Sherry, its History and Culture

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Real Academia de Gastronomía

Over the course of 3000 years, several historical events have shaped the unique character of sherry wines, which have become key to understanding the history and cultural identity of an entire region.

Sherry vineyardsReal Academia de Gastronomía

The various civilizations that have inhabited the Marco de Jerez region over the centuries have all left their mark on the culture and wines of this area.

Knowledge of the history of these peoples is essential for understanding the rich character of these unique wines.

Sherry vineyardsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Historical Origin

References to vineyards in the Jerez region can be found in books dating from the first century, which record the fact that they were introduced to Andalusia by the Phoenicians.

Wines were produced in Xera—the Phoenician name for the Jerez region—and were distributed throughout the Mediterranean, and in Rome in particular.

Sherry vineyardsReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Roman Conquest

With the Iberian Peninsula under Roman rule, the trade in vinum ceretensis became widespread, and its popularity spread throughout the Empire.

Alfonso X, King of Castile (17th century) by William RogersNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

During the Arab conquest, production and consumption of sherry decreased due to the Quran's prohibition of alcohol consumption, reducing the purpose of vineyards to the production of raisins.

However, with the reconquest of Jerez by Alfonso X of Castile in 1264, the city recommenced its wine production and reclaimed its former wine-making splendor.

Xmas Shopping "Sherry Spirits" Liquor (1955) by Michael RougierLIFE Photo Collection

The English Love for Sherry

Lauded by Shakespeare in his works, sherry has been a feature on the tables of the royal family, in pubs, and in English houses for centuries. This penchant has had an effect on the viticulture and history of the city of Jerez.

Sherry Wine Glass (c. 1937) by John DanaNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Anyone for Sherry?

Records show that since the 13th century Britons have had an interest in the drink that they call sherry, a derivation of the Arabic place-name Sherish.

The traditional glass of sherry, quaffed by the English and featured countless times in literature and film, is none other than what the Spanish call "Jerez."

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth of England knighting English naval hero & explorer Sir Francis Drake (1541-1596). (1901)LIFE Photo Collection

Legend has it that it was Sir Francis Drake who popularized sherry in England in the 16th century.

In an attack on Cádiz, the corsair took hundreds of casks of sherry that were consumed in the court and the pubs of the capital city.

Uncorking Old Sherry (March 10, 1805) by Hannah Humphrey|James GillrayThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Legends aside, the fact is that even before this, in the late 15th century, demand for sherries by English, Flemish, and French merchants was so great that the City Council was obliged to enact laws on the Guild of Grape and Wine Harvesters of Jerez, in order to regulate the system of production, aging, and trade.

Bodegas Williams & HumbertReal Academia de Gastronomía

A Well-Traveled Wine

With the discovery of America and the consolidation of trade with the New World, flourishing markets were opened up that led to the export of sherry beyond the continent of Europe.

The English also took sherry to their numerous colonies, contributing to its rise in popularity all over the world.

Old sherry wine bottlesReal Academia de Gastronomía

From the 17th century onward, several English and Irish merchants settled in the Marco de Jerez region, where they produced wines in accordance with their own tastes: stronger, darker, and aged for longer. Some of them went into business with local producers, while others set up their own companies.

English surnames can still be found in the area today.

"Sherry" case plaqueReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Sherry Case

The popularization of sherry across the British Empire led to a serious problem: wines similar to sherry began to be produced in other areas that were suitable for viticulture.

2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the lawsuit known as the "Sherry Case." This lawsuit, brought about by English producers who wanted to use the term "sherry" in the United Kingdom, was resolved when the British courts found in favor of sherry producers from Jerez.

Sherry tastingReal Academia de Gastronomía

Currently, as is the case for other major wines of the world, there are still sherry substitutes—especially in California—which fall a long way short of the quality and personality of the authentic ones.

Iberian ham & SherryReal Academia de Gastronomía

Sherry Throughout the World

In recent years the consumption of sherry has gained in popularity, both within Spain and beyond. Its versatility and variety make it ideal to drink at any time, as an accompaniment to anything from a simple appetizer to an haute cuisine menu.

