Some time back, I was in the cavernous cellars of the Aman Resort in Delhi for a guided tasting of sherry. I had been conditioned to believe that sherry is a woman’s drink—what the “brother officers’ lady wives” would get served at armed forces’ parties that oozed machismo and stilted English. The only sherry I knew about was the venerable Tio Pepe, which is served as an aperitif at the start of any Spanish embassy do.
I wanted an unlearning experience and I could not have asked for a better coach than cellar master Kavita Devi, who is actually as Australian as it gets—her mother fell in love with India when she was expecting her, hence the name. I can’t resist adding that the invitation was for 8 and the guests came only around 9, but because I arrived on the dot, I had Kavita to myself for about an hour.
Much of what she said made little sense to me, mostly because I knew very little of the subject. All that I carried back home were memories of some very fine sherries, the styles ranging from bone dry to a nectar sweetened with dessert wine extracted from Pedro Ximenez grapes. And each of the five sherries that I tasted paired seamlessly with the tapas on the table.
FT’s wine columnist and editor of the Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson, once described sherry—a wine fortified with brandy and produced after an elaborate process (the solera system) in the Spanish province of Cadiz— as a “neglected wine treasure.” Those were my thoughts exactly.
For this gustatory pleasure, we must thank the Caliph of Cordoba, Al-Hakam II, who, in an order dating back to the year 966, spared two-thirds of the vineyards of Jerez, which is the only place in the world where sherry can be produced, from being torched by his army of Muslim zealots. The Quran forbade wine and the Moors ruled Spain but the sherrymakers of Jerez argued that they also produced raisins to feed the empire’s soldiers, so they continued doing what they did best throughout the five centuries of Islamic rule. The Arab also called the place Sherish, so sherry, which was better-known as “sack” in medieval England, owes its name to Spain’s Islamic past.
In today’s context, where Islam and the western world coexist tenuously, these historical tidbits show the fallacy of viewing our past through religious blinkers. History is crowded with unexpected twists and turns, and sherry’s evolution (similar to the way drinking culture flourished in the Mughal years) is an example of the quirks that historians consign to the footnotes.
During the age of exploration, sherry was the favoured drink of the navigators because it was best suited for long-sea voyages. Christopher Columbus took copious quantities with him. Ferdinand Magellan, the first man to circumnavigate the world, spent more on sherry than on weapons. And 2,900 barrels of sherry were among the many spoils of war that British sailors under Sir Francis Drake’s leadership brought home after vanquishing the Spanish Armada in 1587.
The Brits loved their sherry, especially the drier style that was popularised by Tio Pepe, and they introduced it to India. But for some reason, we never took to sherry, always treating it as the “lady wife’s” drink, so I admire Kavita’s missionary position. I mean, zeal. She may not get us to abandon whisky for sherry, but she’s made sherry seem worth the good press it’s been getting.
Sourish Bhattacharyya is Executive Editor, Mail Today.