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Published on November 21st, 2014 | by Ruben

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Sherry sales: a (false) Renaissance?

There have been a lot of contradictory statements about the popularity of sherry lately. On the one hand numerous articles mention a Sherry Renaissance, a renewed interest in sherry with ‘booming sales’ (check out recent articles from The Guardian, Forbes or The Telegraph). On the other hand, there are sales statistics which prove the opposite direction: on a general level, sherry sales continue to fall quite dramatically.

While official sources will try to focus on the good things (popularity of new styles such as en rama sherry, publications of new books, initiatives like International Sherry Week and the European Wine Capital), it’s probably not a bad idea to look at the problems and opportunities from a wider angle. How can there be a Renaissance and a decline at the same time?

 

Sherry sales statistics

Let’s start by giving you the official sales statistics since 2002, as published in the annual reports of the Consejo Regulador. I’ve included the worldwide figures and the top-5 countries.

 

International sherry sales statistics 2002-2014

 

This shows a general decline from around 69 million liters to 37 million (-47%) in twelve years. There have been significant declines year after year, and while the general downward trend seems to be slowing down, hopeful markets like the US and Japan (which recently showed increasing figures) have gone down as well. This doesn’t look like a Renaissance, does it?

[Graph updated October 2015 to include the 2014 reports]

When we do a more in-depth analysis (I’ll spare you all the figures), it becomes clear that the sweetened blends are responsible for a large part of the decline (Medium, Cream and Pale Cream). This makes sense – they once were very popular in the UK, Netherlands and Germany, and when you look at these countries in the graph, their downward trend is more dramatic than in other countries. Sweetened styles are related to an older audience (55+) which doesn’t think of sherry as a wine, but more as a nightcap, a Christmas tipple or something to drink in between meals, and this market segment is fading out rapidly. Because of this, the UK has now fallen below the level of Spain, after being the biggest consumer of sherry wines for decades.

However dry styles seem less affected and this is also why Spanish sales have been fairly stable during the last 15 years: they were already drinking mostly Fino and Manzanilla (as a wine with food) and they continue to do so. In other countries the dry wines are slowly becoming more popular as well. It’s fair to say the sales of ‘quality sherry’ are slowly going up and the average drinker is becoming younger. The renewed audience is more interested in the story behind the product as well. As with gourmet food and other types of drinks, consumers want to know the producer, learn how they make their products, understand the differences and even visit the wonderful country where it’s made.

The slow rise of dry sherry is mainly due to Fino and Manzanilla. Palo Cortado sales are rising as well, but Amontillado and dry Oloroso are dropping even more dramatically than the sweet genres, so it’s important to recognize it’s not just a general boost of dry sherry. Note that P.X. is seeing slightly more interest as well.

 

A (future) Renaissance maybe?

I wouldn’t call the current situation a Renaissance. Not yet. Most of the good news is coming from specific locations in the US (major cities like New York or San Fransisco) or the United Kingdom (e.g. London which welcomed a whole list of sherry bars). But it’s not a general trend yet.

The industry is in the process of reinventing itself, with some hopeful signals, but a lot of problems still need to be handled and it remains to be seen how this will evolve in the long run. Let’s list a few of the important problems and their possible solutions:

  • Pricing: compared to other wines of similar complexity, sherry is too cheap. This is related to the overproduction in the 1970’s which caused big stocks of (good) wines. High quality, large stocks and lowering sales equals low prices. However with the interest in premium sherry slowly rising, I expect the prices to go up as well, which will provide some oxygen for the bodegas. Let’s just hope they’re not too greedy and price themselves out of the market – a fair price is necessary as long as the demand stays fairly low, it invites people to discover good sherry.
  • Premiumization: related to pricing is the shift towards higher-end wines. The industry should move away from the image of a cheap supermarket wine. With so many old, high quality stocks in the Jerez area, I think we should see more single vineyard wines, single cask releases, vintage wines, special series, en rama versions… Move away from white label brands but do special bottlings for specific distributors or stores. It’s easier to make more profit on relatively new categories than trying to double the price of existing wines.
  • Communication shift: maybe it’s no longer a good idea to talk about ‘sherry’ as a whole. It’s a confusing category and encompasses too many styles that few people really understand. We should focus on the styles on their own and talk about Fino, Amontillado… as separate wines. If you’re putting too much focus on the name ‘sherry’, people will keep linking it to what their grandparents were drinking.
    Not only the names may need to change, also the way of communicating needs to change. Websites, social media and other platforms can reach a wider and younger audience. In this respect, sherry can learn a lot from the whisky industry for example. Also bodegas should take care of communications themselves, whereas nowadays they rely too much on local distributors in my opinion.
  • Experimentation: the D.O. Jerez is one of the oldest D.O.’s in Spain and one of the most traditional. Lots of production practices of sherry are based on old traditions. Maybe the time has come to question some of them, or at least create new categories that provide a playground for young winemakers that are ready to take sherry into the future. Different grape varieties, variations in fortification… can lead to interesting results.
  • Distribution: it’s simply too hard to find good sherry, even when you’re willing to pay a price. The industry should probably look beyond the boundaries of local markets and support online sales initiatives that have a wider reach.

