Like a homing pigeon I cannot stay away from Jerez. This sun baked part of southern Spain has captured my heart and every time I go there it feels like I am coming home. Weird as, like my grasp of the French language, my Spanish isn’t exactly fluent.
Of course it could have something to do with the endless blue skies, hot sun, tapas bars and the sherry. I first went there on a ‘study trip’ with two fellow students who were on the Master of Wine course with me. It seemed a more effective and significantly more fun way of learning about the intricacies of sherry production rather than reading about it in a book.
We had set up visits with some of the most renowned names in Jerez; Gonzalez Byass, El Maestro Sierra, Grupo Estevez and Fernando de Castilla and we were armed with note books, pens and bucket loads of enthusiasm.
Our nominated driver was clearly getting revenge on us for being the nominated driver and swiftly earnt the nickname ‘whiplash’. To compound the problem our navigational skills were less than exemplary resulting in numerous wrong turns, questionable interpretations of one way systems, and at one point the locals trying to help us park . And this was before we had even started tasting.
Our first visit was to Gonzalez Byass, possibly one of the most well-known names in the region with 185 years of history behind it. They are really geared up for visitors with a glass fronted barrel to demonstrate the flor aging process key to the production of many of their styles of wine. Flor is a naturally occurring layer of yeast that forms on the surface of the sherry, adding a distinctive saline/yeasty flavour and preventing oxygen coming into contact with the wine.
The cellar takes your breath away with barrels stacked high one on top of the other to allow for the unique solera system – a form of fractional blending with 1/3 new wine added to the top barrel and 1/3 of the existing wine being drawn down into the second layer, 1/3 from the second to the third and so on. They walked us through the various styles of sherry starting with Fino and Manzanilla aged reductively under a layer of flor, followed by Amontillado and Palo Cortado which start life under flor but when the flor dies they start to age oxidatively, the nutty Oloroso (dry and sweet) which are entirely oxidatively made, and of course the tooth-achingly sweet Pedro Ximenez. One of the more commercial producers, they gave us a sold grounding in styles and production.
Our second stop could not have been more different! El Maestro Sierra produces some phenomenal sherry, but this was about as rustic and down to earth a sherry experience as we were likely to find. Little old ladies pottered in with their 3 litre plastic containers to fill them up from the barrels, (serious life goals there). The winemaker was charming, at least I think he was. It was particularly hard to understand him as he had his lips clamped around a fag the entire time he was talking, the ash hanging precariously close to the open barrel bung hole as he leant over to draw a sample out. The compacted earthen floor added to the sense of timelessness at this bodegas, and despite the somewhat primitive surroundings, the sherry was intense, complex and incredibly vibrant.
At Grupo Estevez, a group comprising great brands such as Valdespino and Inocente, we learnt about the En Rama bottlings. Sherry’s that are aged under flor are heavily fined and filtered before bottling to ensure crystal clear wines, but when you taste directly from the barrel, before this process has been carried out, the wines always have more flavour, colour and texture. An en rama bottling is unfiltered, un-fined, hazy and bursting with character. We were kindly each gifted a bottle… not one of the 3 bottles made it back to the UK with us. Our afternoon meeting was sadly cancelled so with no other option we decided to hit the beach and get better acquainted with these en rama sherries. Probably preferable chilled in a wine glass, we had to make so with sun warmed from the bottle.
The night was a blur of tapas crawling/sherry crawling but all things considered, we were up, bright eyed and bushy tailed (ish) the following morning for a visit to Fernando de Castilla. This supports my theory (based on questionable anecdotal evidence) that sherry has magic powers. Fernando de Castilla is a beautiful oasis of calm making incredibly elegant and complex sherry. The Antique range really was sublime. It was in equal parts interesting and sad to find out that over half of their production is spirits as there is no money in sherry any more but they continue for a love of the product and in respect of the traditions of this unique style of wine. I can hand on heart say we were doing our best to prop up their sales while we were there!
Jerez has become a favourite get away for myself and my boyfriend boasting as it does a heady combination of a motorGP track, sherry, great food and beach. On our last trip out there we ‘stumbled’ across Bodegas Tradicion, arguably the best producer in the region. They took us around and gave us a tasting of their stunningly complex and concentrated wines. We ended up having to check in our luggage for the return journey as we had bought so much of it.
Sadly for the producers, sherry remains a very niche category, embraced by a small number of largely wine professionals in the UK who are all enamoured with the incredible complexity and versatility of these wines. There are some very cool sherry bars to be found in London and I can’t recommend hunting them down enough. After all it is our duty to keep the appreciation and therefore production of this incredible style of wines alive and kicking.