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The Long Road to Jerez

We make the journey to Jerez to discover Spain’s famed fortified dry wines.

There’s nothing quite like a budget airline and a 6am flight from Stansted to take the romance out of a pilgrimage to one of Spain’s most enduring and historical wine regions. Especially a flight seemingly filled with petulant toddlers – and why they’re all flying off to drink sherry a good 16 years underage is a question that stands unanswered – but this has become the road to Jerez; rather than travelling down Spain’s dusty roads lined with gnarled vines it is through airport security and the beige monotony of a cramped plane.

Still, at least you get there, and rather more rapidly than via a cross-country road journey.

Jerez and her bodegas, her town squares, her tapas bars and her stacks of barrels all groaning under the weight of their slumbering wines, has always seemed wonderfully and rustically romantic to me. If the journey isn’t, the town still very much is – after all this is the birth place of all sherry and to know Jerez’s wines, from the flinty dry finos to the happy accident of palo cotado and even the raisin-like syrup of pedro ximénez, is to love them.

Sherry has had the good fortune of being rediscovered by a global food scene that is always keen to seek out more, taste more and experience more. Had it not, sherry would probably still be known for its sweeter grapes and expressions – a granny’s tipple – rather than its complex dry wines which represent the majority of the region’s production. It has also benefited from the rise of low-alcohol cocktails and its inherent mix-ability. Show a tasty fino sherry some sweet vermouth and a few dashes of orange bitters and you have one of the most drinkable and beautiful cocktails invented – an Adonis.

All this has meant that the sherry made and loved by Jerez locals has found a firm place in today’s modern food, wine and cocktail scenes. Which brings us back to that budget airline flight, charting its way across Spain to land in Jerez de la Frontera and unlock a world of beautiful wines.

Jerez has all the charm of a small Spanish city with plenty of gorgeous town squares, cobbled narrow streets and pastel buildings with the paint peeling at the corners. Orange trees line the pavements and on the major roads leading into the centre there are piles of the fruit, dumped from the branches above, which cascade on to the streets. Small tabancos and coffee houses are discreetly hidden behind deep doorways and legs of serrano ham provide the wall decorations, hung up by their trotters as retired locals sit below, sipping sherry or small glasses of beer from 11am onwards.

Our plan is to visit the bodegas, the dark and peaceful warehouses where the barrels of aging wines mellow into the wood and are transported around the solera systems, eat at all the tapas joints and really get to grips with sherry.

Sherry actually isn’t an easy wine to get to grips with – there are so many styles, different grapes and different alcoholic levels. You have at one end some of the most bracingly dry wines that exist, the finos and manzanillas are sharp, mineral and zesty and even aged into an amontillado the nutty sweet nose betrays nothing of the dry palate beneath. At the other end pedro ximénez is cloyingly sweet, like a boozy syrup that can be drizzled over dessert as much as it can be sipped alongside it. 

“No wine differs so much from all the others, and the differences are not merely of taste or colour, of scent or sparkle, but of kind... it is not a variant but a primary. There is Sherry, and there are all other wines,” wrote Rupert Croft-Cooke in his 1956 book Sherry.

We start with the González Byass Sherry house, the largest producer here and, they tell us, the second most-visited winery in the world. González Byass makes brands such as Tio Pepe and its winery is indeed impressive, joining whole city blocks together with beautiful streets covered in a canopy of vines and hosting a maze of warehouses filled with barrels. More warehouses outside of town host the majority of the stock and when we drive past these days later they have none of the dressings and romanticism of those made ready for the wine tourists but are cold concrete buildings that look very similar to discarded business estates. But of course it doesn’t actually matter what the warehouses look like, rather how they are designed that changes the taste and flavour of the sherry – with large apex roofs to allow the air to move and dense thick walls blocking the sunlight from slipping through and heating the space. And with the amount of sherry the world is drinking, you can’t expect every bodega to be a father and son operation in the centre of town.

Here we see for the first time the yeast, or flor, that blankets the fino wines as they age creating a thick impenetrable lid. Fino is fortified using un-aged brandy till it reaches 15 per cent alcohol; the perfect level to develop the flor naturally and maintain that layer which prevents the fino from oxidising. Known as biological aging, the wine must be kept like this for a minimum of two years but most of the producers here double that time, ensuring the yeast consumes all the sweetness from the wine and strips it back to bracingly dry and pale, essentially leaving the delicate skeleton of the wine uncovered. The flor’s makeup changes from microclimate to microclimate – meaning that fino sherry aged in Jerez is different to that in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, the other two towns that make up the sherry triangle. There is such a difference between the wines that fino from Sanlúcar has an entirely different name – manzanilla.

