It’s winter and I do like a drop of Sherry in my soup. Picking up a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream the other day reminded me of my days at Bristol University and visits to the famous Harvey’s cellars. Sherry was still a very popular tipple in the UK and had been so for over 300 years.
The story goes that Sir Francis Drake sacked the city of Cadiz in Spain in 1587 (a year before the Spanish Amanda) and he returned to England with some prized (vino de Jerez) sherry and a newly arrived vegetable from the Americas- potatoes.
Because this was a result of the sacking of the city, the vino, which became popular in England, was known as Sack!
It definitely was not Sherry as we know it today but a rather crude forerunner, a fortified, probably rather sweeter style, of wine.
Spanish wines were known in England for well over a century and in 1517 the English merchants were given preferential status. Indeed, Drake had established himself in business in Jerez (Sherry) and lived there for some years before falling out with one of the local dignitaries.
Of course, it was no accident that the embittered Drake with a fleet of 24 ships set out to destroy the Spanish ships preparing for the Amada. He also gathered his most prized booty – some 2900 pipes of wine loaded into four prize ships which found their way to the taverns of England popularizing the ‘Authentic Cadiz Sack”.
Others claim it was the later and substantial sacking of Cadiz in 1596 that really led to the popularization of Sack. But Sir Walter Raleigh one of the commanders of the English fleet was opposed to wine, warning“take especial care thou delight, not in wine…it deformeth the face, rotteth the teeth…. and maketh a man contemptible” However Raleigh is reported as taking the newly arrived potato back to his extensive land holdings, some 40,000 acres near Cork in Ireland, from whence the vegetable became most popular.
That starchy little spud that originated in the Americas and was brought back to Europe by the Spanish has become the worlds fourth largest food crop. It is estimated one-quarter of the worlds population growth between 1700 and 1900 was the result of the potato! Today China grows almost a quarter of the worlds 380 million tonnes.
Henry VIII, son in law to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, enjoyed the sweet potato, believing it to be an aphrodisiac! (did he really need them?) Peter the Great introduced the three basic types of potato to Russia and caused riots as the eating of the leaves proved poisonous (it is of the same family as deadly night shade -the plague of vineyards!). The populous thought Peter was trying to poison them, till they realized it is the tuber that is eaten.
The subspecies Solanum Tuberosum, the common potato of today, came from Chile while the subspecies Andigena was from Peru-a late forming tuber variety, and the Sweet Potato (not really a potato -Ipomoea batatas) was brought back from the Caribbean
Timing is everything, so the raids on Spain by the English privateers clearly had long-lasting consequences well removed from the politics of the day. Even the word Sack is of contested origin – once thought to be similar to the French Sec or dry the wine it was sweet so this seems unlikely.
The Spanish word sacar has the meaning to draw out as in removing wine from a solera system and may have given rise to the term Sacas for the wines.
As there is no written record before the mid 1500’s and it became popular after the sacking of Cadiz I think the story of Sack arising, as a result, sits well.
Sherris sack from Jerez de la Frontera was not alone, there was Canary Island Sack, Malaga Sack, and Palm Sack among others but the sherry we know today from Jerez has an important Hunter Valley connection.
As in Portugal, an influx of Scots, English, and Irishmen invested in the production of Sherris. Harvey’s of Bristol and Avery ’s were founded in the 1790’s and most survived the Napoleonic war. González Byass is one of Spain’s most well-known sherry bodegas. Its origins can be traced to 1830’s when it was founded by Manuel María González Angel, who was subsequently joined by his English agent, Robert Blake Byass.
The use of a solera system for blending with the topping up of barrels with young wine after drawing of some of the contents. Unbeknown to the Jerazanos, the wines developed interesting characters from the floating white scum on its surface- a flower or flor. This flor was a floating yeast which in addition to imparting flavor led to a drier style of wine. Now, most wines for export had brandy added so the flor would not develop but the wine kept for adding to maintain consistency had no brandy and hence the flor could develop. Most of this flor affected wine was consumed by the locals as it was not considered fit for export to the UK.
James Busby in his journal talks of stopping at a public-house to obtain a glass of the wine called Manzinilla, the” Vin de pays” of the district.” It was not known in the cellars of the English merchants, but is a light pleasant beverage, having at the same time a mellowness and flavor, which I have no doubt, would after a little habit, procure for it the preference even of those who would find it insipid at the first trial”
On visiting the Gonzalez Byass cellars he suggested there may be a market for this Manzinilla style in the UK and the rest is history as they say, or at least the Gonzalez Byas’ history says!
Hugh Johnson: The story of Wine 1989 Mitchell Beazley, London
Jancis Robinson: The Oxford Companion to Wine 1995 Oxford University Press
James Busby: Journal of a Tour through some of the Vineyards of Spain and France 1833 Stephens and Stokes Sydney