“Sherry doesn’t get the respect it deserves,” says Paul Grieco, owner of Terroir, a two-unit wine bar in New York City. “We in the industry are enamored with Sherry. But I don’t think that passion has fully translated to the public yet.” Long moribund in the United States, the fortified wine from Spain’s Jerez region ranges across styles that include some of the driest and sweetest wines in the world. In recent years, Sherry has enjoyed an upswing, thanks to a wave of high-end releases that have reinvigorated interest in the category from foodies, millennials and fine wine drinkers.
For happy hour, Terroir offers glasses of Sherry for just $2.50 a 3-ounce pour. “We always have at least a fino and an oloroso,” Grieco says, noting recent offerings like the Urium fino and the El Maestro Sierra oloroso. “We’re even bringing in a Manzanilla that can be poured on draft. I do everything I possibly can to put Sherry front and center and to educate.” For years, Terroir offered Sherry for free during happy hour. “You would’ve thought that there would be a line of people out my door,” Grieco says. “But it didn’t move the needle. The most Sherry I ever served, when it was free, was 10 glasses a day. And when I started charging, it didn’t change.” He admits that the poor reception is perplexing. “Maybe we as an industry aren’t doing a good enough job telling the story of Sherry,” Grieco says.
Peter Liem, cofounder of the multicity event series Sherryfest, aims to boost the wine’s visibility. “Sherry used to have a negative image,” he says. “But among the new generation of wine drinkers, it has no image at all. People don’t know what Sherry is, but they’re very open to it.” That curiosity has begun to revive the category. Although Sherry was down slightly to 162,000 nine-liter cases in 2014, according to Impact Databank, many importers report double- and triple-digit growth in premium and luxury Sherries.
“There are really two Sherry categories,” says Andrew Sinclair, senior business development manager for Spanish wine producer González Byass. “There’s the Sherry category of esoteric, foodie-led, top-quality wines. Then there’s the other part of the category—the majority in terms of volume—that’s led by sweet cream Sherry. A different generation of people drink those wines. It’s quite important to draw the line between the overall category picture and the micro-category we’re developing.”
The resurgence of high-end Sherry—once as prized as Burgundy and Bordeaux—is largely a result of innovation from both the largest producers and new players. Releases in the en rama style, which are bottled straight from the cask without being filtered, have been particularly successful. “The en rama explosion helped spearhead the Sherry upturn globally,” Sinclair says. González Byass reintroduced the style about five years ago with the launch of Tio Pepe Fino en Rama (about $33 a 750-ml. bottle)—an extension of its core Tio Pepe Fino, one of the top-selling examples of the style in the United States. Other producers have followed suit. “The en rama style has always existed in Jerez, but there hadn’t been any commercial releases for a long time,” Sinclair explains.
This spring, González Byass is introducing the Palmas range, a series of en rama releases sourced from individually selected barrels, including 6-, 8- and 10-year-old finos and a 45-year-old amontillado ($34 to around $100). “If you imagine Tio Pepe en Rama as a seasonal summer fino, the Palmas range is an autumnal and winter counterpart,” Sinclair says. The company, which purchased an importer last year in order to manage its own distribution, has seen triple-digit growth in its high-end Sherries, which include the super-premium Superior range (mid-$20s a 750-ml. bottle) and the Rare Old Solera range ($50 a 375-ml. bottle).
Lustau, one of the largest upscale Sherry brands, has also seen consumer excitement from high-end releases, including its Lustau Fino de Jerez en Rama (around $23 a 500-ml. bottle) and its Almacenista series ($22 to $30), a range of bottlings from very small bodegas. “The fact that Lustau is commercializing these wines with its brand and marketing power doesn’t take away from the fact that some of these offerings come from soleras of just 21 butts,” says Andrew Mulligan, portfolio manager for Spanish wines at Syosset, New York–based importer Michael Skurnik Wines. “The Almacenistas certainly deserve to be in the category of boutique producers.”
