Through history, wine has certainly inspired plenty of poetry, and Robert Louis Stevenson even said that ”wine is bottled poetry”, but it’s worth noting when a new piece of poetry is written about wine itself.

Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate – effectively the UK’s official poet to the nation – has been visiting the bodegas of Jerez to choose her own favourite sherries, and recently took delivery of a specially bottled and labelled supply of fino and manzanilla, reviving a long-standing tradition.

Laureate's Choice Sherry labels

Carol Ann Duffy's 'Laureate's Choice' sherries

Starting in 1619 with the appointment of Ben Jonson, the Poet Laureate received a “butt of sack” from the monarch as payment for their position. “Sack” is an old word for sherry which pops up in the writings of Shakespeare, and a butt (or barrel) contains around 720 bottles of the stuff. The tradition stopped from around 1790 until it was revived by the sherry shippers in 1986, when Ted Hughes became Laureate.

Carol Ann Duffy is the first woman to hold the Poet Laureate post and was invited to come to Jerez to make her own selection of sherry. On a second visit, she penned the following verse in praise of sherry:

 

AT J ERE Z

Who wouldn’t feel favoured, at the end of a week’s labour, to receive as part-wages

a pale wine

that puts the mouth in mind of the sea …

 

and not gladly be kissed

by gentle William Shakespeare’s lips, the dark, raisiny taste of his song;

bequeathed to his thousand daughters and sons,

the stolen wines of the Spanish sun…

 

or walk the cool bodegas’ aisles – where flor and oxygen

grow talented  in fragrances and flavours ­

to sniff, sip,  spit, swallow, savour…

 

Carol Ann Duffy

 

Carol Ann Duffy signs her chosen 'butt of sack'

 

The poem now graces the back label of the special bottling of Fino and Manzanilla which are being delivered to Duffy in batches, every year of her ten year tenure. The fortunate guests at the recent launch of her latest book of poetry, ‘The Bee’, were served the ‘Laureate’s Choice’ sherries, with their labels strongly reminiscent of a poetry volume themselves.

The revival of the tradition of the sherry butt comes as the drink is gaining a new following in the wine bars of London and elsewhere. So let’s raise a glass to poetry, and bottled poetry too.