--18th to 19th century
The sherry industry did not fare well in the beginning of 18th century. First, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) allowed warfare and politics to once again adversely affect trade. In addition, sherry sales to England and Holland both were both significantly reduced as their tastes started to change toward port, partially influenced by the Methuen Treaty of 1703, which helped to establish trade relations between England and Portugal.
Many sherry merchants were thus unable to sell all of their wine, which had to sit around in oak barrels. These wines started to oxidize, acquiring more concentrated and nutty flavors. When the merchants were able to sell some of their sherry, the merchants would bottle some and then top off the barrel with some newer sherry. This fractional blending became the start of the solera system, which is now the norm. Though other wine makers around the world had done this before, it seemed to be particularly effective with sherry. This solera system would give sherry very distinctive flavors and characteristics.
As people began to gravitate toward sweet and stronger wines, sherry producers started to fortify their wines with brandy. This led to the discovery that the higher alcohol content killed off the flor, making the wine oxidize even more and develop into a style of wine they now called oloroso which means “pungent.” The sherry producers in Sanlúcar used less brandy, producing a lighter, more delicate style with a freshness that reminded them of apples. They thus called these wines manzanilla or "little apple."
The wine makers also discovered that if they limited the number of times that fresh wine was added to the solera they could create another style of sherry that had some of the fragrance of the flor but with a little more oxidation and concentration of flavors. This reminded them of the wines from nearby Montilla and they thus named it amontillado meaning "in the style of Montilla." There was also more experimentation in making some of the wines sweeter, using the Pedro Ximénez grape.
By 1754, due to the greatly diminished trade, there were only nine sherry shippers in Jerez, which did not bode well for the future. Fortunately, in the late 1700’s, foreign wine merchants, from countries such as Scotland, Ireland, France and England, began to travel to Cadiz, hoping to start vineyards and produce sherry. Some of these bodegas still exist, and may be considered some of the premier bodegas: like Fitz-Gerald, O’Neal, Garvey, MacKenzie, Wisdom, Warter, Williams and Sandeman. This helped save the sherry industry, injecting new life into the region.
The late 1700s also saw the start of a battle between the vineyard growers and merchants, which would eventually be won by the merchants. Though it might seem counterintuitive, the merchants, not the growers, were more of the good guys in this battle. The rules of the Gremio de la Vinatería, the Vintners’ Guild, dominated by the growers, created many restrictions on sherry production, ostensibly to protect the trade. Yet the regulations led to an opposite effect, strangling trade and causing numerous problems
In 1775, the merchants initiated an “extractors’ action” against the Gremio, but the case lingered on in the courts for decades. It would not be until over fifty years later, that the merchants would finally prevail in their action, which led to the abolishing of the Vintner’s Guild and the elimination of the restrictive regulations.
The nineteenth century started off much as the eighteenth, with a devastating war that adversely affected the sherry industry. The Peninsular War (1807-1814), pitting France against Spain and its allies, wrecked havoc on the vineyards of Jerez, and stores of sherry were often stolen, plundered or requisitioned. France even sometimes occupied the Jerez region. Yet once again, in the 1820s, the industry found a way to rebound and the industry continued to grow over the next several decades, especially after the Vintner’s Guild was abolished.
One of the men instrumental to the rebound was Pedro Domecq Lembeye. Prior to the Peninsular War, Juan Carlos Haurie, a second cousin to Pedro, had been the most important sherry shipper in Jerez. But Juan, who had French ancestry, supported France during the war. The Spanish people rose up against him, seeing him as a traitor, and Juan was eventually made poor and friendless. In 1816, Pedro took over the management of Juan’s company and, despite great obstacles, succeeded extremely well, bringing prosperity to the Jerez region.
At this time, England would also see a resurgence in their love for sherry. For example, in 1864, an astonishing 43% of the total wine imports to England were sherry. It became a custom in middle-class English homes to offer all guests a glass of sherry and a biscuit. By the 1870s, the sherry industry was at its highest point ever, with much of the credit to the significant number of English consumers.
Success did not last long, and the sherry industry fell hard, reaching a low point during the 1890s. This time the fall was due to a tragic combination of numerous factors including a peasant rebellion in Jerez, plenty of poor quality sherry, fake sherry being sold by unscrupulous merchants, malicious rumors that sherry had been adulterated with unsafe chemicals, problems with Phylloxera, and a trend towards lighter wines. There were too many simultaneous problems for the sherry producers to be able to successfully combat at this time. It was a dark time for the Jerez region.
History of Sherry: Ancient Times (Part 1)
History of Sherry: Moors to the Reconquista (Part 2)
History of Sherry: 15th to 17th Century (Part 3)
History of Sherry: 20th Century to Present (Part 5)