Among fine wine drinkers, the Sherry bottler Equipo Navazos has attracted particular attention. “The company is essentially a négociant,” says Kristie Petrullo Campbell, managing director at New York City–based importer IPO Wines. “Rather than owning a solera, it buys high-end barrels from existing houses.” Equipo Navazos, which started as a dinner club, offers one-time numbered releases under its
La Bota brand (pricing varies). “We’ll tell fans that we’ve got a new bottling, and they’ll jump on it,” Campbell says. “They know it’s a limited product.”
The wines appeal to foodies and fine wine drinkers—but not all of them. “There’s a divide,” Petrullo Campbell explains, noting that many classic drinkers stick to Rhône, Burgundy, Barolo, Bordeaux and Champagne. “But the new generation of sommeliers and wine drinkers are curious. That’s our audience.” She adds that since IPO began working with Equipo Navazos three years ago, the brand’s business in IPO’s markets has tripled.
Premiumization has also driven increased interest in core offerings. “The high-end sector is important for establishing Sherry as a serious wine,” Sherryfest’s Liem says. “But most good Sherry is still tremendously affordable. It’s possibly the greatest value in the wine world.” Consumers have started taking notice. Tio Pepe Fino (around $18) exceeded González Byass’s sales goals by 240 percent in 2014. Lustau’s range has also done well, led by Los Arcos Amontillado, Jarana Fino, Puerto Fino and Papirusa Manzanilla (all $15). The brand’s Península Palo Cortado ($26) and Don Nuño Oloroso (mid-$20s) have seen strong sales as well. “We sold almost half a million dollars of Lustau’s wines in our markets last year,” Mulligan says. “Dry Sherries increasingly account for the majority of sales.”
“The on-premise is definitely driving Sherry,” IPO’s Petrullo Campbell says. “They’re the ones in front of people talking about it, opening it and tasting it for them.” Derek Brown embraces the challenge of consumer education at Mockingbird Hill, his Sherry- and ham-focused bar in Washington, D.C. “Our customers sit and ask us what Sherry is all about,” he says. “It’s a dialogue. We get to help people discover something they’ve never tried.” The restaurant offers a full range of Sherries by the glass ($6 to $34), with César Florido Fino ($9) as a perennial favorite. Sherry flights ($14 to $28 for three 1-ounce pours), which change regularly, focus on introducing customers to Sherry’s varied styles. The bar also offers flights of spirits that are aged in Sherry barrels, especially Scotch whisky. “With Sherry, there are many points of entry for the consumer,” Brown says.
Restaurants are in some ways the ideal place for Sherry. “To have a strong Sherry category, you need good restaurants behind it, and not just Spanish restaurants,” González Byass’s Sinclair says, noting that Sherry also pairs well with Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. “The food angle is absolutely paramount. In Spain, they would never drink Sherry without food.” The educational efforts have begun to pay off. “People are starting to understand it—not just the trade, but real foodies,” Sinclair says. “They’re getting used to enjoying Sherry in an on-premise environment and drinking it like a white wine, which is what Sherry is.” IPO’s Petrullo Campbell agrees. “Really high-end sommeliers are serving Sherry in their restaurants, so customers can order it by the glass,” she says.
The recent spate of upscale releases has made top sommeliers more receptive to Sherry. “These wines are actually becoming more feasible for high-end restaurants,” Sinclair says. “Top somms used to tell me the wines were amazing, but too cheap to sell. Sherry was such an amazing value that they couldn’t upsell them.” He adds that half bottles present a great opportunity for both by-the-glass and bottle sales.
Sherry’s best chance of crossing over to the mainstream might be in the mixology world. “It’s become clear that Sherry cocktails are doing better work for us than a lot of our efforts,” Skurnik’s Mulligan says. “They grab a younger demographic. Someone sees a cocktail list and says, ‘I know what grenadine and rye
whiskey are, but what’s palo cortado?’ And the bartender can pour the guest a little taste. All of a sudden, someone who would never consider ordering a glass of Sherry has been exposed to it.” The company’s Lustau East India Sherry ($26 a 750-ml. bottle) does particularly well in mixology accounts. “We ship out more East India to cocktail bars than to restaurants or retail stores,” Mulligan says, adding that people often use it as a vermouth substitute.
