Sherry producers are making a concerted effort to shake off its 'drunk by grannies at Christmas' image. Ben McFarland tracks the progress.
When granny's round on Christmas Day for some crackers, turkey, stuffing and a repeat showing of The Great Escape, there's always one drink that traditionally fits the bill and that's sherry.
While sherry producers will no doubt welcome the financial benefits of the annual purchase every Christmas, the drink's association with the ageing drinker and the festive period is one they are desperately trying to shed.
The Sherry Institute of Spain has spent the last three years trying to persuade younger drinkers that, like dogs, sherry is for life not just for Christmas.
In its native Spain, the image of sherry couldn't be more contrasting. As an integral part of the country's café culture, sherry is drunk as a cool, refreshing tipple during the warmer months and natives think nothing of drinking a bottle of dry sherry as we would a dry white wine. Younger consumers of the drink are also reported to be mixing it with lemonade and taking it as a long drink.
Not surprisingly, this is very much the message that the Sherry Institute is trying to get across as part of its "Sherry. The secret is chilling" campaign. At the forefront of the initiative is the importance of serving sherry at a lower temperature, whether that's by keeping the bottle in the fridge or by serving it over ice.
This summer, the generic sherry campaign embarked on a major sampling initiative at a number of National Trust outdoor music events in an attempt to get the "chilled" message across to drinkers who may still perceive it as an obscure, dark, sweet and sticky liqueur.
After chardonnay and other dry whites surpassed sherry's position as an aperitif, the Sherry Institute has adopted an "If you can't beat them join them" attitude and is working hard to market sherry as a wine with the strapline "one of the great wines of Spain".
The schooner, so long associated with sherry, is being replaced by the wine glass and restaurants, pubs and bars are being encouraged to include sherry on their wine lists and, more importantly, label it as a close cousin to dry wines.
There have also been efforts to develop a kinship between sherry and food and pair it with dishes that are not necessarily found in tapas bars. Sommeliers, chefs, barstaff and managers were all invited to a number of high-profile lunches designed to demonstrate sherry's versatility and disseminate the message throughout the trade.
All of the initiatives mentioned above are being undertaken, in one form or another, by the major sherry brands. Three years ago, fortified wine giant Gonzalez Byass attempted to kickstart the sherry category by investing heavily in its Tio Pepe brand. A new look bottle, bearing a close resemblance to the kind used by wine brands, replaced the old-fashioned dark design and a major advertising campaign was launched to promote it as a particularly dry white wine.
While the new packaging has gone on to win awards, the initial marketing approach designed to appeal to people's dry sense of humour failed to catch on and was replaced this year with a £750,000 initiative claiming that "Food tastes better after a glass of Tio Pepe".
Berkman Wine Cellars, the UK agent for La Guita Manzanilla sherry - a delicate style of fino sherry - is looking to reduce the problems associated with dry sherry's relatively short shelf-life by introducing it in half bottles and a single-serve size. This enables licensees to encourage trial by the glass without the pressure of having to sell the rest of the bottle within two or three days.
Karen Morfill, brand co-cordinator at Berkmann, said: "Manzanilla is designed to be drunk as a fresh, cold white wine and retaining the freshness is absolutely essential.
"That's why we've decided to bring in 37.5cl and 20cl bottles as well as the 75cl."
While the drier styles of sherry are showing signs of growth, cream sherries remain far and away the preferred choice among UK consumers - not surprising when you consider the style was specially designed for the British market.
Market leader Harvey's Bristol Cream, owned by Allied Domecq, has been running a campaign to show consumers the delights of serving it "over ice" with a slice of orange.
A sherry glossary
Sherry comes in an array of styles, with fino being the driest and Pedro Ximenez the very sweetest. But there are a number of variants in between.
- Fino: Fino sherry is pale straw in colour, light bodied and bone dry. Finos should be served well chilled and are consumed in Spain much like a chardonnay.
- Manzanilla: Exclusively made in bodegas (large warehouses in which sherry is matured) in Sanlucar de Barrameda.
- Cream: A very dark sherry made when an Oloroso sherry is sweetened with the Pedro Ximenez grape variety. It is the ideal type of sherry to accompany desserts.
- Oloroso: One of two basic types of Palamino sherry along with Fino. Essentially a dry sherry, but also available in a range of sweeter styles.
- Amontillado: Amber in colour, naturally dry but with a deep fresh nutty aroma. Amontillado sherries are aged Finos that are great sipping wines.
Brighton Rock Beach House
The Brighton Rock Beach House, a forward-thinking outlet situated on the South Coast, is an ideal destination for those licensees who remain resistant to sherry's charms.
Owner Neil Woodcock, winner of the 2002 Unique Pub Company's Innovator of the Year award, identifies sherry as the next big thing and has seen sales rocket a "squillion per cent".
"Before we made an effort we were selling a glass of sherry or two just before Christmas, but now we're getting through around half a case every week," he said.
Neil boasts two core sherries, Harvey's Bristol Cream and Sandeman, and expands the range when possible, although he is disappointed by how difficult it is to get hold of sherry in this country.
Sherry is proposed as an aperitif to those visiting the Brighton Rock Beach House and it is served chilled in high-quality wine glasses in 100ml measures.
"I think believing in it is quite important and it's all about being suggestive - when people come to the bar they're willing to be led. If you suggest sherry, they'll often say: 'Oh, my grandparents used to drink that! Why not, I'll give it a try.'
"It's not just about how the drink is drunk, it's more about how people behave when they're drinking, what they wear and how they feel - just look at the Martini culture."
Inspired by his experience at the Rock Beach House, Neil is looking to take things a step further.
"I genuinely believe there's a huge opportunity for a sherry bar called Jerez and I'd love to get together with one of the major sherry houses to see if they'd get behind the idea."