Saturday, 20 February 2016

Sherry is Digging Itself out of a Hole

This is a translation of a very interesting article in El Confidencial which outlines, at least in simple terms, the plight of Sherry and the beginnings of its resurgence.

Juan Carlos Gutiérrez Colosía was always there. When, during the 1960s Sherry sold half way round the world there was money in the Marco de Jerez, he was already working in the bodega bought by his grandfather. When, in the 1970s and early 1980s Ruiz Mateos dropped the prices and thus the prestige of Sherry, he suffered like everyone else. When, in the 1990s and 2,000s the majority of the 350 bodegas which existed then closed, he managed as best he could. And now, now that Sherry is beginning to sell again, Juan Carlos is still there to see it because Sherry, the wine of Churchill, the British Royal Family, Shakespeare and Nelson is back. In 2015, for the first time in 30 years sales in Spain actually rose, and we need to go to Jerez to understand what is happening.

Juan Carlos Gutierrez Colosia (foto:gentedelpuerto)

Helena Rivero is a good example of what is happening. She is the daughter of Joaquín Rivero, a Jerezano and ex-owner of the construction company Metrovacesa who, during the construction boom made one of the biggest fortunes in Spain. At the end of the 1990s Helena had decided she would return to Jerez. The Riveros had once owned one of the oldest bodegas in Jerez, CZ, founded in the XVII century and which, like so many others, closed down in the 1980s after problems with the bank. “Sooner or later I was going to return. A wine with 3,000 years of history couldn’t end up like this. Our generation could not allow ourselves to lose it”, explains Helena as she walks among the butts of the bodega in the centre of Jerez. It is a small, pretty bodega, in amongst the tiny cobbled streets which snake around the city.

So in 1998 Rivero founded Bodegas Tradición, now re-named CZ-Tradición after buying back the historic brand name. They started buying soleras at a time when everyone else was selling them. “In 1998 they thought we were mad, more so when we charged double the price of other wines and staked our reputation on quality. They said we would end up cleaning the windows with all the wine we had bought”, she remembers. Not only did they not want to clean windows, but they wanted to do something crazier still: produce Sherry: Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Cream, PX and brandy of the maximum quality and sell it to the top end of the market. “Obviously there were better businesses than this but we didn’t only do it for romantic reasons: we wanted to make money”, says Helena, who is president of CZ- Tradición.

Helena Rivero (fot:bodega)
To consider the implications for this company at the end of the 1990s we need to go a few kilometres down to the coast to El Puerto de Santa María. There, at the mouth of the Guadalete river, sits the bodega of Juan Carlos Gutiérrez Colosía, the last Mohican of El Puerto. “In 1996 or 1997 I was at a trade fair in Flanders and nobody stopped at my stand. They didn’t even want to try it. Another time in London someone said “Sherry? No”. To understand why no one wanted Sherry and everyone thought Helena Rivero was throwing away the family fortune on it, we need to look further back.

“In the 1970s the area of vineyards was tripled and this generated vast overproduction, huge amounts of Sherry at low prices which was not up to the usual standard” explains Beltrán Domecq Williams, president of the Consejo Regulador. He is the classic “Sherry Gentleman” with an English surname, blue eyes, wearing a blue suit and a blue shirt with white stripes, a tie, a handkerchief in his top pocket and shiny tasselled shoes. He is a chemist who has worked in the entire chain of  Sherry production. He was director general of Williams & Humbert when it was taken over by Ruiz Mateos in 1972, and while extremely diplomatic, lets slip that he said “There’s not enough wine here”. Beltrán has his office in the Consejo Regulador, a fine building constructed in the 1950s resembling a Jerezano stately home.

Beltran Domecq

In 1964 during the good times, the Denominación de Origen had 7,666 hectares of vineyard. In 1978 it peaked at 22,097 hectares after which it slowly but inexorably declined to the present 7,000 hectares, back to a position of balance between supply and demand. Consumption declined with it. Juan Carlos is less diplomatic, and has no doubt who was responsible for the woes of Sherry: “Ruiz Mateos was our number one disaster. He ruined Jerez. His vision prostituted Sherry by selling poor wine at cheap prices so Sherry lost its prestige. He was bad, and worse still he had good pupils. He wanted to create an industry out of bodegas, but they are not an industry.”

Jerezanos remember that in the good times the streets would smell of wine, and older people have not forgotten the little train which used to transport butts between the bodegas. But after centuries it all came to an end. In one decade Sherry changed from being the wine of British high society, a wine mentioned by Shakespeare no fewer than 40 times, a wine always served at royal weddings and a favourite of the Tsar, to just one more wine on the supermarket shelves. Of course it still had its faithful following, but every time a British lord died Sherry lost a customer. Demography is a stubborn thing.

