Closing the sherry triangle

Travels in Wine / Sherry

Closing the sherry triangle

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Tim goes off-the-beaten track in the backstreets of Jerez then heads out of town to the other principle sherry towns of El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda

After a busy morning it was time for a late (by British standards) lunch and Peter Dauthieu took me to a tiny little 'restaurant' unknown to the many tourists who visit Jerez. Bar Arturo is down a dingy and rough-looking back street away from the bustle of the town. The place is populated almost exclusively by bodega workers (usually a good sign!) and the menu (I'm not sure whether there was actually an official menu) is assorted fried fish and a simple salad. And that's it. I certainly wouldn't advise venturing into that neighbourhood after dark or without a local to accompany me, but for brave or possibly fool-hardy foodies, it's certainly an authentic taste of the region!

Where the workers eat – backstreet Jerez with the protection of Peter Dauthieu
Where the workers eat – backstreet Jerez with Peter Dauthieu

That was it for Jerez. After lunch we headed out of the town, stopping off briefly to look at a vineyard.

Next on the itinerary was El Puerto de Santa María. 'Puerto' as it's known locally is a small coastal town and resort that lies practically dormant for eight months of the year, but which comes alive over the summer months as one of southern Spain's most exclusive seaside resorts. Many wealthy Spaniards own holiday villas and apartments in Puerto, but out of season the port is exceedingly quiet.

Osborne
Welcome shade in the abnormal October heat at Osborne's historic bodega

The big name in Puerto, in wine terms, is Osborne, and this was my next stop. We buy three wines from Osborne all of which are over 30 years old (Capuchino Palo Cortado, Sibarita Oloroso and Venerable Pedro Ximenez). All three sherries are from old soleras which were bought by Osborne from Pedro Domecq when that company closed. They are fine examples of really old, complex sherries.

The famous black bull

The Osborne bodega has an impressive visitor centre and museum – well worth the detour
The Osborne bodega has an impressive visitor
centre and museum – well worth the detour

If you have ever driven on the motorways of Spain you may well have noticed enormous stylised images of a black bull on the horizon. These were traditionally advertising hoardings for Osborne, and over the years they have become iconic images of Spain. Although Osborne's name can no longer appear on these black bulls, they will forever be associated with the company and their wines. Today within the historic bodega Osborne has a most impressive visitor centre and restaurant, with a well-curated and a fascinating museum which details the history of the Osborne bull. Well worth a visit.

A special way to pour sherry

Every cask sample that I tasted during my three days in the region was delivered in the traditional manner using a venencia. This is a small metal cup on the end of a long, curved handle which is plunged into the cask and then tipped at arm's length into a copita tasting glass. Originally venencias were made from silver, with the handle made from whale 'whiskers' (although the equivalent from Sanlúcar were made from bamboo) – today they are made from stainless steel and plastic.


Pouring sherry from a venencia is not as easy as this short video makes is look!

During my visit at Osborne I tried my hand at using a venencia. I'm pleased to say that the liquid used in the picture that follows is water!

Tim Sykes’ first attempt at using a venencia!
Tim Sykes’ first attempt at using a venencia!
Tools of the trade at Salto Cielo – venancias traditionally were made from silver, with the handle made from whale 'whiskers'
Tools of the trade at Salto Cielo – venancias traditionally were made from silver, with the handle made from whale 'whiskers'
The venencia fountain in central Jerez
The venencia fountain in central Jerez – unfortunately that too is water!

Sanlúcar de Barrameda – the home of manzanilla

My last day was spent in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the home of manzanilla. Any fino sherry that has been aged in Sanlúcar is called manzanilla, and thanks to the town's unique position overlooking the Guadalquivir River the flor yeast grows thicker here than anywhere else in the region, imparting a particularly tangy, saline character to the sherries.

The layer of yeast (flor) which grows on the top of fino sherry is even thicker in the coastal town of Sanlúcar, giving an extra tang to the finos here which are known as manzanilla
The layer of yeast (flor) which grows on the top of fino sherry is even thicker in the coastal town of Sanlúcar, giving an extra tang to the finos here which are known as manzanilla

The amount of air circulation within a bodega is key to the way flor develops. All cellars have their windows open to encourage air circulation, and the relative position of a cask in a cellar, such as proximity to a window or height of the cask from the floor, can affect the flavour of the wine in that barrel. The two prevailing winds in the region are the moist Poniente from the west and the warm Levante from the east. On my visit to the historic Barbadillo cellars, the largest producer and one of the best-known names in Sanlúcar, I was fortunate enough to taste wines from different parts of their bodega – a fascinating experience.

Barbadillo's view from the winery
Barbadillo's view from the winery

As you can see from the photo above, Barbadillo enjoys an elevated position within the town, with direct views of the Guadalquivir River and the Coto Doñana nature reserve opposite. My last two visits were to wineries in the lower half of Sanlúcar, closer to the river. It would be interesting to see whether the difference in height would be something perceptible in the wine.

Hidalgo La Gitana is another historic name and I had the pleasure of being shown around by Fermin Hidalgo who has recently joined the family business (watch him in action in the video above!). We have for many years bought their excellent Manzanilla Pastrana, which is from the eponymous vineyard in the famous Miraflores region and is the best wine from their stable.

My final visit was to meet the Alonso brothers, Francisco and Fernando, who were originally from Seville and who studied engineering and law in the United States. Bored with their careers they decided to get into sherry and bought an old bodega, Pedro Romero in Sanlúcar, that had gone into receivership.

The Alonso brothers at bodega Pedro Romero
The Alonso brothers at bodega Pedro Romero

Venerable sherry with a story to match

Lost Sheppard Cask
Lost Sheppard Cask

Tasting through some amazing, very old, sherries from cask I was fortunate enough to sample an extraordinary old wine that had been lying untouched and forgotten in the darkest recesses of the bodega.

Old records from the time revealed that the blend had been put together, ordered and paid for by an Englishman around 80 years ago who subsequently disappeared without trace. The wine, which was already 50 years old when originally blended, was due to be poured down the drain when the Alonsos took over the bodega, but was, mercifully, given a reprieve once the contents of the remaining barrels were tasted and their extraordinarily delicious contents sampled. Enquiries through the Consulate failed to unearth any descendants of the long deceased English gentlemen, thus paving the way for the wine to be sold by the new owners. Francisco and Fernando haven't decided yet whether to sell it or to keep it for themselves!

More amazing 'very old' muy viejo sherry at the Alonso brothers'
More amazing 'very old' muy viejo sherry at the Alonso brothers'

Where to go next?