Sherry offers best ‘pleasure to price’ ratio for bargain hunters

Sherry tasting with Julian Jeffs and Beltran Domecq

Sherry tasting with Julian Jeffs and Beltran Domecq - Credit: Archant

Supermarket brands of quality fortified wine can be under £10 a bottle, says Liz Sagues.

Time for some sums. If I had to buy every bottle of wine I taste, I’d need an overdraft as big as the deposit on a home in Ham&Highland. But experiencing wines before writing about them is essential – just as it has to be for music performances or restaurant food.

There’s no way wine can be reviewed without looking at it in the glass, smelling it and letting it loose over your taste buds. And ultimately it’s wine lovers who benefit from reviews in the broadest sense – newspaper columns like this, all the rest of wine media activity from blogs to television programmes, even wine competition awards.

For everyone whose work is at all related to wine, tasting is the way to find out about new styles, new vintages, new places, new techniques. But it’s a costly exercise for the companies which open the bottles: I’ve been musing on how much what I’ve sipped and spat lately would have cost, had I paid for it.

Two examples: at the Wine Story tasting (subject of last week’s column), the 83 bottles open for press and trade to pour had a retail value close to £2,000.

A few days earlier at a big wine importer’s annual showcase event buying the 24 bottles on just one table would have cost more than £5,200. Admittedly, those were exceptional wines, but opening them all was a big investment which may or may not repay its cost. Add in the other 200-plus bottles offered to taste elsewhere in the room, and the total soars into the stratosphere.

I regret having to spit out many great mouthfuls, but sobriety insists I do so if these columns are to make sense. The memories remain, however – and smell, swirl and spit can be immensely rewarding even without the final swallow.

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The privilege of tasting expensive wines can also be revealing. Wonderful as they may be, they sometimes prove that more pleasure can be had in, say, three £15 bottles than one at £45 – and, conversely, in a single £12 bottle instead of three £4 so-called “bargains”.

There’s one area of the wine world where the pleasure to price ratio is very special: the Jerez region of Spain, home of sherry. One of my happiest food and wine memories was lunch there, sipping Tio Pepe fino alongside assorted fishy and vegetable dishes. Good dry sherry – salty manzanilla, nutty fino, savoury dry oloroso – is fabulous with food, has an alcohol content barely higher than that of non-fortified wines made from properly ripe grapes, and can cost less than £10 a bottle.

There are reliable big names – Tio Pepe’s maker González Byass, for example, Hidalgo, whose La Gitana manzanilla is one of the best and most easily found, Barbadillo and Lustau – as well as a host of fine smaller ones. Supermarkets’ own brands often come from top producers, and Majestic has the classy Pedro Almacenista range.

The newest fashion is for “en rama” sherry, unfiltered, unclarified, blended from specially chosen casks. Tio Pepe has just released the sixth edition of Fino En Rama (around £16, stockists include Oddbins, The Wine Society, Berry Bros & Rudd and Lea & Sandeman). Try it!