Sherry is like Marmite - you either love it or you hate it.
Sherry fans - many of whom are in the wine trade - might put it differently: you love it, or you haven't tasted enough of it.
Sherry has got a serious image problem to deal with. Even Beltrán Domecq, commercial relations director for Bodegas Domecq, which makes the UK's biggest sherry brand Harveys Bristol Cream, admits that "it has an image of an old lady, over 80, opening a cupboard and taking out a bottle she opened last Christmas".
This image problem often translates to sherry being kept hidden behind shop counters on low shelves next to unbranded bottles of fortified British wine and other unloved products. The few bottles of Croft and Bristol Cream on the bottom shelf in my local convenience store are actually dusty.
Sherry brands and the generic body, the Consejo Regulador de Jerez, have got their work cut out persuading customers that sherry is a wine - let alone that it is a diverse, complex, food-friendly, hand-crafted artisan wine, often with no more alcohol than a blockbuster Aussie red.
Aged in oak barrels in high, cathedral-like bodegas designed to keep stable temperatures by allowing lots of air to circulate around the casks, sherry is blended over many years to keep a consistent flavour. Even though a combination of biological ageing, under a layer of yeast called flor, and oxidative ageing give sherries a great deal of complexity, most - even 20 and 30-year-old wines - are sold for under £20.
In the past few years a foodie trend towards the drier fino and manzanilla styles of sherry has sparked rumours of a revival - and although sherry is still in decline overall, there may be signs that the tables are about to turn.
According to Nielsen, sherry has been declining by around 5 per cent a year for some time now - but the latest results show that last year that slowed to a 3 per cent decline by value, although volumes again slid 5 per cent. In Tesco, sherry is worth £27.6 million per year, and sales are up 0.16 per cent year-on-year - "so it's no longer in decline", says James Griswood, product development manager for Spain.
In Sainsbury's it is "performing well", in Somerfield and Waitrose it is "steady", and in Berry Bros & Rudd sales grew 6 per cent last year. "That is less than the company as a whole, but positive growth is positive in itself and, in this category, relatively rare," says BBR's Simon Field.
Buyers are also saying that not all of those sales are going to the category's 35 to 65-year-old female heartland.
"It is not the traditional old ladies' drink that everyone associates sherry with. There is also very encouraging growth among more affluent 'foodies' who buy into the more premium styles," says Griswood. Waitrose's Nick Room adds: "It's a real mix of young and old."
The generic campaign has embarked on a long-term project with Jackie Cooper PR to teach consumers and retailers what sherry is and how it should be drunk, and to push it particularly as a food wine.
The company is working with Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Tesco, Threshers and Wine Rack, Oddbins and Majestic to combine staff education, consumer sampling and PR.
Many of these stores are expanding their branded and own-label sherry ranges, often with more premium offerings, and educating customers through recipe cards, in-house magazine articles and shelf-edge labels. Sainsbury's is merchandising its sherries by style - dry, medium and sweet - and recommending in-store food matches on shelf barkers.
JCPR runs a bursary scheme for independent merchants who want to hold a sherry tasting evening for customers. The £500 grant - or £700 if there is a food element - is to cover the cost of a wine educator, any food, and the wines, which must include at least four sherry styles. (There are 20 of these bursaries available each year and two are still up for grabs for Christmas events. Call 0207 208 7225 to find out more.)
Spokesman Matt Arrowsmith says: "It is all about staff training. We are not going to throw our money away on lots and lots of sampling - if we get it wrong we could turn someone off for life. We've only got one chance to get a lot of these people."
Sherry producers are also seeing a trend towards premiumisation. Top-end bodegas such as Fernando de Castilla and Bodegas Tradición are selling aged, rare sherries, often in clear glass bottles so consumers can see the liquid inside. Gonzalez Byass is gaining listings for its higher-end sherry range, and Harveys last year launched a Reserve version of Bristol Cream.
Ulrike Eisenbeutl, one of the small team at Bodegas Tradición, says: "When they started in 1998 everyone said you are crazy, you can't sell these sherries, make at least one cheap product that is easier to sell - but now it is just the opposite. With the years people change: it is not just sherry, but the way of travelling, food, everything - people prefer something of less quantity but a higher quality and that is the same with our sherry."
Sherry catch-up: your at-a-glance guide to telling your manzanilla from your amontillado
Made from Palomino grapes, these young, usually three to five-year-old wines are aged in old oak barrels under a layer of yeast called flor. Pale lemon-yellow with a nose of yeast, apples, lemons, floral notes and a light, very dry and refreshing palate with a salty, nutty finish. A great match with many foods, especially seafood such as sushi or smoked salmon. Also goes very well with vinaigrette dishes because it is low in acid.
Made in the same way as a fino, but in the seaside town of Sanlúcar-de-Barrameda. North westerly winds coming off the Atlantic blow through the bodegas of Sanlúcar, giving manzanilla sea-breezy, seaweedy notes alongside the fino characteristics. Often with a very clean finish. Another versatile food wine, particularly perfect for shellfish and fried seafood.
