Q: How many bottles are in a butt of sherry?
That’s right. Imagine being presented with 720 bottles of sherry. Even the hardiest of drinkers mightbe slightly phased by such a gift. However, that is exactly what you get if you are appointed the British Poet Laureate. Most recently, Carol Ann Duffy, half way through her duty as Poet Laureate, signed a replica of her butt (of sherry) at an exhibition celebrating the tradition.
Nevertheless, as with all British traditions that go back centuries, this has been fraught with scandal and intrigue. According to Julian Jeffs, author of Sherry, the tradition is thought to have started in 1619 when Ben Johnson was presented with a ‘butt of sack’. However, in 1790, Henry James Pye preferred an annual payment of £27 rather than the wine. The butt-giving was not fully restored until 1984, when Ted Hughes was appointed to the position and happily accepted his gift. Seven-hundred-and-twenty bottles, though, is a lot for one person, even a tortured poet, so Hughes gifted a crate to the Queen Mother.
At Infinite Ideas we love books and wine, so what could be better than a book about wine that has literary connections? Julian Jeffs’ book will be available from Thursday (that’s right, in three days’ time). It looks smashing, and is a fascinating read, if we do say so ourselves. If you can’t wait until then, here is a poem about sherry (kind of):
Most of you will know that sherry is made in the famous ‘sherry triangle’ in Spain, in the region of Andalusia. However, you may not know about the history of the region and the events which led to the production of sherry in such a concentrated area.
Of course, the reason sherry is produced there and nowhere else is due to the climate, the soil and the type of grape that produces the popular wine. Yet sherry is intrinsically Spanish and the perfect accompaniment to tapas. But what has happened in this region that gives sherry its character?
Firstly, Andalusia has been colonized by many different cultures, for over 6000 years, including the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Jews and Muslims, bringing not only cultural but culinary diversity to this region. Its close proximity to the coast meant that major cities such as Cordoba and Granada were hotspots for migrant traders over the centuries.
Andalusia, known for a time as Al-Andalus due to the Islamic influence, was a key setting for the religious Reformation across Europe, and the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Such change has had an irreversible effect on the demographic of the area as well as the architecture, literature and artwork.
The stoic philosopher Sencea is said to have hailed from this region; clearly it has produced more than just the sherry grape.
However, it is still famous for its popular wine, which is thought to have been introduced to Britain around the time of the Spanish Armada in the 1500s. With such a long and colourful history, this region has produced one of the most distinctive wines in the world.
If you’d like to know more about the history of sherry, Julian Jeffs’ Sherry (sixth edition) will be published on 20th November and copies can be preordered now. A great read, it will make a gratefully received gift for those who are interested in history, wine – or indeed books!
It’s Bonfire Night and we thought the perfect (grown up) accompaniment to this evening would be a lovely glass of cognac. Nicholas Faith is the author of Cognac and Nicholas Faith’s guide to cognac and recently he dropped in to discuss this renowned brandy. Here is what he had to say.
Why isn’t cognac produced anywhere else?
Because the Cognac region in Western France provides a unique blend of chalky soil and a temperate climate.
What have been the biggest changes in the production of cognac over the years? Why do you think this is?
In fact there’s only been one major change since the late sixteenth century, when the Dutch taught the locals to distil their rather acidic white wine. That’s an increase in the size of the stills in which the wine from which the brandy is made is distilled. The increase has little effect on the quality of the spirit.
In Cognac you’ve written a lot about the history of the drink, but what do you think lies ahead in the world of cognac; does it face challenges or do you predict a boom?
I’m optimistic. Despite a short-term downturn because of a fall in the Chinese thirst for Cognac the steady increase in the prosperity of so many countries means that more and more people can enjoy this delicious luxury.
Do you think global warming has affected the production of cognac?
It merely enables the locals to harvest their grapes a few weeks earlier.
Do you think that technology has generally been a good thing or a bad thing for cognac?
Good to a limited extent in that it enables the producers to control the process more accurately. Otherwise there has been no effect.
Cognac is often regarded as an old-fashioned tipple; how would you convince today’s drinkers that it’s worth trying?
The big problem. First encourage them to try the cheaper cognacs as the basis for long drinks with soda, sparkling water or – in winter – with a ginger drink. As for the best ‘sipping’ cognacs tell them to forget balloon glasses and simply sniff and sip them in a wine glass.
Cognac-tasting is quite a specialised skill. How did you get into it – were you a natural or did you have to learn?
You might say that I fell into a cognac still by accident. A friend had moved from Bordeaux to Cognac and at the end of a well-liquidised evening I was converted and wanted to know more about this magic liquid. I then listened to the blenders which enlarged my appreciation of its complexities, especially those of the finest cognacs.
Can you tell us about the worst cognac drink you have ever tasted?
I’ve tasted lots of horrid spirits but never a truly awful cognac, the French authorities are too effective to allow such a drink through.
Who is the greatest character you have met during your long career as a cognac expert? Can you tell us about him/her?
André Hériard-Dubreuil who transformed Rémy Martin into a world-wide success. A brilliant, rugged visionary who saw no limit to his firm’s world-wide potential.
Other than cognac what is your favourite drink – not necessarily alcoholic – and why?
Mature claret, produced in the Médoc, the other side of the Gironde estuary – as complex and satisfying as cognac.
Julian Jeffs’ book Sherry (6th edition), is due to be published on 20th November. We’re very excited and to get you in the mood, here are some facts about the drink that you might not know. Before you pour the last drop in your Christmas trifle, perhaps this year you’ll discover how exciting sherry is as a drink.
- Firstly, let’s get our bearings. For such a famous wine, sherry is only produced in the ‘sherry triangle’ in Spain, consisting of three towns, Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda.
- Sherry has been connected to Britain for over 600 years. This is partly due to Catholics being exiled to Spain and setting up as wine traders who sent sherry back to Britain. Essentially, it has been part of British culture for over half a millennia.
- This wine is growing in popularity, particularly in the United States, where there is a trend for sherry cocktails in restaurants and even sherry tasting clubs have emerged, such is the appreciation for the wine.
- Rather than stick it in your trifle, how about having a glass of chilled fino with your tapas. Sherry is widely regarded as the perfect accompaniment to the Spanish meal.
- The wine was considered to be Shakespeare’s favourite drink. Perhaps a swig of amontillado will have you composing sonnets too.
- Legally, only sherry produced within the ‘triangle’ is allowed to be called ‘sherry’. However, it is produced in America and must be sold with the label, ‘California Sherry’ or ‘American Sherry’ so that consumers know the difference. This is due to a Spanish law that was created in 1933 to protect the term ‘sherry’ and make it exclusively Spanish.
- Christopher Columbus is thought to have stocked up his ship with many barrels of sherry before departing Spain for the New World, which, if true, makes it the first wine to make it to America. No wonder there is a growing popularity for it.
- Given that sherry is not as popular as other wines, it is often cheaper to buy and therefore you’re likely to get your hands on a quality bottle for a relatively low price.
- It can be split into different categories depending on their colour, oxidisation and blending.
- Rather than putting the cork back in the bottle and leaving it on your shelf for another year, sherry should ideally be treated like a white wine and consumed within a few days of opening, otherwise the wine becomes too exposed to oxygen and loses its flavour.