Poetry? It's thirsty work as Carol Ann Duffy discovers...

When Carol Ann Duffy learned that a barrel of sherry came with the job of Poet Laureate, she headed straight to Spain for a tasting. Ros Wynne-Jones went too

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Last week saw the launch of The Bees, Carol Ann Duffy's first collection of poetry since becoming Poet Laureate. The same event also saw her make public a second artistic selection of the same vintage – her Laureate's Choice sherry, a tradition dating back to 1619 that Duffy has cheerfully embraced.

"Who wouldn't feel favoured,/ at the end of a week's labour,/ to receive as part-wages/ a pale wine/ that puts the mouth in mind of the sea..." she writes in the poem that appears on the sherry's back label.

The custom of the Laureate's sherry is as old as the post itself. Ben Jonson, who James I appointed Royal Poet in 1619, was awarded "a butt of Sherry Sack" and £200 a year for his verse. In modern times, Ted Hughes built a special shed to contain his 720 bottles and Andrew Motion wondered if the gallons of sherry were "a delightful conspiracy to silence me once and for all". When Duffy accepted the post as 22nd Laureate, she donated her annual salary of £5,750 to the Poetry Society; but joked that she wanted her payment in sherry "up front". So, almost exactly two years ago, she found herself standing in the church-cold aisles of a traditional bodega warehouse in Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, southwestern Spain.

Behind her stood thousands of oak barrels in honeycomb formation, many of them signed by the famous and the notorious – by Pablo Picasso and Winston Churchill, Orson Welles and Cole Porter.

Over two days of tastings, Duffy was to choose her sherry. There was crisp, dry Fino, which must be served bitterly cold, nutty Amontillado, salty Manzanilla and dark, pungent Oloroso.

There was also Jerez's more familiar export to British shores, the traditional Cream Sherry beloved of trifle-makers. Ted Hughes chose a Fino and a dry Oloroso. Motion also took an Oloroso. But the new Poeta Laureada de Gran Bretaña faced a happy problem.

"I like them all," she confessed, a short-stemmed sherry glass in hand, seated by a big glass window that looked out across one of Spain's most famed Sherry estates.

"I'd really like a different one every year for the next 70 years."

Jerez is the hometown of sherry – even the word is the English corruption of the name. The industry dates back to 700BC and the early Phoenician settlement of the Iberian peninsula. This is fortified wine from a frontier town once on the frontline of Christian and Muslim Spain and now a handsome flamenco-loving city where the baroque squares are lined with orange trees. "The history of it all is wonderful," Duffy said. "The gift of the sherry is this great continuation of friendship between Spain and Britain."

With her was Graham Hines, Director of the Sherry Institute of Spain – and the man who had revived the tradition after it ended during the reign of George III. "Since childhood I had always believed that the Poet Laureate was given a gift of Sherry," he said. "When I found this wasn't the case I persuaded my colleagues in Spain that they should reinstate it."

When Ted Hughes was appointed Laureate, Hines wrote to him – and in 1986 the poet made a visit to Jerez.Twenty-three years later, in October 2009, Duffy had brought two advisers with her to help her choose her sherry: 16-year-old daughter, Ella, and the artist Stephen Raw, a regular collaborator charged with designing the label for the sherry as well as producing artwork for the pages of The Bees.

But Ella – who also had the casting vote as to whether her mother took up the role of Laureate – wrinkled up her nose at the smell of the sherry , while Raw found himself admiring many of the different varieties.

All three were also looking out for a motif for the label. "Hughes had a Hoopoe bird," Raw said. "Andrew Motion had a fish. And then as we arrived, I saw a stork on a nest up on a chimney stack and pointed it out to Carol Ann. We all now think that might be our motif."

Sherry-making has its own poetry in the chalky albariza soil, the warm levante and poniente winds and the veil of flor yeast that each develop its flavour. Young sherry, Duffy learned, must be handled as carefully as "morning dew". The Poet Laureate, who hadn't intended to write a poem, found herself writing one after all.

"It's partly knowing Shakespeare wrote about it," she said. "And partly being inspired by the story of sherry."

William Shakespeare immortalised sherry sack in Henry IV, Part 2. "If I had a thousand sons," Falstaff says, "the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack."

Sherry had become deeply fashionable in Elizabethan England after Francis Drake had attacked the nearby port of Cadiz and made off with 2,900 barrels for his patron, the Queen. The sherry Shakespeare drank was much weaker than the modern fortified version. The Jerezanos were the ones who thought of adding brandy to wine as it was fermenting, taking the idea from the Portuguese who were fortifying their wine to make port.

Today, they continue to honour their literary mention with an annual Shakespeare festival at which Duffy read her poem, Ann Hathaway.

Two years on from the trip to Jerez and she has made her Laureate's choice, opting for two different types of sherry – a salty Manzanilla and a Fino Extra Dry for good measure. Some bottles will be auctioned to raise money for good causes. Raw has designed the labels in his trademark lettering with the silhouette of a stork sitting on a nest. Ted Hughes, who wrote of hawks and skylarks, crows and cavebirds, would have approved.

"Now that Ted, Andrew and I have all received the sherry in modern times, it counts as a tradition again," Duffy says. Duffy's sherry poem doesn't appear in The Bees, but there is an echo of her trip to Jerez in Dram, where she imagines empty sherry casks used to age some whiskies.

Her Laureate's sherry served at The Bees launch lent the same "Spanish accent" the barrels lend some single malts.

"The Manzanilla tastes of the sea," Duffy says of her choice. "And every time I drink it, I am back in Jerez."

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