The no1 reason off-trade sherry sales are declining

The sales of sherry are notoriously poor on Systembolaget, the Swedish alcohol monopoly, and have been in decline for years. I believe that there is a way to counter this evolution, but it would take a huge effort from an industry that is already struggling for its existance.

The reason for sherry’s poor performance on the Swedish off-trade is probably the same as for all export markets. It has nothing to do with the wine itself but on the physical location of its bottles in the wine stores and supermarkets.

Signs on a barrel of manzanilla in a dark Bodega San Luís (La Gitana). Copyright: Cruz Liljegren 

Signs on a barrel of manzanilla in a dark Bodega San Luís (La Gitana). Copyright: Cruz Liljegren 

Most bodegas and wine experts agree on the fact that biologically aged sherry, such as fino and manzanilla, should be treated and consumed as a white wine, and not as something ”different”. Yet, the fact that sherry is fortified makes Systembolaget and other off-trade outlets place the wine ”tucked away" from its brothers and sisters, the white wines. Resulting in that the consumer must actively search for sherry in a different part of the store. Guess what, the consumer will just get a bottle of white Rueda as usual and think nothing more of it. 

I believe that if biologically aged sherry was placed on the same shelf as Spanish white wine the sales would instantly multiply. In Spain fino (and sherry) is after all known as ”vino de Jerez” or, wine from Jerez, nothing ells. 

So what can we do? 

We have to accept that the fortification of biologically aged sherry is a production detail, and not part of the essence of the style. If finos and manzanillas where not fortified but produced from properly ripe grapes the Consejo Regulador could lobby for the inclusion of biologically aged sherry in the shelfs of white wine.   

If you think it's technically impossible to get a potential alcohol of 15 percent in Palomino-grapes I suggest you to have a chat with Willy Peréz on Bodegas Perez Vega. He will be releasing his first unfortified fino in 2015, after two years of barrel ageing. A wine made from ripe organic grapes sourced from the single vineyard El Corregidor in the pago of Carrascal. 

What is your thoughts on this topic, have you thought about it before? 

Intrested? Read more: An interesting interview with Ramiro Ibañez Espinar and In search of lost Sherry. Both by Paula MacLean. And Back to the Future: Ramiro Ibañez and Willy Peréz translated by Ruben Luyten.


Building a traditional manzanilla (Part one)

I’m taking a seat in a lively Tabanco, a sort of traditional bar in Jerez de la Frontera. Skin sticky, throat dry. Just arrived to town. Had a few glasses of fino from a barrel behind the counter before I decided to go to back to my hotel. A long day of winery visits coming up. Lying in my bed, I remembered something I overheard at the bar. This conversation, or rather this sentence, an older man declared to someone much younger, presumably his son. ”Hijo, la mejor manzanilla es la que no se vende,” the old man said, wagging his head towards his glass of light straw coloured wine, clearly unsatisfied with the transparent liquid in his glass. 

I faded away into sleep thinking about this sentence. ”Son, the best manzanilla is the one that.. is not for sale.” Not, for sale?  

First visit to bodega Juan Piñero

Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the sixth of August 2014. I’m about to tell you about a new discovery of mine. A manzanilla that goes by the name of Maruja, an old forgotten brand newly commercialised again, with the first wines released in the spring of 2014. 

Unusually for the people working in the very traditional sherry trade, Juan Piñero’s father was not a bodeguero, or bodega man. In fact, Juan is still in the construction business, residing in this small seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where he now also has his bodega.

Pepe, as Juan’s friends call him, had the opportunity to purchase his own bodega back in 1992. At the time the owners sold the facilities, now owned by Piñero, to one of the international beverage giants. Focusing on wines that where easier to sell, the barrels that rested in this particular bodega ran the risk of becoming vinegar. The whole two century old bodega was planned to be levelled with the ground, and become a park to the great joy of small dogs and pigeons.  

Juan Piñero, being in the construction business, was quick to hear the news and took the opportunity to buy the bodega facility and all the barrels inside. Barrels of manzanilla that had rather ironically, slowly turned precious, simultaneously as the owners where taking turns in wanting to get rid of them.

Piñero also bought the rights to the brands, nothing strange, in the sherry industry brands are swapped between companies like playing cards, in fact today few remain in the hands of the original creators. He never used these brands as since the purchase, the sacas, or finished wines have been sold to other bodegas. As an almacenista, or sherry wholesaler, Piñero developed a good reputation getting orders from high-profile bodegas such as Fernando de Castilla, El Maestro Sierra, Tradition and Urium. 

All that is over now, Piñero decided last year that they want the credit for all the hard work they put in and have started reviving the old brands one by one. In charge of the wine making he hired the young forward-thinking enologist, Ramiro Ibáñez. 

Immediately when I meet Ramiro I got the impression that he approaches sherry-making from a different angle, a more intellectual one.

”I don’t agree with the industrial thinking that emerged in the seventies, therefore I’m taking two steps back, to the now almost forgotten roots of manzanilla,” Ramiro said when I asked him if he could define what he does as clear as possible. 

”From 2014 its all bottled and sold by us”, Ramiro said, clearly proud. In fact, with an almost naive, albeit charming, confidence in that the market will recognise the quality of his wines. This was clearly not the time to discuss the fact that sales of sherry has declined globally since the late seventies. But things have changed, some see a light in the end of the tunnel where almacenistas will play a different role.  

Almacenista... revolution?

The reason why the wine maker Ramiro, was almost ecstatic by the fact that they now bottle and sell their own wines is because this is an entirely new thing for almacenistas to do. Just last year is was illegal to do so, perhaps the implications of this change of legislation has been debated much less than its potential effect on the sherry business would suggest.

Few people know about the vivid debates that just unfolded between the power-families and control organ of the sherry region. Lobbied by the large bodegas there was a law in place stating that a bodega must own 500 barrels in stock to be allowed to bottle their own wine, in this way securing their supply of cheep aged wine from the almacenistas.

In the sherry region the botas, or barrels are filled with roughly 415 litres of wine, so 500 barrels equals a quantity of 207.500 litres! Of course, only the ”nobility” could afford this, and indeed that was the- entire point. 

As a blitz from the sky the quantity of barrels was changed in 2013 to only 50 barrels, opening up the competition for all the tiny almacenistas. The future will tell if this is just as game-changing as the first wave of Burgundian domaine-bottled wines of Ponsot and Rousseau in the 1930s. May I point out that some of us, do believes so. 

Click for the second part of the article, Ramiro will unfold the reason why the best manzanilla is the one that is not for sale..