“Sherry has always been a part of classic cocktails, from the Adonis to the Sherry Cobbler,” notes Brown of Mockingbird Hill, which offers more than a dozen Sherry cocktails ($8 to $15). “We’re simply picking up that thread. Americans drink Sherry in cocktails.” The Sherried Old Fashioned, made with Belle Meade Bourbon and Pedro Ximénez Sherry (brand varies) in place of sugar, is popular, as is the Fino Garlic Back, a shot of fino (brand varies) followed by a shot of pickled garlic juice. Another top-seller is The High Kirk, comprising La Cigarrera Manzanilla, chamomile-infused Glenfarclas 12-year-old Scotch whisky, Bénédictine liqueur and lemon oil. Any style of Sherry can be used in mixed drinks. “Fino and Manzanilla add subtlety and depth to dry cocktails,” Brown says. “Amontillado and oloroso work as richer, more whiskey-like bases. Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are great sweeteners. Sherry is becoming a de facto cocktail ingredient at quality-oriented bars.”
Sherry presents some challenges in the off-premise. “It’s a difficult category to sell because the traditional model of using scores doesn’t work as well,” says Adam Rieger, brand manager for Spanish wines at Mount Kisco, New York–based importer Polaner Selections. “And because there aren’t new vintages, it’s hard to have new energy in a retail environment.” The company markets the Valdespino range, led by the on-premise–heavy brands Tio Diego Amontillado and Inocente Fino (both mid-$20s), which skew toward restaurants. Rieger adds that sweeter styles like Pedro Ximénez do best at retail.
In the off-premise, the Sherry category is split between traditional labels—which comprise the lion’s share of volume—and the same high-end releases that have made a splash on-premise. “The most popular brands among consumers who’ve been enjoying Sherry for a while are those that have been in the market longest, including González Byass and Lustau Sherries,” says Joe Manekin, Spanish wine buyer for the three-unit
California retail chain K&L Wine Merchants. Sinclair adds that older Sherry drinkers who purchase a bottle or two of cream Sherry a year still form an important part of the category, despite changing demographics.
Manekin credits the luxury releases with reinvigorating the Sherry category, which has seen strong growth at K&L. “Négociant bottlings and high-end offerings have definitely gained popularity,” he says. “They have a small but very devoted and loyal following. Wines like Equipo Navazos and Bodegas Tradición have been able to open doors to collectors of other kinds of wines.” The retailer has even invested in some exclusive releases through the négociant brand Alexander Jules. “We’re doing two different single barrel amontillado bottlings,” Manekin says, adding that the Sherries ($140 a 750-ml. bottle) have an average age of around 60 years. “We like to have something cool and unique to offer to customers.” Polaner’s Rieger notes that Bodegas Tradición ($200 or more a 375-ml. bottle), which markets decades-old Sherries under the VOS and VORS classifications, also tends to do better off-premise due to its appeal to collectors.
The Sherry business is also somewhat seasonal in retail. “In the holiday season, we sell more of the off-dry and sweet styles—more oloroso and Pedro Ximénez,” Manekin explains, adding that December is always the busiest month for Sherry. “When the weather warms, we get a larger variety of finos, Manzanillas, en rama Sherries and special bottlings.”
Despite growth at the high end, Sherry isn’t a full-fledged movement yet. “I see it more in restaurants and on the trade side,” K&L’s Manekin says. “Sherry isn’t a mega-trend right now.” Nevertheless, the increased interest bodes well. “My instinct tells me it’s always going to be a niche wine, but Sherry will definitely grow beyond what we see today,” Mockingbird Hill’s Brown says.
Sherry awareness continues to increase, driven by occasions like Sherryfest, a series of tastings, seminars and dinners that started in 2012. The largest Sherry event outside of Spain, the festival has taken place in New York City, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, and features more than 100 Sherries from dozens of producers. “Sherryfest has given Sherry a much wider audience,” Skurnik’s Mulligan says. “It’s been great for exposing a lot more people to Sherry.”
Whether Sherry fully translates to the mainstream or not, its resurgence is real. “Lots of wines come in and out of fashion,” Sherryfest’s Liem says. “For a while, people were skeptical about this Sherry renaissance. But it’s been growing in popularity over the last several years and it doesn’t show any signs of decreasing. The future of Sherry is bright.”