My Uncle Bill and I learn about sherry at the source, Jerez, Spain.
Jerez is a charming city located in the province of Andalusia in the south of Spain. Often overlooked by tourists in favor of some of the more famous destinations in Andalusia, such as Seville and Granada, Jerez is a smaller, yet still bustling, city with great tapas restaurants, friendly people, beautiful churches and “bodegas” (above-ground wineries) on seemingly every corner of the city. It is at these bodegas where the city’s namesake wine – sherry – is aged, stored and blended. And it was at the Bodegas Lustau that my Uncle Bill and I took a tour and learned about the process of making sherry. We not only learned a great deal, we tasted a great deal too! Lucky me – earlier this summer, I was able to taste coffee at the source in Colombia (check that post) and now sherry at the source in Spain!
Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, Spain has a magical entrance and patio.
Founded in 1896, Bodegas Lustau prides itself on the quality of its sherry. Not too small and not too big, it focuses on quality over quantity. We waited for our tour to begin in this beautiful patio entrance of the bodega. What look like sparkles are spots of sunlight peeking through the leaves of the overhead pergola which covered the entire outdoor patio. I could tell this was going to be a special place from the beginning.
The tour guide gives a wonderful overview of how sherry is made.
We began our tour in one of the first of a few large warehouse-type rooms that house all of the barrels of sherry at various stages of aging and blending. Our tour guide gave us a great overview of the grapes used and the special blending and aging processes used just for sherry. I could go on and on about what we learned but my biggest takeaway was that producing sherry is part science, part art, as various factors such as humidity, moisture and quality of the barrel all play a part in making the perfect final product. Sherry cannot just be placed in a barrel and left to age, but rather a system is in place whereby older wines are periodically blended with newer wines to ultimately create a consistent flavor. Some types of sherry are aged by adding in a moss-like bacteria called “flor” while others are aged without the flor and are instead allowed to oxidize by being exposed to open air.
While most sherries are made using Palomino grapes, another type of grape, the Pedro Ximenez, is a super sweet grape that results in – you guessed it, super sweet sherry. Our tour guide joked that if we were on a diet, the Pedro Ximenez sherry was probably not the wine to try and boy was she right! It was so sweet – like a dessert in a glass. While the fino variety of sherry has just 0-5 grams of sugar per liter, Pedro Ximenez has at least 200 and sometimes 500 grams per liter!
The ancient-looking symbols written in chalk on the barrel above are used to identify the types, ages and other distinguishing characteristics of each of the thousands of barrels holding sherry in the bodega. Our guide explained that these are universal symbols for sherry so no matter which bodega you are in, if you understand these symbols, you’ll be able to interpret the signs on the barrels.
While the grapes themselves can be grown in a slightly wider area around the city of Jerez, in order to officially be considered sherry, the wine must be aged and blended in bodegas located in the “Sherry Triangle.” The cities of Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda (to the north-west of Jerez) and El Puerto de Santa María (to the south-west of Jerez) make up the three points of the triangle.
On two other days during this trip, we had lunch in both Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, both of which are short drives from Jerez. While I’m not entirely sure of the distance between each, I can confirm, based on the short time it took us to get to lunch each day, that the Sherry Triangle is a relatively small area of land. Especially considering it is where all of the sherry in the world comes from!
A quick side note about Sanlúcar de Barrameda, especially for the history buffs out there. It is the city at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and is where Magellan set sail on his voyage around the world. While Magellan was killed in the Philippines and never made it back to Spain, one of his ships did complete the journey. That ship arrived back in Sanlúcar in 1522 and has the distinction of being the first ship to ever circumnavigate the world.
Perhaps even more relevant to this post is that Magellan and his crew were well-stocked with sherry for their treacherous journey around the world. So well-stocked that they spent more money on sherry to bring along than they did on weapons! Bad decision perhaps?
We ended the tour with a tasting of many varieties of sherry. I admit I did not catch everything our tour guide described, but we definitely had fun! She helpfully lined up the wines in the order we tasted them so theoretically we could follow what we were tasting but that sort of went out the window for me after taste number four or so. My favorite of all the sherries we tried was the Amontillado, which smelled like vanilla and caramel and was amber-colored. It was aged using a combination of both the flor and oxidation processes, resulting a complex wine.
One of the most interesting things I learned was that sherry is very different from most other types of wine in that it doesn’t have a vintage. The blending method used to make sherry means that there is no actual, singular year to put on the bottle. This was good to learn as sherry doesn’t actually get better with age like many wines do, but rather should be opened and enjoyed as soon possible after it is bottled (they suggested within a year).
If you’re thinking of taking a trip to Spain I highly recommend a stop in Jerez and a tour of the Bodegas Lustau. Oh and one last thing. Before you visit Jerez, you might want to catch up on some of your reading first. Set in an unnamed Italian city during carnival (check out SeaEchoes Venice posts to learn about the Venice carnival so you can picture the story even more vividly), Edgar Allan Poe’s chilling short story “The Cask of Amontillado” uses this type of sherry as its centerpiece. I promise you the Bodegas of Lustau were nothing but welcoming so no need to fear visiting their bodega or tasting their Amontillado ;) (you’ll know what I mean if you read the story). To stay in the heart of sherry country like we did, book a room at the affordable and trendy Hotel Soho Boutique.