If the word “sherry” brings to mind a syrupy drink only consumed by your granny at Xmas, then the dark nutty deliciousness of oloroso and amontillado; the refreshing dryness of fino and manzanilla; and the deep treacly sweetness of the exquisite Pedro Xinenez, will come as a welcome surprise. In this part of Spain sherry is approached in the same manner a Highland distillery would approach a single malt – reverentially.
Jerez de la Frontera sits at one corner of Spain’s ‘sherry triangle’ – which is an actual thing. In the area between here and the triangle’s other points, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria, is an area that single-handedly produces the finest sherries known to humanity. It’s the perfect place to explore a wine that has long suffered an image problem, but is deservedly having a revival and finally getting the global attention it deserves.
Unlike the champagne cellars of Reims and Epernay, sherry cellars are above ground, and Jerez alone hoards over half a million barrels of the stuff at any given time. We decided to visit the Lustau bodega, which produces some of the world’s finest sherries, including their signature fino, La Ina, and the fantastic oloroso, Don Nuño. The latter definitely topped my list.
We booked a tour and turned up only to discover there was a health inspection. It delayed the start by thirty minutes, and was probably why the tour guide seemed in a rush to show us around these famous cellars. The vaulted cellars aren’t particularly interesting, although it’s fun wandering past the old wooden barrels filled with Jerez’s finest, but the history of the bodega and the wine making process is fascinating.
We learned about Jerez’s viticulture, particularly the palomino grapes grown in vineyards north of the town which receive around 3,000 hours of sunshine a year. The grapes end up in the bodegas, where they take on their unique styles. I always thought manzanilla was a little salty, and this is because it comes from Sanlucar de Barrameda on the coast. The salty sea breeze affects the wooden barrels and the wine within. We verified this with a taste test later on.
Sherry, or at least the English word, was invented in England around 1600, a corruption of Jerez’s Moorish name, Xeres. The connection with England goes well beyond just a name though. There are centuries of historic sherry ties between the two countries, thanks to the thousands of English Catholics who fled here as religious refugees after Henry VIII introduced the Act of Supremacy in 1534.
Catholics were persecuted by the government for their beliefs, and barred from many areas of employment. Many chose to flee to Catholic Spain, and many ended up in this part of Andalusia. Their descendants are still regarded as being something of an “Anglo-Spanish aristocracy” in this part of the world. The Lustau bodega was loaded with historic and aristocratic atmosphere.
Founded in 1896, Lustau is the only sherry house to produce wines in all three of the cities of the triangle. It’s a company that has become known for its outstanding wines and, after a short tour of the buildings and cellars, we emerged into the tasting room. We’d booked the €25 Full Tasting Tour, this presented us with the mammoth task of sampling 12 different sherries. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it.
We emerged into the blinding Jerez sunshine some time later, wiser about what makes a good sherry and in desperate need of a siesta.