Lucas Payá Interview With Ben Howkins

Ben Howkins, one of the world’s foremost sherry wine experts and author of his latest book “Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent!” answered a few of our questions!

1. How are you? Can you share anything positive that you have learned from this global pandemic? Perhaps simply the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal with a glass of wine?

I have just had my first vaccination jab, so I am feeling relieved, hopeful, happy and certain that we will gradually get back to a ‘normal’ lifestyle in due time. There is a lesson to learn by the West overall when looking at the current events, more preparedness is key. Meanwhile, staying at home has enabled us to upgrade our cooking and drinking habits. With the hustle and bustle of life temporarily suspended, there is more time to really enjoy what we eat and drink. Sherry has benefited enormously from this, as the bottle, once opened, will last in perfection for days and weeks. I have virtually given up drinking white wine in preference to Fino or Manzanilla.

2. In your opinion, how should the sherry region adjust to this unusual time? How do you see the world of fortified wines pleasing the next generation of consumers?

The sherry region is adjusting after 30 years of being in the wilderness. Mass volume is unlikely to come back. Sherry is now a niche segment. The big boys need to earn more margins to properly invest in marketing and promotion. The boutique bodegas need to bang their drum within the fine wine market. Sherry can learn much from its alter ego – champagne. But the incentive, maybe currently missing in the sherry region, needs to stir strongly in producers’ heads as well as their hearts.

The words “Fortified wine” are  appearing slightly old fashioned in today’s lifestyle world. Yes, ports, madeiras and sherries are fortified, but finos and manzanillas are ‘only’ at 15%, which is on par with many new world natural wines. The consumer is confused. Finos and manzanillas should also be promoted as wines.

3. The House of Lustau is a historic sherry producer that has recently invested much effort in educating the trade professionals and confident aficionados on the qualities and characteristics of the sherry region as a whole. How important do you think it is to continue sharing and teaching the wonders of Los vinos de Jerez to a broader audience?

Lustau is a leading light in sherry education. Like every campaign, there is always an element of luck and timing involved. The timing would seem to be now. The luck factor is always more elusive. Sherry has so much history to draw upon, it only needs an icon to seize the moment and catapult a style, a brand, a label to such acclaim that sherry bounds out of hibernation into the forefront of wine enthusiasts ‘must have’ and ‘must aspire to’ categories. Always easier said than done. Sherry producers have always stressed the details of the solera system; I guess to compensate for not having vintage wines as such. Again, they would do well to emulate how champagne, over the years, has balanced this production aspect relative to the marketing ratio. The differences lie in their relative successes as gauged by consumers. Champagne managed to keep its margins and relied on PR for its success story more than explaining the blending system. Sherry was mainly robbed of its margins by Jose Maria Ruiz Mateos and spent much time explaining the solera system. Champagne may be overpriced, whereas sherry is undervalued. The trick is to upgrade sherry in consumers minds so that retail prices can allow a decent investment over future generations.

Lustau’s Sherry Roundtable series, launched last year, is a wonderful example of engaging with the consumer. The speakers represented a veritable swathe of knowledgeable backgrounds, all adding to the lifestyle that is sherry.

4. Finally, please tell us about your recent book on the region. It is filled with memories and has a very powerful  title. Why did you write it?

I have two books on port but haven’t been able to fully get my head around madeira. I had been a director of Croft Sherry in the late 1970s. Some time ago, at a lunch at Vintners Hall, I found myself sitting next to an MW who had never been to Jerez. I was astounded that Jerez had fallen off the wine circuit so completely, especially as Jerez was really the first wine region to welcome trade visits. Most of us in the UK wine trade are secret sherry drinkers. Andalucia is such a romantic, friendly and happy region. It needed help. Pen to paper was not a hardship. ‘Eat drink and be sherry’ was the working title. Happy memories were brought back to life and on my research visits to Jerez, I was so elated to taste such an array of fine wine that the modern wine enthusiast or collector is still blissfully unaware of. The range and complexity of amontillados, palo cortados and olorosos, all maturing in majestic, lofty bodegas in the sherry triangle is truly inspiring. Andalucia is such a welcoming region with its ferias, horses and flamencos. Possibly still the most joyful wine region to visit in spite of the state of its sales. Where else can you enter and partake in the world’s greatest treasure trove of barrel aged fine wine? Add VOS and VORS; explore PXs and salivate over añadas and you could stay locked down in a sacristia forever.

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