WILLIAM HAM BEVAN arrived in Jerez a sherry ingenu – he left converted, and preserved for centuries
Domingo, my taxi driver, points at the gloomy sky and then throws his hands wide in a gesture of bewilderment. I reply with a shrug – more Gallic than Iberian, perhaps, but I barely know a word of Spanish, and he has a similar command of English. The rain is beating down in torrents, and Jerez – blessed, so they say, with no fewer than 300 days of baking sunshine each year – seems wholly unprepared for such a turn of events.
I’m here to find out about sherry, and explode some myths about a much-maligned wine that is once again gaining British devotees on the back of the tapas restaurant boom. In the Eighties, a TV campaign tried its best to persuade us that ‘real sherry comes only from Spain’, but since 1996, this has been a statement of fact, enshrined in European law. The name is now reserved exclusively for wines produced in the area around the ‘Sherry Triangle’: the three towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlùcar de Barrameda, and I’m hoping to visit at least two of these.
By the time we’ve driven from the hotel to the premises where Gonzalez Byass produces its best-selling Tio Pepe brand, the splatter of the rain is punctuated by deep rumblings of thunder. I make a dash for the entrance, and greet my guides, Paul and Salve, with a damp handshake.
We walk through the vast, cathedral-like bodega, where butts containing wines at various stages of maturity are stacked three or four-high. A rich, yeasty tang hangs in the cool air. I’m told that the high ceilings are not for show, but are essential in maintaining the right temperature for the wine to age properly. After passing barrels signed in chalk by distinguished visitors such as Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg and even Margaret Thatcher – though not Denis, I’m disappointed to note – we proceed to the tasting room.
Already laid out is a whole spectrum of wines, from pale amber through nut-brown to an almost opaque treacle. Before we begin tasting, I receive a crash course in the viticulture, and the ‘solera’ system that makes sherry unique (see panel, right). There’s a lot to grasp, but luckily this bluffer’s guide is repeated at each of the bodegas I visit over the next few days.
It’s then time to sip my way through nine incrementally darker sherries, from a chilled, almondy fino to a Pedro Ximenez, the richest and most viscous of all. The variety of flavours is astounding, and I express surprise that I have never come across most of them before. ‘In Britain, sherry has an image problem,’ Paul says. ‘Nearly all of that sold is the sweet, blended variety, and it’s seen as an old person’s drink. People still have the wrong idea about sherry.’
Until now, I certainly had. My first encounters with the stuff had been at university, and awkward drinks parties thrown by tutors. On a tray in the corner would be two types of warm sherry, served in thimble-sized glasses: the pale, sour fino that no-one touched, and a slightly more palatable brown sort, known dismissively as ‘armadillo’. But what really finished off any burgeoning appreciation was an arcane rule in the student bar: while all beer had to be paid for in cash, it was possible to buy sherry on tick, and stave off paying the debt until the end of each year. Swilled down from a half-pint plastic tumbler, sherry was a purely functional means to getting plastered whenever funds ran low.
Given this inauspicious start, it is good to learn from Paul that in one respect, I had got the etiquette right. ‘Those little sherry glasses are no use,’ he says. ‘They’re too small – good sherry is meant to be enjoyed as a wine, not sipped.’ The vessel of choice is the copita, which resembles a slightly squatter and more rounded version of the champagne flute. And drinking such quantities need not be a passport to oblivion. The finos and manzanillas favoured by the Spanish rarely weigh in at more than 15 per cent alcohol – only marginally stronger than many table wines.
Thus comes the next revelation about sherry: it is meant to be drunk at the table, and can be matched with food to great effect. At one of Jerez’s most celebrated restaurants, La Mesa Redonda, I put theory into practice. Game is in season, and I discover that a dry oloroso makes a fantastic accompaniment to wild duck, with the rich wine cutting deliciously through the dark, fatty meat. In typical form, the meal is ended with brandy de Jerez – which (I had not known) is one of only three recognised designations of brandy, alongside Cognac and Armagnac.
The next day, I head off to meet sherry expert Beltran Domecq at the Harvey’s bodega. After a whistle-stop tour and tasting, we set off for my first experience of sherry in what many locals would see as its natural habitat: served alongside tapas. Before we leave the grounds of the bodega, though, Beltran points out one of its mascots: an alligator called Harvey. ‘We did have a pair, called Kevin and Sandra,’ he explains, ‘but they had a marital tiff, and he bit her to death. Thankfully, Jerez zoo donated a replacement, and Harvey was the obvious choice of name.’
