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Stories About Spain

The Grand Culture of a Great Wine

Written by: Don Harris

barrels in a sherry bodegaI 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!
fried fish and sherry at the beach
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.
winemaker pouring sherry
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

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"I've learned alot from my coffee-table-sized wine guide. But the author opens the chapter on Spain by saying he won't discuss sherries because they're "aperitif wines." Guess he's never sipped Manzanilla with a shellfish dinner--a gastronomical marriage made in heaven! The grand bodegas of Sanlucar regularly stand with doors and windows open to the sea breeze, and what it brings is absorbed through the oak casks. This turns what is already one of the world's finest wines into a superbly complex taste experience. My first sip of Tio Pepe simply astonished me: first, crispness that sets the benchmark for dryness in a white, then a sudden burst of sea salt lasting a second, and finally a long lingering finish with a hint of sweetness. My state, unfortunately, holds a monopoly on all wines and spirits, and discontinued Tio Pepe a couple years ago. Apparently I was the only one who bought it. Maybe the best way to get people to try the great sherries of Spain is through the upscale restaurant trade--in particular the seafood houses. I love Pennsylvania, but if I had wheels I'd drive to Maryland, where they're more civilized about alcohol. Thanks for the article."
February 2011

"I used to enjoy an occasional sherry. My favorite was Harvey's Shooting Sherry, not so rich and sweet as the Bristol Cream, but I haven't been able to get it for years so stopped drinking sherry. What would you recommend> "
February 2011

"I think your best bet would by an Amontillado, which is not as sweet as oloroso but not as dry as fino. One of my favorites is 'palo cortado' which is a rare sherry that is worth every dime, though it can be quite expensive. Hope that helps. Tim Harris"

"I lived in Spain in the early 70s and came to love sherry. My favorite fino is La Ina, but I can't find it in the States. I also like the amontillados with their nutty flavors. I think they are a great accompaniment to tapas. I would certainly like to see sherry become a more accepted wine in the States with more brands available in the stores."
February 2011

"Sherry will reine again. My 1st trip to Spain was in 1960 and I fell in love with it. But is was not until I lived there 1981 - 84 that I developed my love of Sherry. Last night my wife and I celebrated Valentines Day at the new J.W. Marriott here in San Antionio. It is Marriott's largest. I said we would check it level of sophistication which we did by asking for a "fino" as an aperitif. The answer - there was not Sherry. Yes we did have a talk with the manager. Hopefully in the future they will do better. All Sherry lovers in the US need to help bring sherry back into common usage here.David & Barbara"
February 2011

"Thank you for this article. Hopefully it will lead some people to the joy of real Sherry. Sweet cream sherry served warm has done so much damage to Sherry's reputation. It is a unique, complex and varied wine too little known and appreciated outside of Spain. Favourite sherry memory: standing in the sun in Puerto de Santa Maria eating chanquetes out of a paper cone drinking cold crisp Manzanilla. "
February 2011

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La Cultura de Gran de un Gran Vino

barrels in a sherry bodega¿Recuerdan el anuncio de la radio: Dr Pepper, el incomprendido? Provocó que una nueva generación volviera a consumir uno de los refrescos más veteranos, anterior incluso a la Coca Cola. En los círculos de marketing y publicidad el eslogan se considera de los más efectivos que se hayan ideado para reintroducir un producto. La mayoría de la gente tenía un concepto equivocado de lo que era Dr Pepper; creían que se trataba de una mala imitación de la Coca Cola.

Desearía poseer la genialidad necesaria para reintroducir el sherry en todo el mundo, porque la mayoría de la gente tiene una idea errónea de lo que es y, como resultado, parte de una forma de vida andaluza está desapareciendo. En vez de concebir el jerez como un vino blanco, seco y con carácter para beber en cualquier ocasión – , desde un vino fresco del que disfrutar junto a unas tapas hasta el comienzo perfecto para un gran almuerzo- mucha gente piensa que el jerez es un vino dulce de anticuado sabor. Sin embargo albergo la esperanza de que la cultura del sherry se recupere, sólo falta convencer al aventurado mundo de entusiastas del vino para que prueben el primer sorbo.

Existe, desde luego, un buen motivo. Recuerdo que mi madre guardaba su jerez dulce en un precioso decantador de cristal tallado y del cual se servía una copita los domingos y en ocasiones especiales. Algunas iglesias a las que he asistido utilizaban el jerez como el vino de consagración porque se conservaba bien y tenía un agradable sabor. Poco se parece esto a la realidad de los dos vinos secos y con carácter conocidos por fino y manzanilla que miles de españoles consumen de forma cotidiana, especialmente durante las ferias y fiestas de primavera.
fried fish and sherry at the beach
Hace ya muchos años, nos tropezamos con la feria que se celebra bajo el tajo de Arcos de la Frontera. Vimos a elegantes jinetes con sus típicos sombreros de ala ancha, y sus novias a la grupa vestidas de flamenca con coloridos vestidos de lunares. Lo que para ellos estaba claro es lo que hoy deseo compartir con Uds.: este vino claro y con carácter es algo muy especial y hallará un lugar entre los mejores vinos del mundo una vez más. ¡Esperemos que sea pronto!

Personalmente, los principales motivos por los que me gustaría que el mundo redescubriera el jerez son las familias bodegueras; De todos los grupos de españoles que he conocido a través de los años, las recuerdo como las más maravillosas. Convertirse en amigo de una de ellas abre las puertas a un fascinante mundo lleno de caballerosidad, muy similar al de las antiguas familias sureñas de Virginia o Carolina del Sur. Qué lástima sería que su amistosa cultura de familias entrelazadas y bellas bodegas lentamente desapareciera debido exclusivamente a que su vino tan único y refrescante hubiera sido malentendido por las nuevas generaciones.

