Four reasons to love Sherry

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Sherry. Your nan's favourite, right? Crofts or Harvey's Bristol Cream, served warm in a tiny glass, usually at Christmas time.  Sweet and a bit musty, probably been hanging around at the back of the cupboard for several years. Dug out at Christmas, and then forgotten for the rest of the year. 

The truth is that Sherry can be totally transporting, and not just because of its high alcohol content. Not only is it delicious, it's also diverse, fascinating and bloody good value. Here's why...

1. Diverse

Super saline Manzanilla from Sanlucar, punchy Marmitey Fino, and hazelnut Amontillado make up the drier styles of Sherry. Then you go via Medium Dry Olorosso with a hint of sweetness all the way to a 400 grams per litre Pedro Ximenez that tastes like Christmas cake. John Black will have a fit at Christmas if I don't order at least a half bottle of PX to accompany his mince pies and gout onset. I can't think of anything I'd rather have than a chilled glass of Manzanilla with salted almonds and big gordal olives on a hot summer's day. Something for everyone (or at least two members of the Black family).

The way Sherry tastes is all down to how it's made, which is where it gets really interesting because...

2. Renegade

Sherry breaks all the usual rules of winemaking. Made from a dull grape variety,  it's blended during an extended ageing period in barrels that aren't even full. It's a complete anomaly.

  • The Solera system: Sherry is bottled once or twice a year, depending on the style, from a Solera. The solera system is made of many layers (or criaderas) of barrels filled with wine of different average ages. So, the first criadera will have wines of an average age of about 1 year, the sixth might be 4.5 years, the second 8 years and the solera (the final layer) 9-10 years. Every time there is a bottling, the winemaker can draw up up to 1/3 of what is in the solera and must top up each layer with the same amount of wine from the previous criadera. Phew. Here's a picture:
Solera system

 

  • The benefit of this constant blending is twofold. First, sherry is released ready to drink as it has already spent many years ageing. Don't make grandma's mistake - it's not made to sit in a dusty cupboard! Second, as a non-vintage product, rather like Champagne, it should be very consistent. So you can pick up your bottles of La Gitana or Tio Pepe and know that you're going to get the same thing year after year. 
  • Ageing: there are broadly two categories of Sherry made from Palomino. The first is aged biologically, the second oxidatively. Both start off as fortified wines made from Palomino, and both are aged in a complex solera system, but they end up as very different kettles of fish. Biologically aged sherries such as Manzanilla and Fino are fortified up to 16% abv and aged in soleras under a layer of yeast which grows on the wine called flor. This is why these wines, and Fino in particular, can have a hint of Marmite about them. Fino tends to be bottled at least twice a year, and the disturbance this causes means the nutrients in the wine are more active. This keeps the flor alive. Oxidatively aged wines like Amontillado are usually bottled just once a year. They can start off with a layer of flor too, but as they move further through the solera the flor dies off due to lack of nutrients and the wine becomes exposed to oxygen. This transforms the wine so it's beautifully nutty, caramel and toasty. It can trick your nose into thinking that it's sweet, but on the palate it's the most dry and refreshing thing you can imagine. Bliss with a plate of cheese. Anyone else hungry?

3. Bargain

You're unlikely to crack open a Fino for the really special occasions in your life, no matter how much we try to persuade you, but the comparison with Champagne pricing is stark. Remember: they are both non-vintage wines that are blended and aged for long periods of time.

Valdespino's single vineyard Fino Inocente is a wine with an average age of about 10 years. It retails at about £18.50 a bottle. Let's compare that with Charles Heidsieck Champagne Brut Reserve, which is also a non-vintage wine with an average age of 10 years. Charles Heidsieck retails at almost £50 a bottle. And once you've popped that cork you can't keep it, whereas sherry will keep in the fridge door for a couple of weeks, and longer for those oxidised styles. Just please, don't be grandma. 

The same is true at the cheaper end of the scale. Tio Pepe Fino, a very widely-distributed sherry, costs between £10.99-£13.99 a bottle. Its average age is probably around 4 years. It's Champagne equivalent is Moet. Moet can be found very cheaply, but it's rare that you'll see it on the shelf for less than £20. 

So yes, while you might not think of Sherry as a substitute for Champagne, it's worth comparing the relative value of the two.

4. Fuel of adventure

Some of the first conquistadors took Sherry on their long voyages across the Atlantic to the Americas. Much like the Brits who would take spirits for hydration, the Spanish took their salty Sherries on the high seas. The first recorded shipment of Sherry to the UK was completed by mega pirate/explorer Sir Francis Drake, who nicked over 3000 casks of Sherry and took it back to the UK. Never paid for it either. What a lad. 

So next time you knock back a chilled glass of fino, manzanilla or amontillado, do so with a spirit of conquest, smug in the knowledge that you've bagged an amazingly well-crafted wine that's a complete bargain.

