I can remember my grandmother pouring me a schooner of sherry as an aperitif. It was a family tradition on a Sunday, compulsory at Christmas. Thick, sweet and rather potent I recall but the fashionable tipple of the time. But here in the Spanish city of Jerez, the mecca of sherry, there’s certainly a lot of sipping going on.
Home to the world’s finest producers, sherry is the key attraction, an area which flows with bodegas and guided tours around impressive estates. In fact, it’s big business for internationally acclaimed names such as Sandeman, Harveys and Tio Pepe, all located in the heart of the city.
It all started with the Phoenicians who brought the first vine to Jerez back in 1100 BC. The Arabs nurtured sherry production believing this nectar bestowed medicinal properties and so traded it for wool from the British. And this belief holds true today as scientists in Spain have discovered that sherry shares the same health benefits as red wine due to the presence of antioxidants that help control cholesterol levels.
Tio Pepe (González Byass) is said to be the largest and dates from 1835, which makes it one of the newest of the great sherry dynasties in Jerez. This bodega offers tours at set times during the day. A miniature train transports visitors to cellars packed with bottles dating back centuries and barrels signed by illustrious visitors including Lady Thatcher, Martin Luther King and Orson Welles. A musty aroma pervades the whole place. Tours end, naturally, with tastings of several glasses awaiting verdict. Each glass holds several sips of the sherry family in gradients of dark to clear, sweet, smooth, aromatic and dry. Soothing and relaxing, with aged notes of lemons and green olives, a gentle saline touch maybe with hints of yeast or a generous bouquet with nutty character. It’s fun and a great way to meet visitors and to share sherry notes and noses!
Wine tourism is a defining character of this aged city. Jerez de la Frontera is in the south west of Spain, geographically sitting between the hillside and the coast, famous for sherry, brandy and vinegar. Who would know, back in 1835, that it would harvest into one of the largest sherry and brandy producing areas in the world, even spilling into regional cuisine and culinary skills. Try the grape juices, sherry vinegar and sample the gastro-tapas such as mushroom or kidneys in sherry or braised pigs’ cheeks.
Horses also characterise this intriguing place. Horse drawn carriages parade the narrow streets showing off the city to its visitors. But it is the Andalusian horse dancing that earns the trophy. This 90-minute event sees the horses performing to music around the ring, first on four, then on two hooves, a leg pointed to the left and then a lowered head to take a bow. Horsemanship at its best, poised in perfect tailored attire, preserving an ancient art and breed.
It’s a cradle for the art of flamenco, a world-class motorcycle race circuit and the fighting bull. An old walkable rambling city with cobbled alleyways and whitewashed walls which lead to hidden pockets of history. Palaces and churches stand nobly. Gated courtyards appear ablaze with healthy greenery and fountains. Flamenco performances add colour to city strolling while old-style tabancos, crammed with locals, spill onto the pavements. Unused wine cellars have opened their doors to harbour museums harnessing traditional arts, from horse drawn carriages to clocks, all within this walled city with a gothic styled cathedral at its centre.
Sherry, for ages one of the most tradition-bound and ignored wines in the world, is surging in popularity with the new generation of wine drinkers savouring this idiosyncratic, fortified tipple from Spain. It gets its name from our Anglo-inability to pronounce the word ‘Jerez’, the city at the southern end of Spain in which the wine is produced. Like champagne, sherry can only be called sherry if it comes from this specific region.
So, while in Spain enjoy a sip of sherry to toast your good health. And at Christmas, enjoy a seasonal toast to past and present friends and family with this traditional aperitif and let the festivities begin. Salute from the city of wines!