As a contrast, oloroso sherries come from the same grape as fino but are aged without the flor. Fortified to an even higher percentage of 17 or 18, the flor can’t grow, leaving the wine to oxidise and develop a deeper colour and rounded viscosity.

After our in-depth tour and tasting of González Byass we walk through the town to Bodegas Lustau, stopping along the way to snack on nuts, olives and have a beer in the sunshine – after all we’re on Spanish time now and everything feels decidedly more relaxed. At Lustau we see more huge peaceful warehouses – dark and cool they feel like a silent and protective nursery, guarding the resting barrels of wine.

As much as drinking the sherry at its literal source is a delightful way to get to know a wine, it wasn’t until later that the soul and merriment of sherry comes to life. After perching at a tapas bar surrounded by finos and salty fish and squid dishes – resembling an unpolished version of London’s Barrafina – the town’s main evening attraction draws us in. A ramshackle gypsy flamenco bar is already filling up with locals as two men take to the stage and start to play traditional music. Brave friends join them and dance while the crowd claps. The tasty sherries are a mere two euro a glass and pretty soon the vibe is full of lightness, friendship and music. People may be battling for sherry to be taken as a serious table wine, but when you can enjoy it in a small bar in Jerez filled with shouts, songs and a Spanish guitar, the food element seems suddenly less vital.

We have one more bodega stop the next day at Díez Mérito where the most joyful of characters, José Manuel Soto Sambruno, guides us through the beautiful courtyards and rows of barrels. Undaunted by the fact it’s the morning he is quick to open barrels and scoop out the undeniably enjoyable wines for us to taste as we walk. Perhaps sherry could be the new breakfast wine? No complaints from us.

Having enjoyed sherry is all it’s many beautiful styles across the time in Jerez we have only one last element to test out – food pairings. Luckily the town has its very own restaurant, La Carbona, which specialises in combining the iconic flavours of sherry to fresh and local produce. Bodegas Urium’s light, smooth and bone dry fino is paired to salmon tartar marinated in dill and chilli; a Dios Baco amontillado is stunning alongside artichokes preserved in olive oil and sautéed with prawns and fino. A supple palo cortado from Lustau slips down with ease when paired to a fresh creamy white fish cooked in peanut emlusion, coconut and fino while the nutty and unctuous oloroso makes us reconsider red wine and rib eye steak. Truly it is food cooked with care and finesse but the star of the show is the wines, which come to life with dazzling vivacity alongside the pairings.

“Its various dry styles – fino and manzanilla, amontillado, palo cortado, and oloroso – are arguments for rebellion against fruit: wine’s anthems about the savoury. They are also wines that deserve to be on the table. And that is the great lesson we are learning: while sherry’s production process makes it unique within the world of wine, it represents more of a convergence with table wine than a departure. And the more I taste, the more I find glimpses of other wines – the salinity of Chablis, the warmth and meatiness of northern Rhône Syrah, the earthiness and florality of Nebbiolo – in the wines of the Sherry Trigangle,” writes Talia Baiocchi in her 2015 book Sherry.

And this is the true delight of realisation from our sojourn to Spain; sherry is a wine that has so much more to give. It can be almost uncomfortably dry and bracing but when chilled there is nothing so delightful on a warm afternoon, and when mellowed and slightly oxidised it becomes another being, with astounding complexity. It can be thrown back while clapping along to traditional gyspy flamenco or it can be sipped and paired with fine dining. It is the accompaniment to tapas and sunny afternoons, to feasts and meals and late night shenanigans. It was even beautiful at 11am so if I retire and move to Jerez and sit under legs of serrano ham I won’t be ordering a coffee. The road to understanding Jerez’s wines is a long and complicated process for anyone who truly wants to love them, but it’s a journey worthwhile of a few cramped budget airline flights.

We travelled Stansted to Jerez with Ryanair for £150pp, Fri to Mon.
We stayed in a two-bed apartment in the heart of Jerez for three nights at £265.