Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! – book review

Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! by Ben Howkins, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £23 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.

In a couple of sentences…  It’s an attractive book, both visually and tactually, and if you like an easy-going style of writing I think you’ll enjoy it. It covers a broad range of topics and, irrespective of other factors, will be of particular interest to anyone who wants to know more about the trend towards en rama styles and the new generation of boutique bodegas.

The book is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 223 sides on a heavy glossy paper, in high-quality soft covers. The pages are nicely bound, so the book will open flat, and comfortably stay open. From a sample so far of two, the quality of the binding, seems to be common to all the Academie du Vin Library publications. These may sound like superficial details, but I am increasingly realising that a book’s touch and feel is important – in the same way perhaps that a wine glass is to the wine it contains.

The book is well-illustrated in colour throughout, the illustrations complementing the text without being too intrusive. But as usual with most wine books, I found the maps lacking – I think there was only one created for the book, and it had little detail. Old maps were also reproduced in places, but were so small as to be impossible to read. On the positive side from a practical point of view, the book did at least have a decent index.

The major topics covered are: history, vineyards, wine styles, and bodegas. Those are followed by a miscellaneous group of smaller chapters on various subjects: Ruiz-Mateos (the man who broke the Sherry bank), the general culture of the region, non-local cultural references to Sherry, tasting and tasting notes, related food and drink, and finally a collection of reflections on Sherry from 50 wine notables.

The author aptly describes his book as “a personal take on the current sherry scene”, seemingly contrasting it with “Julian Jeffs’ classic book Sherry“. I see what he means. Jeffs’ book is indeed excellent in its scholarship and detail, and Howkins is wise not to attempt to emulate it. Nevertheless, in my 2016 review of Jeffs’ book I did note that it failed to communicate the current excitement for Sherry. Also there was no mention by Jeff of the trend towards en rama bottlings, and only slight coverage of the newer boutique bodegas. Howkins’ book certainly addresses well all of those aspects.

But what is implied by what he says is his “personal take”? Well, he has spent a lifetime in the wine trade, including a period working specifically with Sherry, and that gives him rich insights into developments in the region over the last 50 years or so and, through personal contacts, further back into the 20th century. It also gives him a good understanding of attitudes to Sherry in its export markets. However, one thing that struck me, was that this perspective is rather privileged, as there are numerous stories of being entertained by owners and directors of Sherry companies – glasses of Sherry in meetings, late and long lunches, late and long dinners, home visits, flamenco evenings, bullfights.

Don’t get me wrong – the experiences are interesting and entertaining, as Howkins writes well, and it gives a good insight into how Sherry fits in with that kind of lifestyle. But my recent personal experience of Sherry as a tourist in Sanlúcar, was very different. I found that Manzanilla, while important, was viewed by locals as a rather ordinary everyday experience. I was told they used it for cooking, and you could buy it in any bar very cheaply. But each bar and restaurant I came across obtained all its wine from a single bodega and, while delicious, they were all basic level wines, so the vast range of exciting Sherry styles and bodegas mentioned in the book was not readily available to me. I am not complaining, as I had a good holiday, but it was not the wine-geek and cultural nirvana the book might lead one to expect.

When I started reading I was a bit unsure about the book, as I think I am naturally more attuned to Jeffs’ drier formal writing, rather than Howkins’ prose that is more relaxed, wordy and effusive. But as I continued, I got more and more into the style and subject matter, really enjoying the Sherry company chapters, and especially the one on boutique bodegas. I also found it very interesting to learn more about the cream styles of Sherry, which tend to get overlooked in more recent accounts. I was aware of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and must have drunk a few glasses in my time, but had no idea how important that one brand was to the British wine trade, and to the Sherry region.

After the bodega chapters however, I thought they got more piecemeal, disconnected, and of variable interest. In particular, I really did not understand the need for the final chapter of 50 personal reflections on Sherry. Each piece individually may have been interesting, but after the first 20 or so, many started to sound a bit samey.

Despite its weak finish, the book’s engaging mid-palate literally whetted my appetite for Sherry, and led me to crack open a half-bottle of Manzanilla brought back from Sanlúcar. I think the author would mark that down as a success.

Sherry – book review

sherry julian jeffsThis is a review of the 6th Edition of Sherry by Julian Jeffs. I have a review copy of the paperback, published by Infinite Ideas earlier this year with an RRP of £30.00. I think the hardback version of this edition came out a couple of years ago. It has 262 pages and, like other books in this Classic Wine Library series, the general design and physical impression is good. Black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the book, including a map of the Sherry region. There is also a small collection of colour plates bound together in the middle of the book.

I already owned the 5th edition, and my first comment would be that the updates are relatively minor, so I wouldn’t recommend buying the 6th edition if you already have the 5th. In addition to making the book look a lot more modern and a number of editorial changes, the updates I spotted are: Equipo Navazos gets a few lines, as do a few other newer bodegas, and the Brandy de Jerez chapter has been ditched. Beware though, as The Twentieth Century chapter has been renamed The Twentieth Century and Beyond, but it doesn’t go very much “beyond” at all. While very limited, the updates are all welcome, and make the book generally more attractive. Regarding the mapping though, two very hard-to-read maps in an antiquated style have been replaced by one modern map that is even harder to read. Map regions are indicated by shading in white and four shades of grey, for three soil types, where the vineyards are, and something else. My issues are a) I cannot always tell which shade of grey is which, b) I have no idea what the “something else” is, but can only presume it is not relevant to Sherry, and worst of all c) the apples-and-pears colouring scheme makes it impossible to know what soils the vineyards are on, which is what you are most likely to want to know from such a map. Sometimes I despair – maps are meant to convey information, not act merely as decoration. Rant over.

On the positive side, I must say that this is probably the best specialist (as opposed to The Oxford Companion, for example) wine book I have read. It is a true classic of The Classic Wine Library. It is written well, and oozes authority that is backed up by a comprehensive section of sources and bibliography. Apart from the appendices and a section that gives a paragraph on each of the shippers, the book is roughly evenly split between history and production methods. There is no space given to tasting notes, which you may or may not see as an advantage. Whichever side of the fence you take, it is probably something that has allowed the book to work well across several editions.

But what about the excitement felt for Sherry by contemporary wine lovers? You cannot find it in Jeffs’ book. Even in the provincial North of England, where Sherry bars have not yet made much of an in-road, there are many enthused drinkers of Sherry in my circle of wine buddies. It is common to kick off an evening with a glass of Sherry, and sometimes to drink it at some point in the meal. Also perhaps a few sentences on en rama Sherry, currently gaining in popularity, would have been a good idea. Rama has an entry in the glossary (in the 5th edition too), where it is defined as wine bottled from the cask without further treatment. But that is the only mention I noticed and, even if strictly speaking the definition is correct, it is not necessarily what you always get if en rama is on the label. But maybe all this trendy stuff is a mere blip in the world of Sherry, and the weight of history, and large body of conservative imbibers, justifies its omission. If so, then there is definitely room for another more ephemeral Sherry book.