Wine is so much more than a drink. It symbolizes a rich cultural heritage that has long been associated with the world of arts and letters. In this regard, the world-renowned wine known as sherry has enjoyed a special status dating back to the Middle Ages.
Its first great champion was Shakespeare: In eight of his works, we can find more than forty different mentions of this Spanish wine, which at the time was known as sherry sack.
From 1630—beginning with Ben Johnson—until 1790—when Henry Pye chose to forego the gift for an annual salary—it was customary to fête a newly named English Poet Laureate with a barrel of wine from Jerez, the equivalent of 720 generously sized bottles.
The romantic Lord Byron visited the city of Jerez in the summer of 1809 and in his letters home to his mother, he wrote admiringly of “Xeres, where the sherry we drink is made.”
Charles Dickens, as prolific a drinker as he was a novelist, placed a glass of sherry in the hands of various characters in his novels: David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol... Upon his death, when his family auctioned off the contents of the wine cellar of his country home in Kent, the majority of the wines they parted with revealed one of the writer’s enduring passions: over 100 bottles of brown sherry, a dozen of old dry pale sherry, a vast quantity of amontillado, as well as numerous bottles of golden sherry... If that’s not enough, the writer had a canary named Dick to whom he served “a thimbleful of sherry” every morning. They say the bird lived fifteen years, when the average canary rarely lives past ten.
Around the same time, in the United States, Edgar Allan Poe titled one of his more famous works "The Cask of Amontillado," with a narrator who lures his victim to his doom with the promise of having a taste of the finest sherry.
Moving into the twentieth century, we know that W. Somerset Maugham, the most popular writer in the world in the ‘30s, was a devoted admirer of the south of Spain. So much so that in 1905 he published the book The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia, in which he roundly praised sherry wine.
Aldous Huxley, for his part, after visiting the area in the late 1920s, wrote to his father from France: “Then we passed through Jerez—what sherry, by the way! Not even in All Souls can you taste something that’s even half as good.”
Of course, mention of sherry is not restricted to high literature. Popular literature is filled with references in praise of sherry. Not to omit another huge fan: Agatha Christie’s unforgettable Miss Marple. In A Murder is Announced alone, sherry is mentioned fifteen different times—including once when it is suspected to have been poisoned.
The references to sherry continue well into the twentieth century. Kingsley Amis, for example, refers to it in Lucky Jim; Ian McEwan mentions it more recently in Chesil Beach; and even Bridget Jones’s mother drinks it in Helen Fielding’s fun and famous 1990s novel.
From the most celebrated literary works to icons of pop culture: that blessed sherry has been there all along, a testament to the legendary connection between words and wine.
02 November 2017