Sherry isn’t usually a tipple associated with cricket, as the ‘barmy army’ would surely agree. And yet it is because of this little glass of sunshine that cricket was played, for a tie, in a corner of Southwest Andalucía – a game not just of English gentleman but Spanish ones too.
In fact from Shakespeare to the modern day Poets Laureate – who still receive “a butt of sack per annum” or the equivalent of around 110 gallons of stuff – sherry has forged a special bond between the British Isles and its home town, Jerez de la Frontera. It is a bond which still exists today and which gives Jerez its own unique character amongst Spanish cities.
The very word, ‘sherry’, is an anglicized for of the original Moorish name for Jerez itself, the place which lies at the heart of the sherry producing area in Cádiz province. The elegant streets are filled with the heady aroma of the area’s most famous export, and the roll call of sherry bodegas – Sandeman, Garvey, Terry, Osborne, Williams & Humbert to name but a few – bears witness to that special connection.
English merchants were already trading in this part of Spain back in the 15th Century, and England’s Spanish Queen, Catherine of Aragon, wrote to her father to tell him how much her husband Henry VIII was enjoying the sherry he had sent. When Drake came to Cádiz to “singe the beard of the King of Spain” and scupper his plans to invade England, he also managed to capture nearly 3,000 barrels of the fortified wine to take back with him. It made him a rich man and marked the start of the English love affair with sherry.
For sherry connoisseur José Luis Jiménez Garcia, it’s a source of pride and wonder that his beloved ‘vino de Jerez’ has forged this centuries-old link between his home town and the British Isles. “Sherry is the symbol of our union”, he says. “England and Spain have been enemies in the past. But in truth we’re united by sherry. Even the vocabulary – ‘dry’ and ‘cream’ – is shared.”
Born in the shadow of a bodega, José Luis has made it his life’s work to explore and promote sherry’s influence on culture and the arts. “Isn’t it incredible to think that we are sitting here today sipping the same sherry that Shakespeare loved to drink in the Mermaid Tavern in London 400 years ago? It was an inspiration to him, and he mentions it in his plays no fewer than 48 times – I know, because I’ve counted them.”
The English nation’s growing love for sherry or ‘sack’ is most famously reflected in Shakespeare’s creation, Sir John Falstaff, who declares: “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.”
The Irish were some of the first to realize the business opportunities in forswearing “thin potations”, perhaps because Ireland and Spain at one time shared not only their Catholic faith, but a common enemy – England. Today the names above many of the sherry bodegas tell the story of the influx of Irish driven overseas by famine and oppression – O’Neale, Garvey, Terry and even the famous Domecq which was originally founded by an Irishman, Patrick Murphy. The O’Neale bodega would later produce its own sherry named The Wild Geese in memory of these origins.
In 1754 Scotsman Arthur Gordon also fled the religious wars of the time and concentrating his efforts on the wine business did very well for himself. The home he built in Jerez still exists as does his Scottish estate at Wardhouse which has been passed down through generations of Scottish-Spanish heirs, including one Pedro Carlos, known as the “mad laird” who is said to have built a bullring there. History does not relate how the scots took the bullfighting, but the link between sherry and Scotland remains: the finest Scotch whisky is aged in old sherry barrels.
The English also came to Jerez. They founded Williams & Humbert, and the famous Sandeman house, which also tapped into the market for port fro neighbouring Portugal. The London-based agent, Robert Byass, joined with Manuel González Byass, which partnership created perhaps the world’s best-known sherry, Tio Pepe. This partnership lasted for 133 years, and today González is one of the sole remaining family-owned bodegas.
In Victorian times England and in particular London was increasingly the centre of trade from Jerez. And with British authority expanding across the globe, the demand for sherry was also on the rise. It reached its peak at the height of the Victorian era when no sideboard was complete without a decanter of the amber liquid – in those days mostly the sweeter variety. British influence was such that Madrid society started drinking sherry because it was fashionable in London and sherry achieved ‘fashionable chic’ in its own country.
Over the years, a love of the drink has drawn many English-speaking writers to visit the hoe of sherry, among the Lord Byron, who found the local beauties’ “dark languishing eyes… irresistible”, Anthony Trollope, Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley and even Ted Hughes. Literature ranging from Graham Greene to Harry Potter is littered with references to the fortified wine which numbered the Beatles amongst its fans.