Las viñas y sus bodegas se esparcen como un verde manto por las soleadas colinas que rodean las tres localidades de la denominación del sherry: El Puerto de Santa María, Jerez de la Frontera y Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Estas viñas y bodegas fueron creciendo en número desde al menos el año 1264 en el que los cristianos reconquistaron la zona. Doscientos cincuenta años después, Colón y Magallanes cargaron a bordo fino de Sanlúcar en sus históricos viajes y Sir Francis Drake se llevó 29.000 barriles a Londres después de que su flota saqueara Cádiz en 1614.

Cuando Napoleón y Lord Nelson preparaban su épica batalla naval, ambos bandos adquirieron grandes cantidades de sherry para aprovisionar a sus oficiales y tripulaciones. Las dos partes recibieron sherry de las mismas bodegas. Los astutos comerciantes se aseguraron de etiquetar los barriles para convencer a ambos bandos de que se les había proporcionado el de la más alta calidad. En la actualidad, las Bodegas Hidalgo continúa embotellando el mismo sherry con la etiqueta de Napoleón. Me aventuraría a decir que los hombres de los galeones ingleses y españoles no paladeaban un sherry dulce – menos aún la tripulación del buque insignia de Colón, la Santa María. ¿Cómo hemos podido llegar a pensar que este vino refrescante sea algo sólo para abuelitas?

Durante un tiempo mi familia y yo vivimos en El Puerto de Santa María entre bodegas de Osborne que lindaban con nuestra calle empedrada de la Virgen de los Milagros. (A la manera peculiar española, esta calle tenía dos nombres, el otro era Calle Larga, dependiendo de en qué esquina se mirara el nombre de la calle; por eso también ¡nuestra casa tenía dos números!) Nuestra casa del estilo más típico estaba a la vuelta de la esquina del Castillo de San Marcos, que los cristianos habían construido sobre las ruinas de una mezquita del siglo X.
winemaker pouring sherry
Entre ellas, las familias productoras de sherry mantienen una relación cordial, sin competitividad y a menudo contraen matrimonio entre sí. Carmen y Juan Carlos Gutiérrez nos llevaron a la Feria del Vino Fino y nos presentaron a parte de la familia Osborne y a sus amigos. Carmen tenía muchas ganas de estar con los Osborne con los que compartía recuerdos y ansiaba disfrutar de una copa con las mujeres de las ha sido amiga desde la niñez.

Cuando era joven, el marido de Carmen, Juan Carlos, solía competir en regatas con su amigo Miguel Valdespino, hasta hace poco propietario de una importante bodega de la vecina Jerez de la Frontera. Miguel, a su vez, me presentó a Fernando Romero de las Bodegas Pedro Romero de Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

En la historia de la bodega de Fernando destacan la familia que la fundó y la mujer que tomó sus riendas a principios del siglo XX. Fue fundada en 1860 por Vicente Romero Carranza, y continúa perteneciendo a la familia Romero, sucesora de los nietos del fundador: Pedro, Aurora y Fernando Romero Ambrosse. A esta empresa española le honra ser una de las pocas que se ha mantenido dentro de la misma familia durante seis generaciones.

En 1904, Pedro Romero Villarreal se hizo cargo de la empresa de los hermanos y, en honor a su esposa, le dio el nombre de Aurora a su más apreciada manzanilla pasada. Murió sólo siete años después, dejando a su mujer la responsabilidad de criar a sus tres niños: Aurora, Pedro y Fernando Romero. Audazmente, Aurora se hizo cargo de la empresa. La Sanlúcar tradicional se vio sorprendida por el coraje de esta mujer que se atrevió a dirigir una bodega. Lejos de fracasar, bajo su dirección la bodega prosperó. Los actuales propietarios, sucesores de la familia Romero Ambrosse, continúan produciendo magníficos brandies, manzanilla de Sanlúcar, oloroso y amontillado. Todos los días Ruth y yo aliñamos las ensaladas con aceite de oliva y exquisito vinagre de vino de sus bodegas. Cuando Miguel Valdespino se deshizo de sus propiedades, vendió su querida bodega de vinagre a la familia Romero, sabiendo que la apreciarían en lo que vale al combinarla con las suyas propias.

Éstas son historias de tres familias productoras de jerez de las muchas generosas y maravillosas que existen. Casi se podría decir que pertenecen a otro mundo y de seguro a otro tiempo. Esta idea resulta más palpable en la magnífica Feria del Caballo de Jerez de la Frontera, hogar de la Real Escuela del Arte Ecuestre y los famosos caballos de Pura Raza Española. Cada mes de mayo las principales familias bodegueras pasean en sus hermosos carruajes tirados por espléndidos caballos y llevados por cocheros. Como toque de modernidad, el martes de feria del año pasado Ruth y yo vimos carruajes repletos de joviales amas de casa con sus copas de vino en la mano. Era el día de feria dedicado especialmente a las mujeres.

El jerez fue una vez tan famoso que, incluso en la actualidad, numerosas bodegas de muros encalados dominan el casco antiguo de las localidades a las que yo llamo las tres hermanas del sherry. Les invito a darle otra oportunidad al jerez y que así redescubran un excelente vino- y esa cultura tan especial que es la española.


Su amigo,


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