. I reckon they had a proper decanter filled with the real McCoy, and she would have had the odd swig of it to help her get through scrubbing the fire grates.

My relationship with sherry had a terrible beginning. I was 16 and was persuaded by some friends to club together to buy a pint of the loose stuff from the corner shop

Having been Britain’s favourite wine in the 1970s, today it is either ignored or laughed at. The majority of sherries are dry, but the ghost of Harvey’s Bristol Cream haunts our collective memory. In the early 1950s, Bristol Cream was the best-selling sherry in the world and gave it a terrible reputation. But so did Piat d’Or, Blue Nun and Black Tower discredit wine back in the day.

At its most popular, the UK imported eight million cases a year, but today the total vineyard area surrounding Jerez has shrunk to 7,000 hectares from 22,000 in the 1980s.

Yet sherry is enjoying another renaissance, the last one being in 2010, according to Jason Wilson, author of three books on booze. There are, he discovered during a recent trip, a new wave of sherry producers in Jerez – some of whom have formed a group called Territorio Albariza.

My relationship with sherry had a terrible beginning. I was 16 and was persuaded by some friends to club together to buy a pint of the loose stuff from the corner shop. It was the worst of its kind and would have been stored in a plastic barrel, sold for pennies and tasted like cough mixture. It was also very alcoholic. Sherry is a fortified wine, with alcohol content of between 16 and 18 per cent, so, not surprisingly, it made me very ill, and I vowed never to touch the stuff again. Imagine my surprise when, 30 years later while on holiday in Spain, I was served a glass of ice-cold straw-coloured liquid that tasted of bread and nuts and sunshine. It was a Fino, and I was hooked.

A decade ago I was in Washington DC and visited Mockingbird Hill (now closed), a sherry and ham bar modelled on those hole-in-the-wall joints in Spain that serve snacks with drinks. Sherry does not go well with main courses. I tried a couple of sherry-based cocktails at Mockingbird, but soon shifted back to small glasses of the dry stuff with sweet, thinly sliced Iberico ham. Luscious.

I began to experiment with different types of sherry, such as manzanilla, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximenez, including pairing them with food, as well as cooking with it. This Christmas, I am officially reviving sherry trifle, made with one of the semi-sweet varieties such as a pale cream. Fino is perfect as a basis for a sauce for clams. Braised leeks in a sauce made with one of the nuttier varieties such as Oloroso is a revelation.

Drink Fino or Manzanilla with anchovies, olives, salted nuts, cured hams or cheeses, gazpacho or seafood. Spicy samosas and Amontillado are a perfect match. Fino with crispy squid works extremely well.

The sweet, sticky variety, such as Pedro Ximenez is delicious poured over vanilla ice cream or drunk with strong-flavoured cheeses. I have soaked raisins in it and sprinkled them over puddings. There is a sherry for every type of food imaginable.

I’ve made a Bloody Mary by substituting the vodka for sherry (perhaps at brunch when spirits are too heavy in alcohol for that time of the day) and tried substituting it for gin in a Negroni. The days of deriding sherry because we only had the rubbish stuff when it first became popular in the UK are well and truly over. Next time you find yourself in a Spanish restaurant, ignore the Rioja and try pairing different varieties with your tapas. You won’t look back.