Academie du Vin Library’s Sherry released

A rich and rousing romp through the history of Spain’s 'greatest white wine'

Words by Adam Lechmere

A row of glasses with a selection of sherry

A tasting of rare and ancient sherries kicked off the launch of the latest release from the Academie du Vin Library last month.

Sherry, by Ben Howkins, which comes with the subtitle “Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent!”, is a compendium of sherry, a personal – and sometimes eccentric – history of the drink whose “time has come”, as Howkins told the packed downstairs hall at 67 Pall Mall earlier this month.

In his foreword Hugh Johnson says the same thing: the tide is “undoubtedly” turning, and soon sherry will be recognised for what it is, not the dusty bottle of a liquid “blended into a sweetish brownness” that sits on the sideboard, but “Spain’s greatest white wine”.

Sherry, by Ben Howkins, is a personal – and sometimes eccentric – history of the drink whose “time has come”

Howkins brings his lifetime’s experience in the wine trade to the task of examining sherry from every angle. He charts the rise and decline of the great wine from its “sweetest hour” in the 16th century (Shakespeare’s Falstaff  famously eulogised it in Henry IV pt II) to the 1970s when Harvey’s and Tio Pepe had a virtual monopoly and flooded the market with that “sweetish brownness”.

A particular charm of the book is the writer’s personal reminiscences. In a chapter on the solera system Howkins’ recalls his Vintners’ Scholarship interview, and “a lovely old gentleman” asking him if he understood how soleras worked. “Yes, sir”, replied the terrified young man, at which the gent murmured “oh, good” and slumped back in his chair.

Howkins makes clear that economic factors have always played an important part in sherry’s history: the minimum export pricing regulations of the 1970s kept prices artificially low, for example, and “promulgated sales of lesser quality sherries”.

One chapter covers the Ruiz Mateos scandal of the 1970s and 80s, another (“Fifty Shades of Sherry”) lists key operators in the business from journalists and critics to sommeliers and producers.

In a chapter called “Sherrypaedia”, the author romps through the part sherry has played in popular culture, enumerating the number of times it appears in such films and TV shows as Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Monty Python. He unearths recondite facts: who knew that Sherry as a first name first appeared in the 1920s and peaked in the 1960s as number 48 out of the top 1000 names (it had virtually disappeared by 1990)?

Ben Howkins
Ben Howkins

Much of the book is a comprehensive and serious look at the state of sherry today. The great houses are are given detailed coverage, as are the “boutique bodegas” which account for the half-million cases that are not sold by the “big six”.

These smaller, often family-run enterprises have created a “mini gold rush”. Companies like Equipo Navajos and Bodegas Tradicion, and almenicistas (houses focussing on ageing sherries) like Cayetano del Pino are “the leading families and companies who appear to be shaping the future of this region” Howkins says.

“The volumes may not be huge, but the quality, apart from delighting consumers, provides the necessary margins to invest.” And investment is looking healthier than ever: two years ago Peter Sisseck of Pingus in Ribera del Duero bought the solera Camborio from Juan Piñero, and “there are strong rumours” that producers from as far afield as Champagne are interesting themselves in Sherry.

To celebrate the launch Howkins, Academie co-founder Steven Spurrier and Beltran Domecq showed seven wonderful old sherries. Domecq, whose family is as intimately connected with sherry as any in Jerez, is current president of the Consejo Regulador, introduced the wines. Sherry, he said, “has a brutal glamour. Even if they are 150 years old they are still evolving.”

Sherry is the third title in the Academie du Vin Library. The first is Michael Broadbent’s seminal Wine Tasting, first published in 1968 and regarded as one of the essential works on wine; the second is Fiona Morrison’s 10 Great Wine Families.