By: Alex Fondren
Our (five hours delayed) train finally pulled into Jerez at 11pm. Defeated and deprived of the long, sherry-soaked evening of pinxtos we had purposefully carved out in our overly ambitious Spain itinerary, we headed straight to the hotel, resigned to the assumption that the restaurants had long been shuttered. It was Semana Santo after all – perhaps the holiest week, in one of the more Catholic countries in Europe. (I had once made the mistake of visiting Rome on Christmas Day and still remember the bitter flavor of ‘rookie mistake’ in every bite of that evening’s Roma Termini Big Mac).
The hotel concierge chuckled when we asked him if there might be anywhere willing to serve us. Silly Americans.
Jerez, officially Jerez de la Frontera, is located in southern Spain's Andalusia region. Its old quarter surrounds the Alcázar de Jerez, a Moorish fortress founded in the 11th century. It’s known for three things - horses (it’s home to the famed Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, a famed riding school known for its dancing horses), flamenco music, and sherry. We came for the sherry.
Jerez is essentially Mecca for sherry lovers (like me). For the uninitiated, sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez. Jerez has been a major winemaking region since 1100 BC when the Phoenicians introduced the practice to Spain. The Moors conquered the region in AD 711 and introduced distillation, which led to the development of fortified wine.
Sherry’s appeal soon gained lasting popularity in Great Britain thanks to its superior ability to withstand the long ship journeys necessary to the prolific colonial power far better than unfortified wines ever could. As was similar with port, the Brits acquired a taste for the unique style and many of the major Jerez cellars were thus founded by British families – an influence that can still be found today.
The most common misperception about sherry today is that it is always sweet and of a poor quality. Perhaps your grandmother’s supermarket sherry helped influence that opinion. And while many great sherries can be sweet, sherry earned itself a bad reputation in the United States mainly because of the lack of Spanish wine laws and regulation that would have otherwise prevented bastardized American imitations to label themselves as “sherry,” thus tarnishing the category for over a generation. See Champagne for a comparative case study of a region that fiercely (and successfully) protected what can and cannot be called Champagne, and whose wines have enjoyed centuries of prestige as a result.
Similarly to Champagne, true sherry can actually only be made in one tiny corner of the world. The unique winds, humidity, soil and seasonal changes in Andalucía give a singular salty, nutty, and aromatic profile character to the wines produced there. A unique phenomenon called flor happens in Andalucía’s warm seaside climate. In barrels of new wine each year, a layer of yeast will form on the surface of the wine and transform its flavors. Flor gives the wine its tangy, salty character as it matures, adding complexity and making it so fascinating to pair with food and use in cocktails.
Sherry comes in many styles, which range from light and crisp (as in fino and manzanilla), to nutty and rich (amontillado and palo cortado) to sweet, high proof and almost bourbon-like (oloroso and Pedro Ximenez aka “PX”).
Perhaps the most noticeable boon for sherry-lovers over the last few years has been the rise in popularity of sherry-based cocktails. Some of the country’s top mixology talents specialize in complex sherry concoctions. San Francisco’s 15 Romolo and Trick Dog both can be credited with helping to propel the movement, as well as Chantal Tseng, who built the sherry and cocktail program at Washington DC’s famed Mockingbird Hill.
Tseng calls fino sherry her ‘spirit drink’ and cites a sherry Manhattan with a dry amontillado as the base as the drink that made her a permanent convert: “I had never tasted any drink like it. Over time, however, I would gravitate to just craving the amontillado rather than the cocktail. It was all already in there: Spice, fruit, herb, sweet, spirit, bitter...sherry is already a bottled cocktail.” Tseng likes to say that you know you love something when, as a bartender after a long shift, you reach for it to close your night. Sherry is that for her. She even named her cat Monty, short for amontillado - her first love.
Luckily, sherry is becoming easier to find on great wine lists in the U.S., whether at La Marcha in Berkeley, Vera in Chicago, Bar Vivant in Portland, or Donostia in New York City. Fino and manzanilla have been having an especially long moment in the United States for the last five years, thanks in part to sommelier advocates who love their versatility with food. Manzanilla is produced in exactly the same way as fino, except that it’s made in Jerez’s neighboring Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which many say gives the wine a brinier flavor due to its closer proximity to the sea and signature flor yeast character. If Jerez is Mecca, then Sanlucar is certainly Medina.
Back to 11pm, where we were gasping for a fino in Jerez in spite of holy week – let’s just say we didn’t have a problem finding one. Locals young and old overflowed from boisterous tapas bars and onto the streets to revel and participate in the ornate processions, which lasted all night long and well into the early morning. Though the subject matter of the procession ‘floats’ was certainly quite somber, the atmosphere in the streets was anything but. And everyone was drinking sherry.
González Byass: González Byass is one of Spain's most well-known sherry bodegas. Its origins can be traced to 1835 when it was founded by Manuel María González Angel, who was subsequently joined by his English agent, Robert Blake Byass. Famous for Tío Pepe fino.
Grupo Estévez: Estevez Group owns the prestigious wineries Marqués del Real Tesoro and Valdespino, one of the oldest in the area (their origins date from 1430). Known for La Guita Manzanilla and Fino Inocente.
Bodegas La Cigarrera: Located in the heart of Sanlúcar de Barrameda (about 20-30 minutes from Jerez), this family-owned bodega was founded on 1758, and is thought of as more of a “grower” sherry house ever since cellar master Ignacio Hidalgo began bottling his own (superb) manzanilla in 1997. Ignacio is a ninth-generation cellar master, whose family’s wines were previously sold to famous Sherry houses, including Lustau, for bottling.