That's not all. The last cobwebs of the antiquated duty structure, by which so-called British, Cyprus etc sherry was allowed to undercut the real thing, have also been dusted away. So sherry (and all other fortified wines, for that matter) is now 12 pence a bottle cheaper. And while hardly front-page news, the sherry industry has boosted its prospects of a recovery by whittling down the region's vineyard area from a high-water mark of 23,000 hectares to a more manageable size of just 10,600 hectares today.
So far so good. Yet sherry sales continue to fall by 5 per cent a year and even the most rose-tinted wine trade outlook for this year is a slowdown in the rate of decline rather than green shoots. So why is it that the recent good news cannot be guaranteed to arrest sherry's long-term lurch towards skid row?
You can't blame the drought, now in its fourth year, which decimated the 1995 sherry harvest. Sherry's demise is partly comeuppance for the cynical flooding of overseas markets with disgracefully poor quality bulk shipments of medium and sweet concoctions in the late Seventies. But even this unfortunate legacy is dwarfed by the longer-term hangover of sherry's seriously naff image. According to Julian Jeffs, author of Faber & Faber's Sherry, "in 1901, sherry had no champions amongst the young, and was drunk indiscriminately with mediocre meals by elderly ladies up for the day from the country." Plus ca change, it seems. Sherry's out- of-date, out-of-touch image is underlined by the fact that of its 17 million consumers in Britain, nearly half are more than 54 years old, while only a sixth are under 35.
Despite recent attempts by the heavy artillery of Croft and Harvey's to repackage sherry along designer beer lines, it is still largely seen as the drink of little old ladies, Michael Portillo wannabes, and occasional binge drinkers at weddings, funerals and Christmas Day knees-ups. Whereas the Spanish like their sherry dry, the British, to the tune of four out of five bottles drunk, prefer it medium sweet or sweet. Small wonder then that sherry is widely regarded in Britain with about as much affection as Liebfraumilch. Harvey's Bristol Cream is sherry's answer to Blue Nun and, as with Lieb, sherry is mostly big brand stuff or supermarket own- label.
With all these criticisms, sherry is now at a crossroads. Longer ageing, bottling at source and the deliberate running down of surplus stocks have all contributed to an improvement in quality. According to Michael Hall, managing director of Emilio Lustau, the development of bouquet and stability in bottle have also improved. And while medium and sweet sherry remain most popular in Britain, there is evidence of a long-overdue shift towards the more sophisticated, dry styles - fino, manzanilla and dry oloroso - so readily lapped up by the Spanish themselves.
Along with the name and duty changes, better quality and a move to drier, paler styles are the building blocks of sherry's golden opportunity to reinvent itself as an authentically desirable Spanish drink: a drink to be taken seriously, albeit without too serious an intention. John Thorogood of Lay & Wheeler, who would readily admit that he, like any good sherry aficionado, is prejudiced, believes that "provided companies go for quality and not name and price, sherry remains one of the best-value drinks at pounds 6-7 a bottle."
In the long term, sherry's variety needs to be backed up by samplings, more half-bottles, and a clearer idea of when it's best to drink which style and with what. To bring out its appetisingly yeasty, freshly baked bread smell, for instance, bone-dry fino needs to be served as an aperitif or with food, chilled, from a freshly opened bottle - and preferably in a white wine or specially designed, elegant copita glass. A bottling date or at least a drink-by date on the bottle would also help. Once opened, fino and the more delicate, tangier manzanillas should be drunk - never decanted, or kept on the sideboard until the vicar's next visit.
There is potential, if on a smaller scale, for dry oloroso too, but its benefits as a winter-warming aperitif need to be spelt out. Oloroso, which means fragrant, can be dry or sweet, but takes its darker, fuller-bodied, more piquant, spicy character from stronger fortification with spirit and oak ageing rather than from the flor yeast which characterises the fino style. Most olorosos in Britain are heavy, commercially sweetened varieties, but there are some seriously good examples, notably Gonzalez Byass's Very Old Matusalem and Osborne's ambrosial rare old olorosos
A sherry selection
Good, typical Manzanillas include Barbadillo's tangy Manzanilla de Sanlucar, about pounds 4.99, Oddbins, Thresher, Somerfield; and Lustau's delicately crisp Manzanilla Papirusa, about pounds 7.50, La Vigneronne, London SW7, Noel Young Wines, Cambridge (01223-844744).
Gonzalez Byass's elegantly dry Tio Pepe with its refreshingly tangy flavours and Domecq's golden-hued, Marmitey La Ina, both about pounds 6.99 and widely available, are the yardstick quality brands. Valdespino's Fino Inocente, pounds 6.95, Lea & Sandeman, London SW10, is a more traditional, powerful style. Williams & Humbert's Pando Fino, about pounds 6.29, contact Ehrmanns (0171-359 7466) for independent stockists, is delightfully light, savoury and dry.
My current favourite own-label fino is Colchester Fino, pounds 6.89, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester, from Hidalgo, a rich and savoury, fresh and tangily dry Suffolk punch. The quality of most supermarket own-label fino is generally fair, with Marks & Spencer Pale Dry Fino, Williams & Humbert, pounds 4.99, a particularly convincing aperitif fino with requisite freshness and savoury bite.
Waitrose Solera Jerezana Dry Oloroso, pounds 4.99, is a deliciously dry, high quality, burnt-toffee-like drop. Also worth trying is Sainsbury's nutty, dry Old Oloroso, pounds 2.99 for half-bottle. Williams & Humbert's Dos Cortados Oloroso, pounds 9.99, Selfridges, is a superior quality, rich but bone-dry style with superb, intense fruitiness and Osborne's Seco Bailen Oloroso, pounds 7.20, Barnells of Cambridge (01223-354431), a smoky, richly nutty, toffee-ed, yet tantalisingly dry oloroso. Matusalem, the heavenly, richly raisined dessert sherry, is pounds 19.99, Victoria Wine, Oddbins, or pounds 9.99 in halves, selected Tesco stores.Reuse content