Owned by Allied Domecq, Gallo Azul restaurant, with its distinctive curved frontage, has a saloon tapas bar downstairs, and offers a more sophisticated rendering of the cuisine on the first floor. We head for the latter, and today’s next surprise comes when I try a sweet sherry – Harvey’s Bristol Cream, no less – and find that well chilled, it makes an unexpectedly good coupling with a multi-layered concoction of gazpacho and Serrano ham.
I also have the chance to sample one of the trademark desserts of this region: vanilla ice-cream with Pedro Ximenez dribbled over it. It’s simplicity itself to prepare, utterly delicious, and soon filed away in the back of my mind, ready for the next time I find myself entertaining guests at home.
One well-earned siesta later, I make what I’m told is the true sherry buff’s pilgrimage, to the Lustau bodega. The more commercial bodegas include gift shops, function spaces and even the chance to get married in their lofty halls, but a visit to Lustau is a more ad hoc affair.
Informal tours are conducted by prior arrangement, if there’s someone available to play the part of guide. ‘There are plans to build a modest visitor centre,’ Jane Ward, the export manager, tells me. ‘but we don’t want to turn into a theme park.’
Lustau maintains bodegas in all three of the towns that make up the Sherry Triangle, so there’s the opportunity to make a minute comparison in the tasting room of three very similar styles of sherry: finos from Jerez and El Puerto de Santa Maria, and a manzanilla from Sanlúcar. It’s a fascinating exercise, and I begin to appreciate for myself what I’ve read in the tasting notes. Since it’s the last session of the day, the spittoon sees little use.
On Jane’s recommendation, I round the night off with yet more tapas at Bodega La Andana – a tiny, hole-in-the-wall joint in a disreputable part of town. The door is kept on a chain, so guests have to knock to be let in, and, according to Jane, parking a car nearby is not a good idea.
The proprietor, Manuel Valencia Lazo, is a cult figure in Andalucia’s culinary scene, and has been known to swap tips with Juan Mari Arzak, patron of the eponymous three-Michelin-starred restaurant all the way up north in San Sebastián. Manuel’s tapas have a distinctively nouvelle cuisine swing, both in the manner of their presentation – lots of white space on the plate – and in his mastery of combining different textures. If not for the one impertinent cutting from a British newspaper on the wall, proclaiming the place the best tapas restaurant in Spain, this would qualify as a perfectly kept secret.
Morning brings clear skies, and it seems timely to take a trip to the coast. Sanlùcar is about half-an-hour’s drive away from Jerez, and like the manzanilla produced here, the town maintains a salty individuality of its own. In a recent official survey, Sanlùcar emerged as one of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in the whole of Spain, but there’s little obvious sign of extreme poverty in its streets. Rather, this is the hookey capital of Andalucia, where cash-in-hand is the unspoken law, and many residents have incomes of which officialdom hears little.
The biggest producer of manzanilla is Barbadillo, whose bodegas dominate both the upper and lower parts of the tiered town. My guide here is Steve Cook, originally from the United States, who recently turned down a lucrative job in London to join the winery. He’s adamant that the way to appreciate manzanilla is in situ, so we progress straight to Balbino, a lively, rough-and-ready tapas joint on the corner of the main square.
It is still early, but as we prop up the bar, the room gradually fills up with an afternoon crowd spanning at least four generations. I notice that one item of tapas is easily the most popular: the shrimp fritters. The secret is in the freshness of the main ingredient, as the unfortunate creatures are still alive when they hit the pan. After a few of these, some baby squid, sea snails and langoustines, all washed down with ample manzanilla, I begin to feel comfortably stuffed. Steve looks at his watch. ‘Time for lunch,’ he says – and it’s off to the elegant restaurant Bigote, down at the bay, for round two. Around these parts, tapas can be a full-time occupation.
Much, much later, after a snooze in lieu of dinner, it seems the most natural thing in the world to end the evening with a sherry at the hotel bar. By this time, most of the drinkers are British technicians for a Formula One team, unwinding with a few beers after a day at the nearby test track – still self-consciously wearing their lurid team colours, of course.
I order one last fino, and out of the corner of my eye, catch the group at the end of the bar look askance at each other and make faces. I’m bound to admit that for the moment, at least, asking for a sherry in many a British bar might elicit a similar reaction. But (assuming it’s properly chilled, of course) this may be a risk I’ll be willing to take – even if I can no longer get it on credit.
