viernes, 3 de agosto de 2012

The History of Spanish Sherry


Jerez is one of the oldest wineproducing towns in Spain. It may well have been established by the Phoenicians who founded the nearby port of Cádiz in IIIO BC. The Phoenicians were followed by the Carthaginians, who were in turn succeeded by the romans. Iberian viticulture advanced rapidly under Roman rule and Jerez has been identified as the Roman city of Ceritium. After the Romans were expelled around AD 400, southern Iberia was overrun by successive tribes of Vandals and Visigoths, who were in turn defeated by the Moors after the battle of Guadalete in 711. The Moors held sway over Andalucía for seven centuries and their influence is still evident, not least in the architecture of Seville, Cordoba, and Granada. Under Moorish domination, Jerez grew in size and stature. The town was named ‘Seris’ and this later evolved into Jerez de la Frontera, when it stood on the frontier of the two warring kingdoms during Christian reconquest in the 13th century.

Viticulture, which continued despite Moorish occupation, was revitalized by the Christians, although the region around Jerez continued to be plagued by war until the 15th century. Exports began and, in spite of periodic setbacks, trade with England and France was well established by the 1490s, when it was dedared that wines shipped abroad would be free from local tax. In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain, their vineyards were confiscated, and foreigners, many of them English, took their place as merchants. Certain basic quality controls were established, including the capacity of the sherry cask or Butt, which has not changed to this day.

At the end of the 15th century, after Christopher Columbus had discovered America from his base in Andalucía, the sherry town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda became an important port for the new transatlantic trade and in the 16th century large quantities of wine were shipped to the Americas from Jerez. In his book Sherry, Julian Jeffs speculates that Vino de Jerez (sherry) was almost certainly the first wine to enter North America.

Relations between England and Spain began to deteriorate in the 16th century and, although trade continued, the colony of English merchants trading from Sanlúcar began to suffer privations. In 1585, after a number of raids by Sir Francis Drake and his fleet, English merchants were arrested and their possessions seized. Exports ceased Two years later, in an attack on Cádiz, Drake both 'singed the King of Spain’s beard’ and captured ‘2,900 pipes’ of wine. This plunder helped to establish sherry as a popular drink in Elizabethan England.

After the death of Elizabeth I, trade became easier and ‘sacke’, or sack, returned to royal circles. The English colony reestablished itself and prospered, often by shipping poor-quality wines.

By the 17th century, ‘sherris-sack’ was well established in England and was drunk by Samuel Pepys, who in 1662 records that he mixed sherry and málaga. Pepys visited the English colony in Sanlúcar de Barrameda in 1683. At that time, until the construction of a railway in the mid 19th century, most of the sherry bodegas were located on the coast at Sanlúcar and Puerto de Santa Maria for easy export.

The sherry industry suffered many setbacks at the beginning of the 18th century, when England and Spain became embroiled in a series of conflicts beginning in 1702 with the War of the Spanish Succession. The Methuen Treaty (1703) diverted trade to Portugal and a series of restrictive measures imposed by the Gremio or Wine Growers Guild of Jerez sent merchants to Málaga in search of wine. However, the latter half of the century was an era of increasing prosperity stimulated by the arrival of a number of French and British merchants. The firms of Osborne, Duff Gordon, and Garvey date from this period.

The Peninsular Wars (1808-14) devastated Jerez. Andalucía became a battleground, occupied for a time by the French, who pillaged the sherry bodegas and forced a number of families to flee to the relative safety of the Cádiz garrison. With the defeat of the French, merchants set about rebuilding their businesses with spectacular success. Pedro Domecq took over the firm of Juan Haurie in 1822 and Manuel Maria Gonzalez Angel, founder of González Byass, began trading in 1835. Sherry exports rose steadily from about 8,000 butts in the early years of the century to over 70,000 butts in 1873, a figure not exceeded again until the 1950s. In the 1850s, the sherry industry was greatly helped by the construction of a railway linking Jerez and Puerto de Santa Maria, and a number of merchants left their quayside bodegas. Many new producers took advantage of the sherry boom only to be wiped out by Phylloxera and economic depression a few years later.