A wine matured as a fino is fortified again to kill off the flor and aged in an old oak barrel so that it oxidises. Mid-amber in colour, it still has yeasty notes rounded with hints of raisin, nuts, honey, lemon and sometimes smoky, woody characters. Sometimes it hits the palate with a slightly sweet feeling which is immediately followed by salty, nutty dryness and a lingering, hazelnut or almond finish. Great with white meats, hams, cheeses or light aperitif bites. It can also be good with spicy food, especially the less dry styles.
At the beginning of their lives, Palomino sherries are designated as a fino or an oloroso, with lighter pressings going to be finos and stronger or heavier ones picked for olorosos. They are aged in barrels and oxidised until they are mid-amber to light brown, and usually have a sweet, honey, fruitcake, raisin and nut nose. The palate can be dry, with sherry's characteristic salty, hazelnut finish, or sweet if the wine is sweetened with Pedro Ximénez. Great with dark, oily meats such as duck, or with salty or blue cheeses as it will cut through fat.
Known in Jerez as the "bisexual" sherry because it couldn't decide whether it is a fino or an oloroso, a palo cortado is traditionally a wine that starts life as a fino but for some reason loses its flor, and starts ageing as an oloroso - so it has the nose of an amontillado but the structure and body of an oloroso. Nowadays this process is controlled and bodegas will pick a wine from a light pressing, which would usually become a fino, and fortify it to kill off flor. Superb on its own, it will match similar foods to an amontillado.
One of the sweetest wines in the world, PX is made from grapes that are left to dry in the sun until they become raisins, then aged in a solera system of oak barrels. The wines range from thick dark brown to syrupy, completely opaque wines, and usually have a concentrated raisin nose with developed nut, honey, fruitcake and Armagnac notes. Great with sweets, they are a dessert in themselves. Try pouring over vanilla ice cream.
Cream sherry makes up some 40 per cent of UK sherry sales, and nearly all the cream sherry sold in the UK is Harveys Bristol Cream, a secret blend of fino, amontillado, oloroso and Pedro Ximénez. You get all those flavours on the nose in reverse order, and the palate is sweet but not as sweet as a PX, with quite a sticky finish. Harveys recommends serving it over ice with a slice of orange, and says it's great as a dessert wine or on its own.
Pale cream sherry
Another massive seller in the UK - around 30 per cent of all sales - this is fino sweetened with grape must, and has a savoury fino nose followed by fresh grape notes, and a sweet and tangy palate. Best drunk cold as an aperitif or with salty snacks.
Where to get them
Bodegas Tradición: Raymond Reynolds 01663 742230
Fernando de Castilla: Boutinot 0161 908 1300
Gonzalez Byass, Tio Pepe, Croft: Gonzalez Byass UK 01707 274790
Harveys: Beam Global UK
La Gitana, Hidalgo: Mentzendorff 0207 840 3600
Lustau: Fields, Morris & Verdin 0207 921 5300; Michael Hall Wines 01932 223398
Valdespino: Moreno Wines 0208 960 7161
La Guita: Berkmann Wine Cellars 0207 609 4711
Painting a picture of Jerez
Budget airlines have opened up Jerez de la Frontera, the hometown of sherry in southern Spain - to tourism and it is teaching UK consumers how the Spanish drink sherry.
Ryanair flies directly to Jerez, and the pretty medieval town is accessible from Seville and Gibraltar, while seaside neighbours El Puerto de Santa María, Sanlúcar-de-Barrameda and the walled town of Cádiz are within easy reach.
Tapping into the tourist market is a great way to sell sherry - especially because it gives you the chance to tell some of its great stories. You can start with the high bodegas, lined with black mould from humidity, where the sherry barrels sleep while north westerly winds blow off the Atlantic to keep them cool - and how it is said that the old wines "teach" the young ones as they are blended over the years.
Or tell the story of La Gitana, the gipsy woman who gave her name - and image, originally painted on a tambourine in 1901 by local artist Joaquín Turina - to Hidalgo's flagship manzanilla, and whose picture is everywhere in the bodega.
Javier Hi dalgo says: "We have records about everything that happened in the family and in the company, but we don't have any clue about who acted as the model. There is a black legend in the company that she was my great grandfather's gipsy mistress, but nothing is proved."
A less mysterious relative gave his name to Gonzalez Byass's most famous fino. Tio Pepe - or Uncle Joe - helped his banker nephew set up a sherry business focusing on amontillado and oloroso wines. But he loved fino, so he was given one room in which to make fino wines and share them with his friends, before new techniques made the wine exportable, and his eponymous wine gained international popularity.
Jerez is full of these stories - from the skinflint Fernando de Castilla, who sold his bodega to Norwegian Jan Pettersen without ever giving him a free bottle of sherry, to Joaquín Rivero, the owner of Bodegas Tradición, who has built up what may be the most important collection of local art in southern Spain, and is extending the bodega with a big gallery to house more of the paintings.