A DOSE OF THE BODEGA BLUES

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT

Sherry is probably a lost cause. At regular intervals, wine-writers produce articles saying that sherry is under-appreciated and, at regular intervals, sales drop further. They're down by around 20 per cent from 1988. At some point, the dedicated wine-makers of Jerez and environs may shrug their shoulders, board up the bodegas, and start drinking beer and Chardonnay like the rest of the world.

If this ever happens, it will be a crying shame. When it's good, sherry is one of the best drinks anywhere. And on top of that, it offers, penny for penny, some spectacular value for money.

Sherry's woes arise partly from an image problem: it's about as sexy as dental floss. It's what your aunt drinks when she indulges in alcohol four or five times a year. It is also commonly perceived as being sweet, sickly and heavy. In fact, the image of sweetness is almost entirely undeserved. Fino sherry, the basic aperitif of the region, is as dry as the Gobi at noon. Even the fuller styles, manzanilla, amontillado and oloroso, are essentially dry wines. Few of the really great sherry varieties are truly sweet; those that are should be treated as dessert wines.

Another part of sherry's problem is that it's not easy to match with food. Apart from the sweet varieties, it's probably best as an apeeritif, served in small quantities in small glasses. The standard glass in Jerez, called a copita, has around a third of the capacity of a standard wine glass. Two before dinner is the right serving.

From a technical point of view, if you're into that sort of thing, sherry is a fascinating wine. At its heart is the solera system, whose complexities are difficult to describe briefly. Reducing the process to comic-book simplicity, this basically means that individual wines are added to older casks (criaderas) of progressively greater age. Only when they reach the final stage (the solera) can they be bottled, usually after blending. The standard number of criadera stages is seven, but some wines go through as many as 14.

Because of the nature of the solera system, vintages count for less in Jerez than in other wine- making areas. What matters more is the quality of the house, and there's a whole slew of good ones. I have never bought or tasted bad sherry from any of the following big players: Lustau, Hidalgo, Pedro Domecq, Barbadillo, Gonzalez Byass, Valdespino. Valdespino's sherry vinegar is itself almost good enough to drink.

Because it's unlikely to get drunk up quickly, it makes sense to buy sherry in small bottles. Like most fortified wines, it loses freshness quickly. And the producers oblige by putting it into smaller bottles. Sainsbury's sells a stellar pair, Aged Amontillado from Bodegas de Ducado (Barbadillo) and Palo Cortado from Lustau. The Palo Cortado is smooth and creamy, with toasted nutty flavours and a hint of dried fruits. Both wines are pounds 3.29 for 37.5cl.

The basic level of sherry is fino, which is dry and lean and therefore best for victims of the dry-white-wine equals aperitif mind-set. Finos derive much of their character from the flor, a cap of yeast (Saccaromyces beticus) which occurs naturally on the Palomino grape. Tio Pepe is the biggest brand of fino, and ubiquitous. It also happens to be very good. Topnotch alternatives include Pando (Williams & Humbert), La Ina (Domecq), Inocente (Valdespino) and the widely available Lustau. Many retailers' own labels are also pretty good: look for the name of the producer in the small print at the bottom. Manzanilla is similar to fino, and the popular La Gitana (pounds 6.20 from Adnams, 01502 727222) is a good place to start.

When people get interested in sherry, they have a tendency to get very interested. If you'd like to join them, the range of well-stocked suppliers is not a long one; as one merchant put it to me, "we don't stock much sherry because we don't sell much of it." On the other hand, Hugo Rose of Lay & Wheeler (01206 764446) reports that its customers constitute a "steady constant niche" for sherry at the high end of the quality spectrum. Lay & Wheeler sells a generous dozen, including three halves bottled by Lustau (pounds 7.95) which would make a memorable Christmas aperitif. By mail order only, the Wine Society (01438 740222, lifetime membership pounds 20) has around 15 sherry wines, including a good number from Valdespino.

The best selection in the High Street comes from Oddbins, especially its Fine Wine shops. There, you'll find a curiosity of genuine merit, DP 117 Fino (pounds 5.99 for 37.5cl), a sherry-style wine by Seppelt in Australia. It uses the true solera system with oak all along the way, and the result is delicious . And all Oddbins sell a sweet sherry of extraordinary quality, the Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloroso Dulce (pounds 19.99).

Lest you weep prematurely for the sherry producers, take comfort from Hugo Rose's opinion that they make a good living selling brandy. With luck, that will subsidise the survival of Spain's most famous and neglected wine. But that's no reason to go on ignoring the sherry. Be brave, even if you don't think sherry's a cool drink. Give it a try. Keep those bodegas in business.

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