By the end of the 19th century, the sherry industry was on the brink of collapse. The boom gave rise to numerous spurious ‘sherries’ from South Africa, Australia, France and from Germany, where a sherry-style potion was made from potato spirit. A spiral of price-cutting began and sherry was stretched with poor-quality wine imported from other parts of Spain. Demand fell as Victorian society refused sherry, alarmed by scare stories that the wine was detrimental to health. The predations of the phylloxera louse from 1894 helped to stabilize the market and the shippers who survived the depression held large stocks of unsold wine to tide them through the lean years when all the vineyards were planted.

In 1910, the leading traders united to form the Sherry Shippers Association, which campaigned vigorously to restore the fortunes of the beleaguered industry. After the First World War exports returned to their late 19ht century levels. In 1933, a consejo regulador was formed to protect and control the sherry industry and in 1935, a year before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Jerez established its own DO region. The Civil War (1936-9) had little effect on sherry exports, but trade collapsed during the Second World War.

The most dramatic episode in the recent history of sherry began in 1944 when Don Zoilo Ruiz-Mateos y Camacho, mayor of the town of Rota, bought out a small sherry stockholder whose business had suffered badly during the war. In the late 1950s, his son, the now legendary José Maria Ruiz-Mateos, secured a 99-year contract to supply the important brand owners harveys of Bristol with all their sherry requirements. With help from the banks, he began buying up other bodegas and in 1961 established the Rumasa empire. In the 1970s, Ruiz-Mateos acquired substantial wine interests outside Jerez (Rioja), as well as in banking, construction, retailing, tourism, chemicals, and textiles. The group is said to have bought three banks in a single day. Although Ruiz-Mateos contributed gready to the modernization of the Spanish wine industry, Rumasa initiated a price-cutting spiral which continued to blight the long-term interests of sherry well into the 1990s Ruiz Mateos’s empire building came to an abrupt end in 1983 when, fearing imminent collapse, the government nationalized Rumasa, which at that point controlled about a third of the sherry industry. Rumasa’s component parts were subsequently returned to the private sector.

Since the mid 1980s, the sherry industry has been facing decline. The total vineyard area has been reduced to 10350 ha/25,560 acres; less than half what it was at the end of the 1970s. Plots of sunflowers and cereals are now commonplace among the vines. In the early 1990s, with a worldwide market estimated to be around 1.09 million hl/28.7 million gal, stocks were drastically reduced as the sherry industry attempted to bring supply and demand back into balance.

Significantly, one of the main actors as the industry seeks to renovate and relaunch itself in the early 21st century is none other than Ruiz Mateos himself. He has rebuilt a sizeable group based on Garvey, with successive itions including the Spanish interests Sandeman, and early signs of wine quality are promising. A few new names have appeared, on the Jerez landscape, such as Tradición, Rey Fernando de Castilla, Dios Baco, and El Maestro Sierra. They have typically acquired older soleras from bodegas which either disappeared or were taken over by others.

Another leading actor has been the Estévez led by the idiosyncratic José Estévez (died 2005), the inventor or a controversial system, to remove Histamine from sherries. This group includes Marqués del Real Tesoro, Tío Mateo, and Valdespino. Also showing signs of dynamisim have been the Sanlúcar de Barameda bodegas, from the giant Barbadillo to smaller ones such as Hidalgo-La Gitana and Pedro Romero.

Amid calls to rejuvenate the concept of including the promotion of a larger number of vintage-dated wines (a concept adopted by González Byass for some top-end Olorosos, Amontillados, and Palos Cortados), the Consejo Regulador responded in 2000 by creating two new categories of high quality sherry: VOS (Very Old Sherry or Vinum Optimum Signatum), for wines with an average age surpassing 20 years, and VORS (Very Old and Rare Sherry or Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum), for wines over 30, in four categories: Oloroso, Palo Cortado, Amontillado and Pedro Ximénez. Such methods as carbon dating were introduced to ascertain the age of the wines submitted by bodegas, and demanding blind tastings were instituted to accept or reject samples. This new category has stirred up fresh interest in sherry and qualified wines command high prices. But inevitably this is an elite category of minor presence on the market as most of the brands release just a few hundred bottles of their prized elixirs every year.

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