I was painfully aware that the tiny amount of golden liquid at the bottom of my glass was worth hundreds of pounds. A spillage could have been costly. The occasion was the launch of the Barbadillo Versos 1891 Amontillado, the latest and certainly most ambitiously priced luxury sherry on the market. The year refers not to a vintage but to the year when the cask was laid down for the christening of Manuel Barbadillo, a poet and scion of the great sherry dynasty. The cask has been gradually topped up with younger wines – even so, it still contains some seriously old wine.
Barbadillo are releasing 100 bottles at £8,000 a time. It comes in a handblown decanter mounted in a handcrafted leather box. At that price I’d want a full time butler to say “good choice sir!” every time I had a glass. It’s vulgar, it’s audacious and it’s a magnificently good sherry, perhaps the finest I’ve ever tasted. Very old sherries can be a little austere; they’re easier to admire than to love. The Versos, on the other hand, was so harmonious: bone dry but full-bodied with layers of almonds, walnuts, ginger and vanilla. And the smell! The whole room was thick with it. There were nuts, molasses, dried fruits and cinnamon mingled with antique-shop smells of leather and furniture polish. I could still taste it hours later when I got back home.
Other sherry producers will be watching the success of Versos with interest. If it is successful then it means that some bodegas are sitting on a gold mine. Sherry is a blend of different vintages so its production involves holding large amounts of maturing wine. It’s an accountant’s nightmare. This was fine when sherry was big business – in the 1920s roughly a quarter of all wine Britain imported was sherry. Most well-to-do households would have had a decanter of sherry to offer guests.
The decline began with the emergence of reliable clean whites in the 1970s. People are now brought up on fresh fruit-driven wines such as sauvignon blanc. Sherry, in contrast, has practically no fruit, no acidity and it’s 15% alcohol. It’s an acquired taste that fewer and fewer people are acquiring. Producers, however, still have massive stocks, meaning prices are uneconomically low. This is great for the consumer – supermarket sherries are often of superb quality – but not so good for the long term health of the industry. Most bodegas are kept afloat by brandy and table-wine sales.
Until now, the most expensive sherries – rare releases from Equipo Navajas or Bodegas Tradicion – cost hundreds rather than thousands of pounds. In aiming higher, Barbadillo are taking a leaf out of the malt whiskey handbook. Whiskey is also based on blending, and producers realised a while ago that they could literally liquidise their assets by occasionally siphoning off a rare vintage. You can snap up a 1982 Port Ellen (Diageo) for around £2,400.
Sherry companies aren’t the only ones learning from the malt-whiskey experience. Just as with sherry, the bottom end of the port market is shrinking (though port is more secure at the top because of an interest in its vintage varieties). Taylor’s released an 1863 tawny (meaning aged in wood rather than bottle) in a crystal decanter for around £2,300 a bottle in 2014. The test tube in which my tasting sample was sent stills smells pungently of ancient port two years later. More affordable is the 1966 tawny Taylor’s released earlier this year for around £150. The longest living wine of all is madeira. Extremely old vintages are not hard to find and as yet they’re not being marketed as luxury goods. For example, Farr Vintners have a wonderful 1907 Oliveira Malvasia for around £500 a bottle.
That’s a bargain compared with the Versos. But Barbadillo are aiming at an entirely different market, not well-heeled enthusiasts but super-rich collectors who will probably never open the bottle. It is a crime that such a wonderful sherry may never be tasted. But I can’t get too upset about it. Fortified wines are never going to be ubiquitous again. They are extremely slow and expensive to make, and the sherry business cannot survive selling cheap wines to supermarkets. If firms such as Barbadillo can fund their more everyday wines by selling lavishly packaged rarities then it’s good news for sherry lovers rich and poor.