The Grand Culture of a Great Wine

Don Harris | February 2011

I wish I had the genius to reintroduce sherry to the world, because most people have a poor idea of what sherry is, and as a result, an Andalucian way of life is under threat. Instead of picturing sherry as a crisp, dry white wine to serve on all occasions - from a refreshing wine with tapas to the perfect beginning of a great meal - many people only picture sherry as a sweet wine from yesteryear. But I have hope that the sherry culture will be rescued, if only we can convince the adventurous world of wine enthusiasts to simply take the first sip. I know that the vibrant taste of sherry itself will do the rest.

There is a good reason for sherry’s poor reputation. I remember my mother kept her cream sherry in a beautiful cut glass decanter, from which she discreetly served on Sunday afternoons, and other ceremonial occasions. Some churches I have attended used sherry as a Communion wine because it kept well and the taste was pleasant. This is hardly the modern reality of the two most popular sherries known as Fino and Manzanilla - bright dry white wines which thousands of Spaniards regularly enjoy, especially during the spring and summer ferias/fiestas

Many years ago, I happened upon a local feria at the base of the cliff on which the town of Arcos de la Frontera is perched. There I saw handsomely dressed young men on horseback wearing their characteristic broad brimmed hats, with their girlfriends riding sidesaddle dressed in bright polka dotted flamenco dresses. The couples, and all of their friends, were pouring refreshing Fino sherry out of small bottles. What they knew is what I want to share with you – this clean, crisp wine is very special and will find its place among the world’s great wines again, and hopefully soon!

The more personal reason I want the world to rediscover sherry is this. Out of all the groups of Spaniards I have met through the years, I remember the sherry families as the most gracious. To befriend one of them opens the door to a fascinating, courtly world -- almost like the Old South families of Virginia, or South Carolina. What a shame it would be if their congenial culture of intertwined families and handsome bodegas would fade away purely because their uniquely refreshing wine was misunderstood by the new generation.

Vineyards and wine cellars blanket the sunny hills that surround the three sherry towns of El Puerto de Santa María, Jerez de la Frontera and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. They have been flourishing as a source of income from at least 1264 AD when the Christians reconquered the land. Two hundred fifty years later Columbus and Magellan brought aboard sherry from Sanlúcar on their historic voyages. Sir Francis Drake brought 29,000 barrels to London after his ships sacked Cádiz in 1614. 

When Napoleon and Lord Nelson prepared for their epic naval battle of both sides requisitioned ample supplies of sherry for their officers and men. Each side received sherry from the same bodegas. The canny merchants affixed the appropriate labels on the casks so that each side was convinced it had received the best. To this day, Bodegas Hidalgo bottles the same sherry under the Napoleon label. I would venture to say that all the men on the English and Spanish galleons were not sipping sweet sherry from crystal carafes – nor was the crew of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa María. How in the world did we get to think of this refreshing wine as something only grannies savored?

For a while, our family lived in El Puerto de Santa María among the Osborne Sherry bodegas that lined our cobble-stoned street of Virgin de los Milagros. (In amusing Spanish style, our street had two names, the other being Calle Larga, depending upon which sign you saw on the street corner; and we had, therefore, two house numbers!) Our traditional house was right around the corner from the small Castle San Marcos, which the Christians built over the remains of a 10th century mosque.

Among themselves, the sherry families have a cordial non-competitive relationship, and often intermarry. Carmen and Juan Carlos Gutierrez took us to the Feria del Vino Fino and introduced us to the extended Osborne family and their friends. Carmen looked forward to spending some time with the Osborne family, with whom she shared memories (and Fino) with women who have been her friends since childhood. 

When he was younger, Carmen’s husband Juan Carlos used to compete in sailing regattas with his friend Miguel Valdespino, until recently the owner of a significant bodega in neighboring Jerez de la Frontera. Miguel, in turn, introduced me to Fernando Romero in Sanlúcar de Barrameda of the Bodegas Pedro Romero. 

Fernando’s family bodega is noted for its founding family, and the woman who took the helm at the beginning of the 20th century. Founded in 1860 by Vicente Romero Carranza, it is still owned by the Romero family, successors to the grandchildren of the founder: Pedro, Aurora and Fernando Romero Ambrosse. It is one of the few Spanish businesses that can claim to have been in the same hands through six generations.

In 1904, Pedro Romero Villarreal took over the burgeoning business from his brothers and named his most treasured Manzanilla Pasada, in honor of his wife Aurora. Only seven years later he died, leaving his wife with the responsibility of raising three little children: Aurora, Pedro and Fernando Romero. Undaunted, Aurora took over the reins of the business. Traditional Sanlúcar was amazed at the audacity of a woman running a bodega. Rather than failing, under her guidance the bodega flourished. The current owners, successors to the Romero Ambrosse family, continue to create magnificent brandies, and Sanlúcar Manzanilla, Oloroso, and Amontillado sherry wines. Every day Ruth and I serve our green salads with olive oil and their exquisite sherry vinegar. When Miguel Valdespino divested his holdings, he sold his private vinegar bodega to the Romero family, knowing that they would appreciate its value, as they combine it with theirs.

These are the stories of just three of the many generous and gracious sherry families in Spain. It is almost as if these families are of another world – and certainly of another time. This reality is captured in the amazing Feria del Caballo of Jerez de la Frontera, home of the Spanish Riding Academy’s celebrated Andalucian Lipizzaner horses. Each May the leading sherry families promenade in their beautiful carriages pulled by amazing steeds, often guided by the coachmen. In a touch of modernity, one Tuesday last year Ruth and I saw carriages brimming with jovial housewives (with glasses of Fino in hand). It was the day of the feria set aside especially for women.

Sherry wine was once so popular that, to this day, imposing whitewashed bodegas dominate the centers of each of the towns I call the three sherry sisters. I invite you to give sherry another taste, and rediscover a great wine - and the beautiful culture that is so unique to Spain. 

¡Salud! To your health!
Su amigo,