The Sherry Sister Cities of Spain

June 2008

This is a tale of three sister cities that are about sixty miles south of Sevilla. They are El Puerto de Santa María (where my family and I lived for a while), Jeréz de la Frontera and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The families in these three towns originated sherry wine, and continue to produce it. In the streets and plazas of these three towns, the distinctive odor of the wine comes wafting out of the windows of the towns' centuries old bodegas. 

I remember that familiar aroma saturating the air when my young family and I would wend our way through narrow cobble stoned streets to reach our home in Puerto. The streets are flanked by bodegas stacked high with American oak barrels filled with aging wine.

On occasion, we would step out of our house in the old part of the city and head down the block to a "Deposito"- a small shop located in the corner of the Osborne bodega. There, for pennies, we could decant all the sherry we wanted into whatever container we brought. We usually took along an old La Casera bottle, or (heaven forbid) a glass liter coke bottle.

You see, sherry is normal white wine to the native of southern Spain. In fact, it is the best selling white wine in Spain. It is consumed as an aperitif with tapas, served with meals, mixed with La Casera to make a wine cooler and is the beverage of choice at major ferias. One year I visited a fair in the hilltop town of Arcos de la Frontera, where it seemed that everyone, young and old, was consuming bottles of fino and manzanilla sherry as if they were Coke!

This scenario may sound incongruous to some of you, because the first and only exposure to sherry for many Americans was in their grandmother's parlor. There, with some graciousness she would serve sweet cream sherry from her crystal decanter. It was a sign of gentility and hospitality - an English convention from another era. Sherry was hardly what it is now in Spain, a crisp refreshing wine served with tapas. Now it is a fun loving drink for all.

Down the road from Puerto is the seigniorial town of Jeréz de la Frontera – the frontier referred to being the line between the Muslims and Christians which was breached in the 13th century when knights from northern Spain re-conquered the city. Some of their descendants have been residents of Jeréz for centuries, and own some of the fine sherry bodegas in the city! 

Jeréz is an elegant place with orange-tree lined avenues, dozens of sherry bodegas and stables for the fabled Andalucian breed of horses. One of my very favorite events in Spain is the Feria de Caballo/Horse Fair which occurs during the first week of May each year. Along with aficionados of authentic flamenco and bullfighting, horse lovers gather from around the world. Beautiful horses carry handsome young people in traditional costume as classic carriages drawn by magnificent teams pass by in parade. 

May is also the same time of year when the flor of yeast reaches its peak inside the stacked sherry barrels. Particularly in the oceanside port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda the air is laden with the aroma of one wine: Manzanilla. It is the only place in the world where Manzanilla is produced.

Manzanilla is the driest and most delicate of all fortified wines, with exceptional fragrance. It is a light pungent white table wine with just enough body to match the flavors of seafood and the enormous range of tapas for which Andalucians are so famous. 

I am indebted to Javier Hidalgo, of the Bodega La Gitana, who provided much of the information about Manzanilla. His cousin Juan Hidalgo is a good friend of ours and members of my family have visited the La Gitana bodega on several occasions.

I learned that Sanlucar's unique micro climate allows the palomino grapes to be aged under an extraordinarily thick layer of living organisms known as flor. The insulation provided by this flor forms a natural barrier between the wine and the air, producing a straw colored crystalline light white wine which is very low in acidity because any vestiges of oxygen dissolved in the wine must are absorbed by the flor

The conditions necessary for the growth of the flor require the bodegas to be oriented toward the sea in a north-south direction so they will receive the sea breezes that help keep humidity consistently high. A barrel made of American oak is the best container in which to age Manzanilla – and all sherries. The older the barrel the better. In Sanlúcar many of these barrels in current use have stayed in place since the bodegas were founded. 

Within seconds of having been poured, Manzanilla's fresh and natural bouquet fills the air. Javier Hidalgo reported that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the whole town of Sevilla smelled of Manzanilla in the early morning hours, for this was the time of the day when wine from Sanlúcar was delivered to the local taverns and grocery shops. Wine loaded onto boats in Sanlúcar was transported along the river Guadalquivir on the evening tide. On arrival at the port of Sevilla, the large barrels known as bocoyes would be loaded onto carts drawn by horses or mules for distribution around the city. 

What distinguishes Manzanilla from its close cousin Fino, which is produced in Jeréz and El Puerto de Santa María, is the microclimate, unique to Sanlúcar. The same grapes harvested at the same time and transported a few miles to Jeréz de la Frontera produce the dry crisp wine called Fino, which is not quite as light in flavor. That is because the inland climate is not tempered by Atlantic ocean breezes, as is Sanlúcar, so the flor does not grow with such profusion. 

The next time you travel to southern Spain, be sure to visit the sherry sisters and their bodegas. You can enjoy the langostinos and August horse races on the beach in Sanlúcar, the port-side seafood cafes in El Puerto or the horse fair and fine restaurants in Jeréz, and all of them enhanced by the taste of Manzanilla and Fino.

Best wishes for a pleasant summertime,