The Sherry Triangle

The most important thing I learnt from my recent trip to Andalucía:

– if it swims, drink fino
– if it flies, drink amontillado
– if it walks or runs, drink oloroso

Basically, there’s always an occasion to drink sherry!

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I’ve delayed writing this blog, nervous that one of my more knowledgeable trip companions will laugh at the doubtless errors. But here’s my attempt to describe a relaxing weekend in Spain’s sherry triangle… Actually, that’s the first mistake already. The ‘triangle’ (or denominación de Jerez, to use its proper name) comprises the three towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, but we only visited the first two in that list. The third, being smaller and less attractive, was dropped from our itinerary in favour of sight-seeing trips to the small white-washed hilltop villages of Vejer de la Frontera and Medina-Sidonia.

IMG_9409We stayed in the small coastal town of Cádiz, right at the bottom of Spain. It’s a pretty place; one of the oldest towns in Europe, with an impressive cathedral plaza and nice seafront promenade. Notable eateries include the interesting Spanish-Asian fusion bar La Candela, where we ate delicious pork bao and boquerones, and the traditional tapas bar Atxuri, one of the many places to indulge in large plates of delicious jamón ibérico. We spent some time there, wandering the narrow streets, visiting the small art gallery and sitting in cool garden squares. Some of us even dipped our toes in the sea. But most of the time, we journeyed out to the aforementioned sherry hotspots and rural villages.

In Jerez, we visited a couple of the well-established and most famous bodegas. First up was Lustau, founded in 1896 by José Ruiz-Berdejo. It started exporting sherry in the 1940s and has continued to expand ever since. In 2000, the company bought and renovated six 19th century winemaking buildings in the centre of Jerez, covering a total area of over 20,000m2, and it was around these buildings that we toured, learning about the process and methods of sherry production.

Sherry is made almost exclusively from the Palomino grape. The key difference between wine and sherry production is the layer of yeast known as ‘flor’ that prevents oxidation in the barrel. Fino, the main type of sherry produced in Jerez, is kept fresh, pale and dry by the flor, while amontillado and oloroso are exposed to oxygen during the ageing process, which makes them richer and darker. All sherries are aged using the ‘solera’ method, where rows of barrels are stacked on top of each other, the youngest (criadera) on top and the oldest (solera) on the bottom. As the sherry from the bottom is removed for bottling, the wine stored on top is moved down to the next layer, eventually making its way to the bottom.

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After taking the tour, we took the opportunity to taste eight different sherries, including a very nice pala cortado, a rarer variety somewhere half-way between an amontillado and an oloroso, and two varieties of pedro ximénez, the dark, sweet dessert sherry. We then had a long and very tasty lunch at La Cruz Blanca – the arroz negro with cuttlefish was amazing! – before joining the Gonzalez Byass tour. Byass is one of the oldest and most established family-run bodegas and their most famous fino, Tio Pepe (Uncle Joe), is known all over the world. It’s not a great sherry, but their buildings are vast, their tasting room elegant, and it was worth the visit for the little tractor-train alone.

Our trip to Spain coincided – and not by accident – with Feria de Caballo, the Jerez horse fair, an event whose history goes back five hundred years to the time of Alfonso X El Sabio. Parque González Hontoria, a vast area on the outskirts of the town, is filled for a week with hundreds of casetas (little ‘pop-up’ restaurants and bars). Horses are paraded in their finery during the day and the evening is given over to drinking, eating and flamenco, with fireworks and impressive light displays. The only shame was that we hadn’t managed to find accommodation in Jerez itself, and the last train to Cádiz saw us leaving the festival before midnight, sullenly suspecting that the locals were only just warming up.

IMG_9430In Sanlúcar de Barrameda we visited La Cigarrera, a much smaller bodega that gets its grapes from local co-operatives rather than keeping its own vineyards. The sherry in Sanlúcar is manufactured using the same methods as for fino, but the cooler temperature and higher humidity creates a thicker layer of flor yeast than in Jerez, resulting in a fresher, more delicate flavour. The sherry is called manzanilla and has a slightly salty flavour due to its proximity to the sea and Guadalquivir river estuary. It turned out that our guide book was out of date and we arrived late for the once-daily tour, but we were happily shown around anyway by an informative woman on the front desk and actually learned more about sherry making than at any of the bigger bodegas.

After a ‘light’ lunch at Casa Balbino, which turned out to be anything but by the time we’d had second helpings of Galician pulpo, prawn tortilla, croquettas and jamon, we took a boat trip up the river into Doñana National Park. This turned out to be disappointing. Despite boasting a wide range of fauna (red deer, wild boar, mongoose, badger, lynx), as well as a variety of bird, including the imperial eagle, we failed to spot anything and only got a far-off glimpse of the highly-anticipated flamingo. Furthermore, the temperature had risen to around 34°C, resulting in some burned shoulders. I’d recommend skipping the boat and devoting more time to tapas!

Whilst nowhere near as grand as some of Andalucia’s highlights – Seville, Granada, Córdaba – the sherry triangle is certainly a lovely area to explore and a nice change if you’re seeking a more relaxed weekend.

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