BARS & RESTAURANTS
La Mesa Redonda, Jerez
One of Jerez’s finest restaurants, operating from unprepossessing premises at the foot of an apartment block. Reservation essential. Mains from £8. (Manuel de la Quintana 3; 00 34 956 34 00 69)
Gallo Azul, Jerez
Imaginative pairings of sherry and food at a landmark bar/restaurant owned by Allied Domecq. Tapas from £1. (C/Larga, 2; 00 34 956 32 61 48)
Bodega La Andana, Jerez
Imaginative tapas in a small bar away from the tourist trail, in a down-at-heel area of the town. Reservation essential. Tapas from 80p. (Parque de la Serrana, 4; 00 34 956 30 73 85)
Bar Casa Balbino, Sanlùcar
Tapas bar on the main square of Sanlùcar, reputed to serve the best shrimp fritters in Spain. Tapas from £1. (Plaza Cabildo; 00 34 956 36 05 13)
Cas Bigote, Sanlùcar
Sanlùcar’s best tapas restaurant, attracting custom from miles around. Prince Felipe was famously turned away on one occasion when the restaurant was full. Reservation recommended. Tapas from £2. (Bajo de Guia; 00 34 956 36 26 96).
(Manuel Maria González 12; 00 34 956 35 70 60, www.gonzalezbyass.es).
(San Idelfonso, 3; 00 34 956 15 15 00; www.domecq.es)
(Calle Arcos, 53; 00 43 956 34 15 97, www.emilio-lustau.com)
(c/ Luis Eguilaz, 11; 00 43 956 38 55 00, www.barbadillo.com)
The ‘solera’ system used to make sherry ensures quality from year to year. In the bodegas, a series of barrels are stacked on top of each other. Each level represents a different stage in the wine’s maturity.
Each year, up to a third of the wine is drawn off for bottling from the most mature barrels, and these are replenished with wine from the level above. This level is then topped up from the one above, and so on, until the youngest barrels are reached, which are topped up with the new year’s wine. In this way, the oldest wines are revitalised by the new, and in turn impart some of their character upon them.
Before entering the solera system, the young wines will tasted, and placed into two classes. The lightest are destined to become finos, and will be fortified to 15 per cent with grape spirit. This strength will cause a layer of yeast known as ‘flor’ to grow on the wine – the essential component in imparting the dry, crisp taste. The other group of wines will become olorosos, and are fortified more heavily. Unprotected by flor, which cannot grow at such strength, they will age ‘oxidatively’ through contact with the air.
The grape variety used in most varieties of sherry is palomino, which accounts for about 95 per cent. The other two that may be used are moscatel (known elsewhere as Muscat) and Pedro Ximénez (PX). Both are sun-dried to concentrate the flavour, and are most often used to sweeten other sherries.
TYPES OF SHERRY: FROM APERITIF TO AFTER HOURS
Translating as ‘elegant’, fino is pale, light and bone-dry. It is an ideal aperitif, and the perfect accompaniment to tapas or white fish – and must be served well chilled.
Also served chilled, this is an even more delicate form of fino, made only in Sanlùcar, where it is most often served with seafood tapas. The slightly different taste is down to a thicker layer of flor – the yeast prospers in Sanlùcar’s maritime climate.
Finos that have undergone further ageing after losing their flor become amontillados: darker and more full-bodied, with a distinctive nutty tang. When lightly chilled, unsweetened amontillados go well with tapas, white meat and fish.
This style, which translates as ‘fragrant’, is more full-bodied still, and both sweetened and unsweetened varieties are available. Oloroso is a good complement to strong flavours such as red meat or game.
Rare and highly prized by sherry aficionados, true palo cortado sherries are come about when the flor mysteriously clears from a fino – something that cannot be planned, though some brands just emulate this effect by mixing amontillado and oloroso. Delicately nutty in taste.
PALE CREAM / CREAM / MEDIUM
Most popular in the British market, these are blends of finos, amontillados or olorosos that have been significantly sweetened. Surprisingly good over ice, with a slice of orange.
Sweet and moderately full-bodied, this serves well as a dessert wine, or can take the place of port in accompanying strong cheese.
The taste of this dark, viscous wine has described as ‘Christmas pudding in a glass’. It makes the perfect end to a meal, or may be poured over vanilla or raisin ice-cream for a classic Andalucian dessert.
Sunday Times Travel Magazine