Wake up and smell the sherry

19 September, 2008

Slowly but surely it's shaking off its old lady image, but Jerez's finest needs specialist retailers to reverse its decline. Christine Boggis reports

Sherry may be the UK wine trade's problem child, but it's also its darling. Underpriced, under-appreciated, packed with enough flavour to burst your taste buds and longer than the rain-drenched British summer, sherry has got it all - but the public at large still hasn't noticed. The latest Nielsen figures show its value still declining by 3% in the year to Aug 9, while volumes slumped 5%.

Like all problem children, sherry could benefit from a bit of attention - so independent off-licences and wine merchants should be best placed to further its cause.

That is certainly what the Sherry Institute of Spain thinks - this year it has doubled the number of educational bursaries it awards to restaurants, pubs, bars

and independent wine merchants , to help more of them teach consumers how great sherry really is.

James Handford,

of Handford Wines in Kensington,

says: "That is why we are in business - the

fun of it is

getting people drinking things

they wouldn't pick up

at non-independents ."

So how else can independents tap into this market?

Retailers who took part in last year's bursary scheme put together a mixed bag of activities - mainly matching sherry with food. Traditional tapas is the obvious choice, but some threw oriental tapas, and tapas of traditional British dishes, into the mix.

"I personally think independents have the edge, because

they don't have to just stock Croft and Harveys Bristol Cream, and people come from absolutely miles away - and we are talking hundreds of miles - to get specific sherries they can't get anywhere else," says Angela Searle

of Lewis & Cooper in Northallerton.

"We are now finding there

are an awful lot of younger people

turning into sherry drinkers, particularly within the 30 -40

age range - I'm finding an awful lot of brand new customers who actually do really know what they are drinking," she adds.

Jon Atkinson

of Scatchards in Hoole

worries his sherry tastings are preaching to the converted - but finds that

serving snacks with tasting samples grows sales. " Putting it on tast e with the usual suspects - smoked almonds, boquerones, olives -

does work very well indeed ," he says.

"Probably the only real exception is PX, which works brilliantly as a stand-alone thing. Pouring it over vanilla ice cream is becoming passé to us in the trade, but works

well as far as consumers are concerned, and they don't need ice cream alongside to see the potential."

Andy Paterson

of the Halifax Wine Company

says: " Sherry is one of those areas that, funnily enough,

supermarkets do put a bit of effort into. We tend not to go with the mainstream

and

choose slightly smaller producers

- working, I suppose, in a more hand made fashion. But most of the volume is driven by supermarkets, a lot on price. We enjoy healthy sales, and the edge we have is we can match them to food -

sherry is terrifically versatile with food."

Jeremy Rockett

of Gonz ález Byass

advises: "Don't worry about stocking every

key brand . There is a natural objection by some independents

to stock, for example, Tio Pepe, because it is available in Tesco and Sainsbury's. But Tesco is not going to sell it to new customers,

whereas an independent has the chance to get new consumers into it. Don't ignore big brands like Tio Pepe and La Gitana, because they are not that big - they are still niche."

There are plenty of ways you can get customers more interested in sherry, especially if you're a fan yourself and you can let your passion show - but one thing everyone agrees on: the best way to do it is taste, taste, taste.

If you like sherry, you'll love ...

Madeira

Best described as like sherry with acidity, this Portuguese fortified wine is doing well in specialist wine merchants, and benefits from having a lot less baggage . James Handford says: "We find Madeira does very well. It is a bit like all the antique shops being in the same street - if you sell Madeira you can turn people on to alternative sherries ."

Danny Cameron, director of Raymond Reynolds, says: "I hesitate to make comparisons as our sherry range isn't comprehensive enough - but one thing about Madeira is that

it doesn't have too much baggage

because it 's a relatively small market."

Montilla PX

Montilla's sales have been plummeting for years - the latest Nielsen figures, to Aug 9, show off-trade sales down 16% to £2 million. But a group of sweet winemakers have got together to trumpet Montilla PX - after all, the region's Pedro Ximénez grapes are often used for Jerez's sweetest offerings. Find out more at montillapx.co.uk.

The evolution of sherry's image

While independents get the punters to taste their first sherry and then trade up to top-end bottles, the biggest UK sherry companies are steadfastly chipping away at sherry's fusty, grannyish image.

Harveys owner Beam Global has been continuing its "schooner amnesty", which aims to get consumers to drink sherry in a modern way - chilled and in contemporary glassware. It also sampled Harveys and lemonade cocktails at Somerset House's outdoor film festival, Cinema Under the Stars, last month .

"We want to reinforce the message that sherry is from Jerez and can be drunk in lots of different ways ," says brand manager Janice Moorfield.

"Our campaign encourages people to think of Harveys and sherry differently. There are

many misconceptions - people think it 's like Baileys, they think it is 40% alcohol, but when you

tell

them the truth

and they

try

it ,

they are surprise d. We have had so much positive feedback it's been quite overwhelming ."

Gonz ález Byass, which produces Tio Pepe, Croft Original and a range of higher -end sherries under its own name, has been working on PR

with men's lifestyle magazines, including

GQ and Esquire.

Marketing director Jeremy Rockett says: "The positive press we

got

impacts on everybody. If my

mum reads an article that says fino is a cool thing to drink, when she opens her Croft Original she is going to feel better about it than she did the year before."




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