Bone-dry, with a bite

Sherry still has an image problem in this country, while in Spain, manzanilla is the cool drink. Perhaps they know something we don't
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Rebujito anyone? An unholy but refreshing blend, that is, of one-third manzanilla sherry and two-thirds Seven-Up? Or how about a palo cortoddy, a new palo cortado-based cocktail?

Rebujito anyone? An unholy but refreshing blend, that is, of one-third manzanilla sherry and two-thirds Seven-Up? Or how about a palo cortoddy, a new palo cortado-based cocktail?

Purists may turn up their noses but in the abyss into which sherry has sunk, desperate measures are required. Not quite as desperate, mind you, as Osborne's Cóctel Veterano, a kind of Spanish Sanatogen with a pineapple chunk.

According to Mauricio González of González Byass, who likes his Tío Pepe with tonic water, "It's like opera. As long as you don't lose sight of the basics, I'm all for making sherry more approachable."

Sherry, let's face it, has an image problem. It's still what you leave out for Santa with a mince pie or what you're given when you're summoned to see the housemaster. So much so, that the big brands shun the S-word, preferring to concentrate on their brand names instead. And who can blame them? Since the heady days of the late Seventies, sherry has been in such decline that sunflowers and cereals now cover half the entire vineyard area of Jerez de la Frontera, the Andalucian city from which sherry takes its name.

Yet what could be a more appetising and good-value whistle-wetter than a lightly chilled glass of fresh fino or manzanilla? Very little. But we Brits have been traditionally addicted to "cream" and "pale cream": sweet, stand-on-the-sideboard sherries which the Spanish, and most other overseas countries, won't touch with a picador's lance. Four out of five bottles of sherry drunk in Spain, and most of that in Andalucia itself, are dry fino and manzanilla. We have yet to manage one in five.

If fino became the aspirational drink of the Spanish in the Seventies, manzanilla staged a comeback thanks to the fact that it was cheaper and, at around 15 per cent alcohol, lighter than fino's more macho style at that time. Although only produced by medium-sized companies in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, manzanilla took off and became Spain's best-loved sherry. In Britain it remains a speciality sherry waiting to be discovered.

Manzanilla is unusual in that it's the only wine with a DO ( denominación de origen) for the place it's matured in, rather than where the grapes are from. There's a reason. Situated on the Atlantic, Sanlúcar's mild microclimate is the key to the unique conditions required to make manzanilla. After the palomino grape has finished its fermentation and been topped up with grape spirit, the wine is matured in 600-litre American oak butts, four-fifths full to enable "flor" yeast to develop.

The cooling humidity of the Atlantic sea-breeze is captured in lofty, well-ventilated cellars, where the film of creamy, white yeast blooms on the surface of the sherry like a protective coating of clingfilm. It's much thicker here than in Jerez where it blooms in the spring and autumn only. The result is that manzanilla tends to be lighter in style with a characteristically fresh, tangy bite and bone-dry finish.

In common with other sherries, manzanilla is aged in the solera system, comprising groups of barrels (criaderas), whose wines are blended from younger to older. The wine withdrawn for bottling comes from the group containing the oldest wine (solera).

Finos have recently taken advantage of a change in the rules allowing them to reduce their alcohol to 15 per cent, along with manzanilla, to allow them to benefit from lower tax bands. One of the best finos, for instance, Tío Pepe, is now 15 per cent. Despite the increasing similarity in style, the perception remains that manzanilla is lighter than fino. Given manzanilla's trendier image, there's a certain degree of infighting between Sanlúcar's producers, who are keen to distance manzanilla from fino, and distinguish themselves from the big brands of Jerez.

Manzanilla is excellent as an aperitif and goes extremely well with seafood. Like fino, it must be drunk fresh, and lightly chilled, like a dry white wine. Which is fine as long as stocks are rotated quickly with, ideally, a bottling date on the bottle. Of eight manzanillas I tasted last week, only half were really fresh. My favourites were an assertively pungent Manzanilla San Leon, Herederos de Argüeso, (£5.95, The Wine Society), the fragrantly spicy Manzanilla Solear, Antonio Barbadillo (around £6.99-£7.50, Peter Green, Edinburgh 0131-229 5925; Connolly's, Birmingham, 0121-236 9269), the ultra-fresh and tangy Manzanilla Alegria (around £6.49- £7.25, St Martin Vintners, Brighton, 01273 777744; Springfield Wines, Huddersfield, 01484 864 929; Wine Importers of Edinburgh 0131-556 3601), and the bargain basement, savoury Manzanilla La Gitana, Hidalgo (£4.99, Majestic - special offer, down from £5.99).

The last word goes to Tim Holt of Hidalgo, who says, manzanilla has eaten away at the traditional fino market, so Jerez is nervous. They don't want to see the success of manzanilla in Spain repeated further afield. If it does, it could well undermine fino's market share. If it doesn't, it's back to manzanilla bloody Marys and palo cortoddies.

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