Profile: Beltran Domecq

With a name like Beltran Domecq, you know this man has sherry in his veins. Christian Davis meets the new head of the Sherry Institute

A few months ago there was a tasting in one of London’s top Indian restaurants. For someone brought up on drinking lager with a curry, the thought of sherry as an accompaniment to spicy food was intriguing to say the least.

The lunch and tasting at the Cinnamon Club, close to London’s Houses of Parliament, was in honour of the new president of the Denominations of Origin ‘Jerez-Xérès-Sherry’ and ‘Manzanilla – Sanlúcar de Barrameda’ (Consejo Regulador) – the governing body of sherry. The organisation represents and looks after the interests of sherry producers in Spain’s south western corner and protects the name of one of the world’s most famous fortified wines.

Beltran Domecq is different, as his name suggests, from his five predecessors, who were either bureaucrats or politicians. Cynically, for some it was probably more of a sinecure than real job. But Domecq is a winemaker and his surname more than hints at a rich heritage and highly relevant parentage. 

His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was from the Williams & Humbert family, another famous name in sherry. On his father’s side, the Domecq family fled the French Revolution and ended up in Jerez, the home of true sherry. 

Pedro Domecq is possibly best known for commercialising Fundador in 1874, the first Spanish brandy brand. 

The Domecq business was eventually swallowed by the British food and drinks giant Allied-Lyons, to form Allied Domecq. That in turn was carved up by Pernod Ricard and Beam in 2005 with the Domecq part of the business going to the American company. 

Domecq’s father’s mother was a Gonzalez, as in Gonzalez Byass, the company which is probably doing the most to put sherry back on modern wine drinkers’ repertoire.

“I was brought up drinking sherry,” Domecq says. “There is sherry in my blood. These days there are not many who claim that.”

Summer holidays were spent visiting famous wine grape-producing regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cognac and California. Domecq starts to quote Falstaff’s famous eulogy about sherry, or sack as it was once called, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 (see panel). “As an eight-year-old I had to learn it off by heart,” he says.

So it is no wonder the Consejo Regulador of Jerez was unanimous in making Domecq its next president. The man is a sherry thoroughbred. “I believe that sherry is the most incredible wine in the world,” he pronounces. 

Steeped in winemaking, Domecq got a masters degree in chemistry at Madrid university. He then went to work for Williams & Humbert. That company was taken over by Ramasa which instigated a massive and ultimately disastrous expansion of vineyards and production, creating a sherry lake and a fall in quality and prices. It was a terrible time for sherry and Domecq winces at the memory.

Evolving role

Diplomatically, he moves on. He went to work for Domecq and became responsible for wine production. His role evolved and he became responsible for the company’s vineyards, quality control and its laboratories. As Allied took control in 1995, Domecq’s job altered again and he became more involved with representing the company as a living and breathing Domecq.

“That was a moment in my life,” he states. “I was director of the laboratories, we were exporting to all these countries and dealing with the legislation, It was fascinating. The science has increased so much. From the 1970s to the 1990s, there was a big jump.”

Sherry promotion

Domecq’s job now is relatively straightforward: to promote sherry and get it back to the forefront of people’s choice of a drink. He says: “I have to explain all the time. Sherry is imitated all over the place, including the UK with British sherries. It is another battle we are still fighting. We have not convinced the Americans. Champagne, Chablis, Bordeaux, all have to fight against imitators. We have to keep the name of sherry to ourselves and defend it.” 

The UK remains a huge market for sherry, followed by the Benelux countries. Mexico, going back to the Domecq company days, was and remains an important market, along with Argentina and the US.

“The UK market has held up and I feel things are starting to be more exciting. I am optimistic about trends here and also in Spain. That is good. We have to show people what we have. Gonzalez Byass is doing a good job,” says Domecq.

“We have to show people what sherry is about. It is sometimes complex but it should be simple. The most important job is promotion: Tell people what it is about, what it tastes like,” he says.

“We have to provoke young people to start drinking sherry again. We need more time to educate,” says Domecq.

Japanese promotion

Apparently the Japanese adore flamenco. Domecq is not entirely sure why but the precision of the dancing and the guitar playing, along with pent-up passion, is thought to be the appeal to its Japanese devotees. Whatever, Domecq has to go there to promote the region’s drink. “It is an opportunity to pour some sherry and you have to take the opportunity.”

The inevitable question: What about China? He replies, somewhat resignedly: “Complicated and very bureaucratic.” So early days there then.

As to his interests other than sharpening his copita skills, Domecq lists bird-watching and trekking. He also likes shooting – partridge, wood pigeon and rabbits – but is swift to emphasise only things we eat. He was once a discus champion and he enjoys rugby. He has even found time to write a book, Sherry and its Mysteries.

Back to the Cinnamon Club and Domecq is passionate about enjoying sherry with food. He sees dry, light  finos and manzanillas as both so versatile and specific: fish dishes, sushi and sashimi, asparagus, artichokes. Amontillado goes well with spicy food, nutty palo cortado with meat and dry oloroso with cheeses. (For more on which sherries went with which Indian dishes, see the blog Sherry & Curry on the website).

So, time to reappraise sherry. Beltran Domecq would certainly have us think so. After the sherry tasting at the Cinnamon Club, there is certainly an argument that sherries beat lager hands down.