WINES OF THE MONTH: C&B BLISS POINT PICKS

BARON DE BADASSIÈRE PICPOUL DE PINET - £10.99

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Picpoul de Pinet is having something of a moment right now, and it's easy to see why when you pick up a bottle. This wine is produced in the Languedoc, near the Etang du Thau which is famous for it's plump Mediterranean oysters. Jo worked a harvest at this lovely little co-operative winery alongside Kiwi winemakers Graeame Paul and Matt Thomson, and there's no better way to unwind after a long shift inoculating tanks (winemaking: not glamorous, folks!) than on the shore of the lake with a bottle of this absolute beaut. If you can't quite recreate that at home, no worries. A bottle of this saline, textured stunner will take you right there and is sure to perk up any spring evening.

 

 

KAIKEN CABERNET SAUVIGNON CLÁSICO - £10.49

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The Montes family are one of Chile's pioneers, known for breaking into new regions and daring to go where others have not. Kaiken is their label from Argentina, named after the geese that fly between the two countries. Although Argentina is famous for its Malbec, there are many old vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon that now produce fabulous, concentrated fruit which can be got hold of at decent prices. The altitude of 950 metres brings cool temperatures, perfect for this late-ripening variety. This is pure Cabernet with cassis and herbal notes along with the lovely chalky tannins that characterise the variety. 

Bliss point wines: when value and quality get it together. These are the numbers you need to know

In this post, we reveal our quality-value bliss point (ooh er!) - and give you the numbers behind the shelf prices. We’ve also picked out a couple of rip-roaring recommendations from our rounds at recent trade tastings: wines you should try that set the benchmark for quality and value.

Value exists at all price levels. Expensive wine is worth it if it blows your face off with its beauty and charm. If it doesn’t, it’s bad value. Simple.

But it’s much more of a minefield at the cheaper end of the scale, where most of us buy our wine. The average price of a bottle bought in the UK is still under £6 - around £5.50-£5.60 according to various surveys - which tells us where the real volume in the market lies.

So what's the least you can spend and expect a no-bullshit, knockout wine? We've done the maths and we reckon the point value and quality really start getting it on is £11 a bottle. Read on to find out why.

Disproportionately squeezed

Naturally it’s at the lower end that supermarkets and discounters focus their immense purchasing power, squeezing suppliers to maintain retail margin. They’re businesses. You can’t blame them, but you can consider the effect on the proportion of the price that gets spent on the actual wine.

Because here’s the rub: the cost of glass, cork, transport, storage and alcohol duty remain fairly constant in every bottle. Margin and VAT grow proportionately to the price. Which only leaves the cost of the wine in the bottle: the one variable that can be disproportionately squeezed.

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Don’t get me wrong, there are times when a bottle of £5 plonk is the right thing. Uni years would certainly have been a lot less jolly without Sainsbury's House.

But to illustrate the effect of the squeeze, I’ve had C&B’s crack team of designers draw up this diagram.* It compares the typical cost of the wine in a £5.50 bottle to the wine an £11 bottle:

  £5.50 v £11: proportional costs (ish)

£5.50 v £11: proportional costs (ish)

In the £5.50 bottle, the amount spent on the wine is around 29p. In the £11 bottle, the amount spent on the wine is around £3.61. That’s 12 times more. Twice the price, 12 times more on the wine.

To put it another way: in the cheaper bottle, the proportion spent on the actual wine is the liquid in the bottleneck. For the £11 one, it’s a about a third of the bottle.

Check out the summary below for more on how the numbers add up.

BLISS POINT

It's around the £10-12 mark that wine merchants can start to offer premium wines at a fair price. Certain good-hearted producers, too, are keen to help them stick around it, mitigating the dire effect of weakened currency on UK buyers with sensible discounts they can pass on to consumers. Wines at this price point sell in good quantities. So you'll often find wines which could be more expensive held at this price level to encourage volume.

big but

But - big but - while informative, the numbers don't say everything. Expensive wine doesn't mean good wine; there's also some bloody good sub-£6 plonk out there. The bliss point premise depends wholly on honest wine merchants making the most of the delicate tipping point in cost and price. An unscrupulously sold £11 bottle is always going to be a far worse prospect than Sainsbo’s five-quid Beaujo.** 

Our ultimate advice is to buy from someone you trust, who cares about quality, price and their suppliers. The supermarkets do care about quality - don’t let our indie merchant friends fool you. But they can throw their weight around with producers, who take the often unsustainable hit on wine price. 

The key is to find balance. There are times when you want mass-market trash. We all do. And it's a bugbear of ours that independents aren't better at cheap wines. We don't always want boutique bottles sold by a hipster with a beard and a bulging conscience. But if you're looking for truly premium wines at the sparest price, seek out good indies and blissful bottles. 

To taste what we mean, check out our picks of the month below.

Will x

* I didn’t really, you TOTAL loon. I did them all by myself! So, while tax rates are accurate, other figures approximate typical retail costing. Proportions are by eye.

** Because Sainsbury's was the supermarket in my university town, I know with a passionate intimacy, and still love, their "House" range. Other basics ranges are available for your own nostalgia purposes.

