Long ago British sherry drinkers might ask for Dry, Medium or Sweet, and only later learn to specify Fino, Amontillado or Oloroso. Then came the category of Age-Dated sherries: sherries guaranteed as being 20 or 30 years old. 2004 saw two further age-groups on the market for the first time - at 12 and 15 years old. Will these age-related sherries now challenge Port and Malt-whisky as a favourite after-dinner drink?
A first-ever tasting of the available 12, 15, 20 and 30 year sherries — plus two Añada (Vintage) sherries - was held for wine correspondents at the "Groucho Club" in London's Soho last October.
There was a truly formidable array of over sixty bottles, with prices ranging from £10.99 for a half-bottle (37.5 cl) and £12.99 (75 cl). In those cases where prices were declared these were of of anything up to £33.50 for a half (37.5 cl) or £50 for a 75 cl bottle.
Meanwhile the recommended retail price for a 1978 Finest Dry Palo Cortado from Gonzalez Byass in the Vintage class was £75. The price of its only vintage companion shown — a 1989 Lustau Oloroso Abocado, the earliest year available - was not specified at the time.
But for the market in which these Age-Dated sherries are competing exact prices are somewhat irrelevant, it is more important for the drinker to find his or her favourite kind to enjoy after a fine meal. Most of the sherries your correspondent tasted (he sensibly did not try them all) certainly seemed to represent good value for money.
More important at this tasting was the chance for the sherry producers to show the extreme ranges of choice among the different styles and age-groupings on display. And to show just how flexible sherry is in relation to food and its relevance to any time at which to drink it.
Those attending the tasting were talked-through the selection by one of Britain's leading experts on Sherry — Julian Jeffs, a former President of the Circle of Wine Writers and author of a key work on "Sherry". He was aided in the presentation by David Furer, wine communicator and the on-trade face of the Sherry Institute of Spain.
Among the age-dated sherries singled-out for praise and discussion were 12 years-old Amontillado El Maestro Sierra and a Pedro Ximénez Bertoa from Federico Paternina; the 15 year-old Williams & Humbert Dry Sack Sweet Old Oloroso; and Valdespino's Oloroso Don Gonzalo of 20 years.
From the 30 year-old Palo Cortados which fell in the Very Old Sherries (VORS) category, the experts praised the Palo Cortado Apostoles from Gonzalez Byass and Harvey's Palo Cortado at £14.99 for a full 75 cl bottle.
The one overall point that came out was the range of extremely different tastes on offer among these age-dated sherries, and how it was up to each customer to find his or her favourite one - and see it was handy-by or stocked at wherever they were dining.
Sherry is now making fierce efforts to ensure people understand the many places where sherry was the appropriate wine for the food. It should not be seen simply as an afternoon tipple in vicarages, but as a full-blooded wine for many occasions: with a good fino or amontillado as an accompanying bottle for a tapas session; as well as a drink to go with the body of a meal, including the cheese course - and from this date onwards as a suitable vintage after-dinner liqueur.
The sherry experts at this tasting were determined not only to get sherry out of the category of being a drink for aged spinster aunts to tipple at teatime, but to present it as a mealtime drink and one for young and old all the year round. Too often, they felt, it was seen as a seasonal drink at Christmas time or reserved for afternoon christenings and other sober churchly occasions.
Admittedly Christmas is still a time of year where the more abstemious British drinkers do buy a celebratory bottle or two of Port or Sherry, and the wine trade meets this seasonal interest by fierce competition, sometimes accompanied by cut-throat pricing offers. But the aim now is to sell sherry as a wine-for-all-seasons both as an aperitif and more importantly as an integral part of a main meal, not only at tapas time.
Sherry, of course, will still have to compete for shelf-space in supermarkets with many other wine offerings — from champagne to Vin de Pays wines from all over the world. But at the moment it is excellent value for money in most cases, and worth going up-market to enjoy this latest manifestation as an age-dated after-dinner wine.