 

Personally I think sherry sales will continue to fall dramatically for years to come. Even with the hopeful news in some areas, and as much as I love sherry, I don’t think it will ever be the hugely popular wine it once was. The challenge is to filter out types that have gone down with their audience and trying to create momentum for other unique styles. Production will come down further, bodegas will operate on a smaller scale but they will focus on authentic wines.

In a way I think sherry is a flexible wine: its wide variety of styles allows producers to focus on the types that are more popular without having to turn their business upside down. Interesting times are ahead.

Please let me know what you think about this. It would be nice to spark a discussion on the future of sherry.

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About the Author

fell in love with sherry fifteen years ago, but switched to a higher gear in 2013 and started writing about it. Lived in Madrid for a couple of years, now back in Belgium. I also run a whisky blog over at www.whiskynotes.be



  • Wim Dons

    Hi Ruben,

    sharing some thoughts ( in English, whilst only two
    miles away ! ). I think the general analysis is correct : the bulk sherry
    buying mainly consisted in the sweeter sherry types, eg. the massive volumes of
    – mostly low-quality – pale cream sold in the UK. One could argue wether it is
    a good or a bad thing sales of this type of sherry is going down. We like to
    think the other way around : there are huge opportunities getting sherry known
    for what it is : a unique, oenological wonder of the wine world. One that
    embraces history, skill, great taste & smell, endless complexity, and
    almost unlimited food pairing possibilities. All the remedies you mentioned
    will be necessary : better communication – Jerez DO, where are you ? –
    higher prices for the offered complexity ( not for teasing the customer
    but in order to give quality bodega’s the chance of continuing the good work
    and not being tempted into a low-end market. Distribution ( we are working on
    it ! ) , differentiation between the different types, telling the tale and
    getting it all tasted ( working on that too ! ). What we see, every day, is
    that also younger people are picking up – even in a non-traditional sherry
    country as ours. It will take a lot of effort, and a lot of time, but i’m sure
    quality stuff will find its way and get the place it deserves. I don’t know if
    sales of real good fino, amontillado, oloroso, palo cortado, PX and even
    moscatel will count up for the loss in volume of the lesser-quality sweet
    stuff. Maybe that’s not possible. But in the end, does it need to ? – and
    again, that’s an open question..

    wim

  • RichardMorris

    Visited Jerez many times on holiday and drink lots of fino when I am there. But I don’t at home, much.

    Why not? Firstly it’s too strong. Secondly, and related, it doesn’t keep well. So drink too much alcohol to finish the bottle or drink an inferior product over the next few days.

    I think Equipo Navazos have done a wonderful job but their prices have made them unaffordable, to me at least. But I think premier wines is one way to go, subject to them being difficult to find.

    • SherryNotes

      I don’t share your view on keeping (not) well. This is an outdated idea based on inferior (heavily filtered) supermarket sherry. Decent Fino / Manzanilla keeps just as well as other wines – and after all it’s still a wine. The oxidative types can be kept for weeks or months. I’ve written a specific article about this topic.

      Most Finos are 15%. Nowadays there seems to be a trend for table wines (Chardonnay, Sauvignon) in the 14-15% range so the difference becomes small. Personally, given the lean body and lack of tannins / glycerin, I don’t think biologically aged sherry leaves a heavy impression. But I understand this is a personal preference of course.

      • RichardMorris

        I didn’t express myself well. It’s true that table wines are increasingly 14.0-14.5% – but I don’t have to buy them. With sherry there is no choice – and 15% is the minimum. Other styles can go up to 20%. They may not leave a heavy impression but alcohol is alcohol.

        If I buy a 14.5 red and drink some it will usually improve overnight. I think that finos and manzanillas lose freshness quite quickly, once opened. Maybe, as you say, this only applies to supermarket sherry but that is what consumers mostly drink.

        • SherryNotes

          You’re right about the alcohol. This is definitely one of the issues I had in mind when talking about experimentation and the strictness of the D.O.. In fact winemakers are already producing low ABV or entirely unfortified ‘sherries’. Maybe a new category can be created so that they don’t have to be called ‘Cadiz’ table wines.

          Since Fino is never in contact with oxygen, it’s quite logical they change once opened. I always say ‘change’, not ‘deteriorate’. En rama Fino or a Manzanilla Pasada can also improve overnight.

        • riverstun .

          Throw in an ice cube

  • Cambridge Sherry Club

    That was a fascinating read. We have been lamenting the antiquated, sickly image of sherry for years, and it is good to see the rise in quality sherry sales, particularly in Palo Cortado, and I imagine the demand is quite smooth now that the supermarkets seem to be able to get asparagus all year round 😉

    Surprising to hear that Amontillado and Oloroso sales are still declining though, people are missing out there.

    We agree wholeheartedly with your recommend levers to boost national sales, though for the already-converted, the decades of absurdly low prices have been wonderful. We would also countenance the invention of new cocktails such as Breakfast Sherry which is basically a fino with ice cube of marmalade and cointreau infusion. Perfect for a sunny morning!

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