 

SUMMARY: Three factors that add up to the £11 bliss point

  1. Punitive tax. Duty and its mate VAT are blunt bruisers that punish those buying at the lower end. A flat duty rate of £2.16 per bottle, plus VAT, comes to £3.08 in just tax on the £5.50 bottle. That’s 56% tax. (To get political: we believe in tax, but not flat, regressive taxes which mean that people who can’t spend more are taxed a higher proportion of income for the privilege of consuming inferior products.)
     
  2. Bliss. At £11, tax makes up 36% of the bottle. This means the £11 bottle comprises about third in tax, a third in cost of sale, and a third on the wine. The tipping point of bliss.
     
  3. More? Of course the more you spend beyond £11, the smaller proportion goes on tax and other costs, and the more goes on wine. Hurrah!

Celebrating a year of C&B

To mark a year since we decided to jump into the world of C&B, Will and I wanted to highlight a few of the people that have helped us along the way. We feel very lucky to have the support of these wonderful humans! 

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Luca and Rosy, Two Spoons

These two are a real bundle of joy. We love our meetings with them, and their endless enthusiasm and encouragement. Luca kicks us off with his fabulous cocktails, while Rosy cooks up a storm. We love their sense of adventure, and look forward to seeing what they both rustle up for our next tasting.

Kat Waters

One sunny January afternoon, we got some photogenic pals together in a room with us and some wines. The results are many of the pictures you see on our website, taken by our friend Kat. She truly captured the joy of the afternoon. Find out more at www.katherinewaters.co.uk.

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Christian Denereaz

We first met Christian back in May at our very first event at Two Spoons. He's an Honor Oak local and our most avid taster. Christian brings his eccentric charm to all of our tastings, where we catch up about his allotment and his motorbike. Cheers, Christian!

Assorted Housemates

To James, Ella, Ali, Emily, Adam and Natalie. Thanks for putting up with us commandeering our shared spaces with our noise, glasses and vintage TV watching. You're all gems.

 

 

Our lovely tasters

We couldn't do any of this without you people filling our tastings with raucous laughter and joy. 

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Thanks all! Looking forward to the next year.

Jo x

Behind the scenes at C&B

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As you know, because you’re here, C&B do monthly tastings and private wine events. Pretty different affairs but they share something in their conception: the flavour and feel have to be right for the occasion. Basically, that just means the right wines, nice polished glasses and a lovely room to drink them in. Simple really, Goldilocks.

As we approach our one-year anniversary next month (scream!) we thought we’d share a little glimpse of what has become, so far, the beating heart of C&B behind the scenes. 

Choosing the wines

We’ve got no time for wine snobs, and no time for inverted sneering at expensive booze either. To fit the bill, a wine just has to be a) good and b) feel right for the occasion. 

For our barbecue event a few weeks back, this meant having some fun fizz. Ca di Alte’s cheerful Prosecco frizzante was a sub-£10 joy to kick things off, before pouring Charles Heidsieck's decadent NV champagne (RRP £47). Something for drinking in the park with a disposable barbie, something to swank with at a garden party.

The still wines that followed were all about showing you can drink well for way below a tenner: classy southern French roses, cheap Portuguese over-performers. But also that sometimes it’s worth splashing on something spenny. Michel Richaud’s incredible, brambly, low-intervention Cotes du Rhone is a hefty £22 but by far one of the most loved wines we’ve shown this year.

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Jo and I spend gruelling afternoons and evenings tasting a huge variety of wines. It is a burden, but eventually we whittle our portfolio down to the things we really love ourselves. These are the wines we bring to tastings.

The dirty back office bit

By the time we’re in front of a group of lovely tasters, we’ve done a load of vile and dirty things so you don’t have to! A veritable panoply of joys, but my three favourites, without doubt:

 Jo, loving it

Jo, loving it

  1. Licensing! When we host at home with you, and for some reason your house isn’t licensed for the on-premises consumption of alcohol, we have to make sure we’re above board. Enter the magnificent Temporary Event Notice! A piece of paper from the council that means we’re not signing ourselves up for a spell in her majesty’s finest. It’s a pain but actually very easy, nothing to fear. And who doesn’t love a little bureaucracy to make the wine taste all the sweeter?
  2. Monthly ops meetings! At the beginning of each month we get together to look at the enormous sums of money we’ve made :/  We review what’s been wonderful and not so wonderful. The final agenda point is - stick with me - emotional wellness: do we hate each other yet? If no, we eat something extravagant and have a few bottles to celebrate. If yes, dunno yet - AOB?
  3. Glass polishing! Oh glass polishing, how do I love thee. 1am, post tasting, 120 dirty glasses to wash and polish before the fruit flies emerge. Nothing finer than a couple of hours spent reflecting, washing, digestif-ing, polishing. Ready for the next C&B outing. 

I’m actually kind of serious about the glass polishing. And so’s Jo. We really feel there’s something lovely about the graft behind the innocent fun and boozing. Which is why we do it.

Catch you soon

Will x