Then came democracy, a social change to which Jerez did not adapt well. It is not a city which likes change, but ownership of bodegas was being divided among families where often the less capable were left in charge while the more capable emigrated, leading to the end of many. There is nothing left of the bodegas of the wealthy Sherry branch of the Domecqs who took legendary excursions, spending a whole season playing polo in France. Other bodegas were taken over by multi-nationals and some carried on like zombie bodegas. There are now only some 40-50 bodegas where once there were 350.

Old soleras at Osborne (foto:bodega)

With this in mind, it is easy to imagine the expressions on people’s faces when Helena Rivero returned to Jerez to establish a luxury bodega. Further, Sherry has its own peculiarities which make it unique in the world like the solera system, with complicated notes written in chalk on the butts which only the capataz can understand. One single grape can produce all sorts of wine. “When people from other wine regions visit us and see what we do they think we are peasants”.

Traditions were maintained but there was ever less Sherry in the city. Jerez decided to position itself as the city of motorcycling. One can even see the Hollywood Walk of Fame style pavement devoted to famous motorcycle racers in the same avenue as the Consejo Regulador. Jerez also became a city of wastefulness getting into such debt it could not even afford to clean the streets. Corruption was rife; every mayor since Democracy has either been jailed for corruption or accused of it. The wine looked like a relic from the past until about five years ago something began to change.

High class gastronomy began to see Sherry as a wine to accompany a meal rather than just as an aperitif, and slowly, little by little it began to become fashionable. José Argudo López de Carrizosa (now there’s a Sherry name), marketing director of González Byass points out the landmark opening in 2010 of Bar Pepito in King’s Cross, London, the first of the Sherry Bars. Since then they have proliferated in many capital cities. “Sherry is cool, like the new vermouth bars. In London you can see girls sitting in a bar with a glass of Oloroso reading a book.” Then came the documentary film “El Misterio del Palo Cortado” and the novel “La Templanza” by María Dueñas set in XIX century Jerez, both have helped increase awareness of Sherry.

Maria Duenas studying (

González Byass is a good example of a big family bodega which has known how to survive. As well as Sherry they produce wine in other areas like Beronia in Rioja, but their star is Tio Pepe. José Argudo’s office is full of Tio Pepe symbolism; even the webcam is carefully fixed to a bottle of it. The bodega, which is the most visited in Europe exploits its history and shows off all its butts signed by famous people with great pride. Few symbols can compete with the illuminated Tio Pepe in the Plaza Puerta del Sol in Madrid, but it has one competitor: the Osborne bull. This famous old firm in El Puerto is now a multinational yet still mostly in family hands. Their communication director, Iván Llanza says that the trick to making a comeback is authenticity. “Some companies need to invent a history but we don’t need to. Here we have a 1792 solera which supplied wine for Tsar Nicholas II, and here is another from 1812.”

The Sherry trade looks at the improvement with palpable excitement. In 2015 domestic sales rose – very slightly, but they rose – from 11.343 million litres to 11.522. A rise of 1.5%, not much but in a period of economic stagnation and falling wine consumption it looks more than hopeful. Beltrán Domecq thinks it might be the first rise in 35 years. While export volumes continue to slide, it is felt in Jerez that it is the larger scale BOB supermarket wines which are sliding while the quality wines are actually rising. Helena Rivero agrees. Sales of CZ-Tradición have grown by 5% in Spain during 2015 and they even ran out of Palo Cortado having sold 2,100 bottles at 80€ each. The bodega produces about 20,000 bottles a year, mostly at 20-30 years old and exports about 75%. They also have a gallery with some great Spanish art. Another prized possession is the bodega’s historical archive which they are slowly digitalising.

Patio at CZ-Tradicion (foto:bodega)

Carlos Gutiérrez is also optimistic. “Sherry was at the point of dying out from its greatness. Ten years ago if someone had asked me I would have said there would be no one left. But now I see a future if we make quality wines worth a high price.” In the bodega he is investing in improvements like restoring old butts. He has survived because his costs are low and the family owns everything. “I do everything from winemaking to bottling, I’ve done it all my life, so I know something about wine…” Of course there is a long way to go before Sherry can recoup its former glory. Beltrán Domecq would like what he sees walking the streets of Jerez to change. “It hurts to walk down the Calle Larga in the very heart of Jerez and see everyone drinking beer or Rioja. It is very sad we Jerezanos are not setting ourselves a good example.”

Despite beer and Rioja in recent years there has been a welcome resurgence of tabancos. Here in these scruffy dives smelling of wine Sherry was traditionally dispensed straight from the butt, but they have cleaned up their act without losing their essential character. Last week in one of them they served the tapas on brown paper on the bar and wrote the bill in chalk on the counter as they always used to. There were the usual old men, but also young people and tourists ordering Oloroso and listening to a Flamenco group which was probably performing for drinks money. “Pa’ qué quiero más tormento que estar un año sin verte? “ (Why would I want more pain than not seeing you for a year?) lamented the singer who said after the applause “Welcome to planet earth, welcome to Jerez.”

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