Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What Would William Shakespeare and Antonio Flores Talk About?

This is a translation of an interesting article by Javier Estrada in the Vida Vid Vino magazine kindly sent to me by academic and Sherry aficionado, José Luís Jiménez. Read on:

Without doubt it is a fantasy, an unrealisable dream, but one can nonetheless imagine the legendary English writer and the famous González Byass oenologist meeting here to talk about Sherry. It is well known that Shakespeare and his friend and fellow dramatist, Ben Johnson, used to go out to drink Sack (the old word for Sherry) in the London taverns back in 1590 where they fell into eternal discussions. Antonio Flores is not only a winemaker, but also a keen student of the wines he makes. 

Joining Antonio and William is José Luís Jiménez, from the San Mateo district of Jerez and leading world expert in references to Sherry in the life and work of the English poet and dramatist. The journey begins almost 200 years before Shakespeare arrives in London, when Sir John Falstaff, a character in Henry IV, ends a glorious monologue saying “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them is to forswear thin potations and addict themselves to Sack."

Falstaff with a jug of sack (
William Shakespeare was the greatest publicist for Sherry of the era. He mentioned it over 40 times in 8 of his works as well as drinking it enthusiastically in the London taverns. “Shakespeare would have to adapt his palate to the Sherry of today which has little to do with the wines he drank”, explains Antonio, “In the Jerez of today the Palomino Fino is the predominant variety, but in Shakespeare’s time many other varieties were drunk, mainly reds but also white wines and darker wines. We suppose that the whites would have been the equivalent of today’s Finos and that the darker ones would have been Olorosos. When Shakespeare refers to a Sherrish Sack, he probably meant Oloroso. At that time the solera system didn’t exist, so there would have been Oloroso and Fino style vintages.

Jose Luis Jimenez, Antonio Flores at the bodega(foto: vida vid vino)
José Luís Jiménez, a member of the Real Academia de San Dionisio de Ciencias, Artes y Letras is currently working in the municipal archive of the Jerez Council. “William Shakespeare moved from his native Stratford upon Avon to London in about 1590. Two years beforehand, the pirate Sir Francis Drake had raided ships in the port of Cádiz which had recently been loaded with food and wine and were ready to set sail to deliver it to the Invincible Armada which was waiting in Lisbon for the order to invade England. Drake stole no fewer than 3,000 butts of wine, so by the time Shakespeare arrived in London the taverns were awash with Sherry.”

In fact, he mentioned Sherry in his first work of 1589 – and titled it “Sherrish Sack”. There are documents, however, which show that were already English merchants based in Jerez who were selling the wine in the XV century. Indeed in the IX century the Vikings sacked Sevilla and got as far as Córdoba, so the route was known, and possibly the wine too.

Antonio & Jose Luis still at it! (foto:vida vid vino)
Antonio mentions the book written about Sherry by González Byass founder, Manuel María González Ángel, which explains the importance of the effect on wine of a sea journey, “since there are references to these almost from the discovery of America, and of course these characterful wines would have been drunk in London. They were very expensive and much appreciated.” They were loaded onto ships, crossed the equator, and returned untouched. They travelled as ballast in the lowest part of the hold where there was a suitable average temperature and came back worth more than if they had stayed in Jerez.

In the whites (Finos) biological ageing or submerged biological ageing took place. When the flor is submerged it accelerates the process, so this would happen naturally with the movement of the ship. With the dark wines (Olorosos), the ship’s movement would accelerate the oxidation.

Looking through the vast range of wines which Antonio makes at González Byass, he seeks out butts which he thinks might most resemble the wine Shakespeare would have drunk in London’s taverns. “I think they would have been similar to Pata de Gallina (super fine Oloroso), Palo Cortado, Amontillado or the Vintage wines, but if I had to choose one, it would be the very old Palo Cortado Apóstoles, or I might share with Shakespeare the Finos Palmas.”

It is certain that not only did Shakespeare like to drink Sherry but that he studied it. In order to write Henry IV he would have had to research what it had been like and its availability in England more than a century before he began to drink it. Shakespearian gastronomy went perfectly with wines which were strong in alcohol, powerful and structured. Antonio comments: “The playwright came from the country to a sophisticated London and encountered game dishes, Scottish salmon - perhaps breaded, food which was prepared for journeys, and which was perfect with Sherry.

Image of bas relief at Boar's Head, Eastcheap London (
Shakespeare found lots of ideas for his writings through meeting the literati of the day in the London taverns of the Boar's Head and the Mermaid - among others. Antonio closes his eyes and takes a draught from his glass to think on this impossible meeting. After a pause he says in a low voice “It would be very emotional.” Falstaff, played in the film by Orson Welles, who visited the bodega in 1961 and signed a butt of Fino, rallied prince Hal’s troops alluding to the power of Sherry. In much the same way, Antonio Flores finishes many of his tastings saying “Sherry cures the soul and delights the heart.”

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