Sherry wineReal Academia de Gastronomía

Three EU countries—the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany—receive the largest quantities of exported sherry, as well as China and the USA.

Today there are sherry bars in places as diverse as London, New York, and Tokyo. The Bar de Ollaría tavern is located in the Ginza area of Tokyo and serves more than 250 varieties of sherry.

Xmas Shopping "Sherry Spirits" Liquor (1955) by Michael RougierLIFE Photo Collection

The Culture of Sherry

Literature, film, and, more recently, the small screen are full of references to sherry.

A Xeres nel periodo della vendemmia: festa e danze folkloristiche.Istituto Luce Cinecittà

Since the early days of its international popularity, sherry has conquered the most brilliant minds of literature and film, with frequent references to the wine appearing in several works.

Plate 10 for Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' (1784) by Daniel Nikolaus ChodowieckiLos Angeles County Museum of Art

"A good sherris sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit."

The second property of your excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood; which, before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice."

William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2.

Plate 1 for Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' (1784) by Daniel Nikolaus ChodowieckiLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Shakespeare mentions sherry in several of his works: as well as Henry VI, it appears in Richard III, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Twelfth Night, among others.

Broadside with 48 scenes relating the story of the Count on Montecristo (1857) by José María MarésThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lucrezia Borgia (1833), by Victor Hugo, includes the line: "Hurrah for sherry! Jerez is a town that should be in Paradise."

In The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, references are plentiful, even including the line, “Your wine from Spain is excellent."

González Byass Winery (1835)Real Academia de Gastronomía

In Spanish literature, José de Esprocenda alludes to sherry in the poem Canción Báquica (Bacchic Song), while Benito Pérez Galdós, in one of his National Episodes, states: “If God had not made sherry, how imperfect his work would be!”

Alexander Dumas [père] (1802-1870) / Alexandre Dumas (1855) by Nadar [Gaspard Félix Tournachon]The J. Paul Getty Museum

Sherry-Drinking Travelers

Between the late 19th and early 20th century, internationally known writers visited Cádiz and fell under the spell of sherry's charms.

These intrepid, traveling writers included Lord Byron, Washington Irving (author of Tales of the Alhambra), Hans Christian Andersen, and the aforementioned Alexandre Dumas.

LIFE Photo Collection

"The only nearby place that they suggested to us as being worthy of a visit was Jerez de la Frontera; but not to admire its churches or historical monuments, rather to see its wineries and to taste the deliciousness of its wines."

Hans Christian Andersen, In Spain, 1863.

Image missing

Sherry and Women

There are numerous references to sherry in literature written by women, particularly from the 19th century onward when female writers were increasingly visible.

Emily Dickinson, George Eliot (the pseudonym of Mary Anne Evans), the Spanish writer Emilia Pardo Bazán, Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, and Patricia Highsmith are just a few of the many female writers who expressed their affection for this wine.

By Dave AlloccaLIFE Photo Collection

In a more recent and popular reference, the British writer J.K. Rowling mentions sherry in three volumes of her Harry Potter series.

Gone With The Wind (1939-05) by Peter StackpoleLIFE Photo Collection

Star of the Silver Screen

References on the big screen are many and varied, especially in European and American cinema.

We saw Rhett Butler drinking sherry with Mammy as a toast to celebrate the birth of his daughter Bonny; we heard the spy James Bond discussing amontillado with M in Diamonds are Forever; and it's amontillado that they drink in Babette's Feast.

Alfred Hitchcock (1939) by Peter StackpoleLIFE Photo Collection

Alfred Hitchcock includes references to sherry in six of his films, as well as Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight, Ingmar Bergman in Wild Strawberries and Woody Allen in Play it Again, Sam.

Xmas Shopping "Sherry Spirits" Liquor (1955) by Michael RougierLIFE Photo Collection

Interestingly, the habit of the Crawley family—protagonists of the successful English TV series Downton Abbey—of having a glass of sherry before dinner has led to a considerable increase in the consumption of sherry in bars and restaurants, as well as in sales of bottles in shops, in the United Kingdom.

Credits: Story

Text: María García, in collaboration with Víctor de la Serna Arenillas (member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy).

Image: Foods & Wines from Spain / Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade / González Byass Winery.

Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy

This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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