Alex Wallace's Travel Log

Sherry Country 2008

Why don’t people drink more sherry? This is the question I can’t get out of my head after coming back from sherry country, where imbibing fino seems as natural as breathing. Drinking these wines in their original context, from the fresh, lively, and astonishingly food-friendly manzanillas to the more complex and brooding old amontillados and olorosos, it’s hard to imagine how sherry ever acquired its bad rep in this country. Even the creams, the blends of oloroso and sweet PX, are wonderful drunk the way the Spaniards do, with an ice cube and a slice of orange.

The overwhelming sense I got from this trip is this: that sherry country is an incredibly special place for wine. I say this because what I learned from extensive tastings at a variety of bodegas – from the small family-run ones to the large corporate ones – is that there’s hardly any bad sherry there. How many wine regions can you make a statement like that about? What there is instead is a vast amount of wine that is just fine, if unremarkable, and a few producers who, because of a combination of location, scale, and artisanal approach, rise above this to make wines that are truly sublime. So basically, the average standard here is far higher than in most wine regions, but only a special few make it above that standard.

It’s when you get to have the contrast of visiting places like Osborne and Williams and Humbert that you realize just how special these small places are. On my first day I went in sherry country I went to Sanlucar de Barrameda, home of manzanilla sherry, to visit Bodegas La Cigarrera. This is the epitome of the small-scale bodega, a tiny place with a gorgeous courtyard. After visiting the bodega Ignacio took me out to dinner at a place right around the corner. This was my first meal in the region and the first of part of what would be the other highlight of my trip: the food.

In a pattern that would repeat itself multiple times in the course of my trip, we had a beer first, before moving on to the sherry. The beers in Spain – unremarkable light pilsners, with no trace of bitter hoppiness – do act as the perfect palate refreshers. The food of the region is all about the ingredients, not the preparation. There’s no room for anything fancy, fussy, or complicated, the goal is simply to showcase the best and freshest ingredients, mainly from the sea. The added flavors come mainly from olive oil, salt, garlic, and some herbs, the preparations usually involve little more than a bain-marie or frying. At this first dinner I had in the region I was regaled with langostinos, Huelva ham, and a huge variety of lightly battered and fried fish. We finished off the meal with a glass of gazpacho, which was something of a revelation for me. It was so incredibly refreshing, its different flavors of savory, sweet, and sour so well integrated, with a slight bite of garlic, that it seemed a world apart from the gazpachos I’d had in the US. The main difference between this and its American counterpart, which puzzled me at first, was its color: distinctly orange, not red. Do they add milk or something strange like that, I wondered? But no. What I eventually figured out was that it’s simply the amount of olive oil that dilutes the red tomato color.

Needless to say, the manzanilla we drank throughout – unfiltered, not cold-stabilized, produced around the corner – paired marvelously with all the fare.

The next day there was another incredible meal. Same style, but longer and with more courses. This meal I had with the people from Gutierrez Colosia, who are knowledgeable, passionate, and make the best sherries in El Puerto de Santa Maria, hands-down. None are quite as passionate about the local cuisine as Juan Carlos, the owner. Born and bred in El Puerto, Juan Carlos seems to know everyone and everything about this place, and he talked to me all evening with overflowing enthusiasm when I expressed interest in the local cuisine. He explained to me how each dish was made, where each ingredient came from, and what made each so special. He placed the culinary traditions in historical context, too, explaining how they evolved in the context of a poor seafaring community (the ubiquitous cracker-like things, for example, come from sailors taking dried rather than fresh bread on boats with them). The dishes from that evening are too many to enumerate, but some highlights included orteguillas (fried sea anemone), huevos de choco (cuttlefish eggs), fritters made with tiny baby shrimp, and clams with little pieces of pork.

Again, it was all washed down with the fino from their bodega next door, unfiltered and not cold-stabilized. Going to Gutierrez Colosia it is easy to understand why their wines are so special: essentially, it’s the location. More than any other wine in the world, sherry is made in the winery, not in the vineyards. And while the quality of the must is still important, it is the location and microclimate – the terroir, if you will – of the bodega itself that matters most. Gutierrez Colosia is one of the few bodegas that have remained right in town, instead of fleeing to the outskirts where land is more abundant. They are also the only bodega that is on the river Guadalete, making their location unique, and you can taste it in their wines.

A couple days later I go to El Maestro Sierra in Jerez de la Frontera. This place has some incredible old stocks of wine, and there’s no doubting what treasures they are when you taste the likes of the Amontillado 1830. These people take seriously the concept of artisanal wine. There’s even a cooperage in the back of the bodega with old tools, and they’re not just for show. In their bottling room, I watched a worker stick labels on bottles by hand.

Juan, the capataz, showed me around. He asked me what I wanted to try, so I asked him to pull me tastes from the barrels of each of the criaderas of fino. It was a great learning experience and a lot of fun to taste the wine as it evolves from a wild, discombobulated wine in the first criadera to a magnificient, tame, and integrated fino in the solera.

Location, again, is crucial here. Perched on the side of a hill right in the heart of Jerez, perfectly oriented to receive the breeze from the ocean, the place in which these wines are produced really make a difference in how the wines turn out. The locals know it too. While I was there I watched a number of customers come in with empty plastic bottles to buy sherry in bulk. And more than once I had someone quietly say to me, as an aside, “you know, their fino really is the best around.”

So if there’s anything I learned on this trip, it’s that a good location and an artisanal approach are what distinguish the truly special bodegas from the merely good ones. I’ve also learned just how compulsively drinkable sherry is (though I guess I knew that before, it became patently obvious there). So why aren’t people drinking more of it?