--15th to 17th century
As the 15th century began, the Jerez region had been once again devastated, this time by plague and floods. The vineyards needed protection so, on April 5, 1402, King Henry III of Castile issued a proclamation that prohibited anyone from destroying vines or olive trees, or installing beehives near the vineyards. Beehives? Well, it was thought that the bees might harm the grapes. The penalty was a significant monetary fine, the proceeds which were supposed to be spent on repairing and reinforcing the city walls.
Fortunately, the latter part of the 15th century would see a resurgence in the region. Vineyards also began to move out of the eastern region and be planted closer to where they are located today, where the soil was actually better for the grapes. On August 12, 1483, the Rules of the Guild of Raisin and Grape Harvesters of Jerez were established, the first regional rules regulating harvests, characteristics of the butts (known as botas), aging and commercial transactions. This would help with some standardization in the sherry industry as well as better uniting the winegrowers.
Spain desired to make sherry more attractive to the international market so in 1491, Don Alonso Perez e Guzman, the Duke of Medina Sidonia (who was essentially the monarch of the sherry region) assisted in issuing a declaration that abolished the export tax on wine for both Spanish and foreign merchants for shipping out of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, one of the port cities in the Jerez region. This made sherry less expensive to purchase and thus a more appealing product, and was effective at increasing the demand for sherry.
The ports of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Cádiz were often used as the launching ports for numerous voyages to the New World and East Indies, including some of the voyages of Columbus. A number of these explorers, including Columbus, brought sherry with them on their voyages, and sherry may thus have been the first wine transported to the New World. As a further example, in 1519, the famed explorer Magellan bought 417 wineskins and 253 kegs of sherry for his intended voyage to circumnavigate the world. He actually spent more money on wine than for weapons, though only about 5% more.
The sherry trade with England may have originated in the 14th century, if not early, and England eventually became one the best customers for sherry, and still is even today. Because of this, Spain would treat England very well and in 1517, they granted preferential treatment to English merchants in the Jerez region. This beneficial treatment, and the advantages it provided, lured English merchants to settle in the Jerez region.
In 1548, total wine production in the sherry region was around 60,000 butts (a butt contains 500 liters), and 40,000 butts were exported to England and Flanders. This was despite the fact that English traders in Spain during the reign of King Henry VIII and Elizabeth I faced some dangers from the Inquisition because of religious differences. Trade continued to flourish despite the potential peril to English merchants. They really wanted their sherry.
By the time Elizabeth I became Queen regnant in 1558, “sack” (what sherry was being called at the end of the 15th century) was thought to be her favorite drink. The term ‘sack’ is believed to derive from the Spanish word ’sacar’ which means “to export” or “take out.” But there is still some question as to the exact derivation of “sack” and it is intriguing that one theory, though farfetched, is that it comes from the Japanese “saké.”
Even when England and Spain went to war in 1585, the desire for sherry remained, though it was claimed that the English would only buy sherry that had been captured from Spain. The Spanish port of Cadiz had numerous shipyards, making it an attractive military target. Thus, in 1587, Sir Francis Drake attacked the harbor, burning many of the Spanish ships. But he got a bit greedy when he found numerous ships with pipes of sherry in their holds.
Over the course of three days, Drake took the time to transfer almost 3,000 pipes of sherry from the Spanish ships onto his own. This was a very big risk for Drake, remaining so long in a hostile port, but he succeeded, bringing all of his booty back to England. It would later be said that Drake had “singed the beard of the King of Spain.” In 1595, unlucky Cadiz would be sacked once again.
William Shakespeare enjoyed sherry and characterized the English love for sherry with his character of Sir John Falstaff, who stated in Henry IV, Part 2 (written between 1596-1599): "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack." Many other English writers and poets, from Marlowe to Spencer, would also rhapsodize about sherry.
After the reign of Elizabeth ended in 1603, England and Spain were soon at peace and sack once again became very extremely popular in England. Much mercantile trade then ensued, maybe even more than had occurred prior to the war. Interestingly, it appears that the Mayflower, before it took the Puritans to the New World, was sometimes used to ferry sherry to England.
There was only one significant disruption to the good relations between England and Spain. In 1625, Charles I of England was refused the hand of the Infanta of Spain, and in an angry pique, he then sent Sir Edward Cecil to attempt a new attack on Cádiz. But the expedition was ill-prepared and failure was probably inevitable. At one point, the soldiers got so drunk on sherry that they were easily routed by the Spanish. The British then decided it was probably best to obtain their sack solely through trade.
What was Sherry like at this time? First, it was not fortified so its alcohol content rarely surpassed 16%. Sherry makers were using a variety of grapes, including Torrontes, Malmsey, Palomino, Muscatel and Pedro Ximenez. It was not until the turn of the 17th century, that producers in Jerez began to realize that their albariza soil, a white soil with a high proportion of chalk, produced some of the best wine. They also started to understand the effect of the yeast flor, leading to the creation of fino or “fine” wines, named because of their light and delicate style. And by the end of the 17th century, the word sack was gradually being replaced by "sherry."
History of Sherry: Ancient Times (Part 1)
History of Sherry: Moors to the Reconquista (Part 2)
History of Sherry: 18th to 19th Century (Part 4)
History of Sherry: 20th Century to Present (Part 5)