The landscape along the road linking Sanlúcar de Barrameda to Jerez de la Frontera is made up of gentle slopes and vineyards planted on albariza soils, a white chalky soil that handles drought superbly and where Palomino Fino thrives. They are the famous pagos (single estates) of Balbaína, Añina, Carrascal and Macharnudo, exposed to the cool and humid Poniente winds blowing from the Atlantic Ocean which counteract the dry, hot Levante air in an area with over 300 days of sunshine a year.
Some people claim that the wines of Jerez are made in the winery, but it is in this terroir where their mineral saline character is shaped, later rounded and fully formed in the criadera and solera blending and aging system found in the wineries. Designed to let fresh air and humidity in and avoid direct sunlight, traditional bodegas in Jerez are imposing but functional buildings with high ceilings, thick walls and dimly lit spaces that facilitate the growth of flor as well as oxidative aging.
Some of the old wineries no longer exist. The economic difficulties that afflicted the sector at the end of the 20th century coincided with a construction boom so it was inevitable that some of that architectural heritage was pulled down to make way for blocks of flats or transformed into large supermarkets. Luckily, some of the old “cathedrals” are still standing and remind visitors of a foregone grandeur that once defined the city.
One of them is González Byass, the most visited winery in Europe. La Concha and Tío Pepe are two impressive constructions found in the maze of bodegas and gardens spread across 374,000 square meters (over 92 sq. acres) next to the Alcázar palace, in the centre of Jerez. La Concha is crowned by an impressive metal dome built in the style of Gustave Eiffel which houses butts decorated with the flags of the 115 countries where González Byass wines are exported. Built in the modern industrial style so popular in the sixties, Tío Pepe bodega stores 30,000 butts or botas (as barrels are called in the Sherry Triangle) in its lower floors. A massive wine tourism centre that welcomes 230,000 visitors every year occupies the third floor.
Apart from González Byass, where visitors board a small tourist train to visit the huge complex, there are many wineries in Jerez worth visiting, both for their wines and history. These are three of the best:
How many wineries in the world allow visitors to sip an amontillado while gazing at some tiles painted by Picasso when he was still a boy well below drinking age? That is exactly what you can experience at Bodegas Tradición, which houses a 300-strong collection of works by Spanish master painters spanning the 15th to 19th centuries. It is Andalucía’s largest private art collection with paintings by artists such as El Greco, Goya, Zurbarán and Velázquez, among others.
Tradición is an atypical winery. Despite its youth (it was founded in 1998), it is specialized in old wines, with over 20 years of age.The whole aging and bottling process is artisanal and manual, including the seal of each and every bottle sold by the winery. Tradición has recently started to produce an old fino under flor with an average age of “just” 12 years.
Tours of the winery are available from Monday to Friday and weekends under request. Visitors get a chance to see the art collection, the winery and sample some of these very old wines.
Founded in 1870, the fifth generation of Hidalgos now at the helm of this thick-walled winery crowned by old Arab tiles still keeps butts with wine and brandy from its early days. Their philosophy is to maintain these wine jewels for sherry aficionados to enjoy. Walking among the 3,200 butts in the soleras, one can feel history and the work of five generations to preserve a particular style of making wines, beyond trends and marketing strategies.
Hidalgo is one of the finest producers in the region and La Panesa is undoubtedly a quality stalwart among the fino category. The solera where it comes from was started in 1962, coinciding with the birth of Alfonso Hidalgo, one of the members of the family. The yeasts that make the veil of flor can be up to 2cm (0.78 inches) thick, requiring adequate temperature, humidity and nutrients over the 15 years -twice the average for other fino wines- the flor rests before being bottled with minimum filtration in several annual sacks (sacas). Winery tours are available from Monday to Friday upon request.
Founded in 1896, Emilio Lustau currently has its headquarters at the cathedral-like bodegas of Arcos street, where they moved in 2002. The history of Jerez is palpable in the bodegas’ walls and arches, built along different decades -the sacristía, where the winery’s top butts are kept, used to be an old city street but is now part of the Lustau complex.
As part of Grupo Caballero -a large brandy and sherry producer from El Puerto de Santa María- Lustau makes a vast range of limited production wines in the three Sherry Triangle cities. A tour of the winery is recommended, specially for its variety of tastings - visitors can try up to 12 different wines from the three cities for just €22. Its Almacenista range is worth seeking out. These superior wines are released by small independent producers who normally sells their wares to larger wineries who then blend them with their own wines. It is a homage to the bodega’s founder, José Ruiz-Berdejo, who started in the business as almacenista before his son-in-law, Emilio Lustau, took over the family business.
There are many interesting places to recharge batteries and match sherries with the local gastronomy such as El Bichero, specialized in seafood and fish, or La Cruz Blanca, with an extensive menu and seasonal local dishes such as coquinas (clams) in garlic sauce -a delicious find. Their wine list includes a good selection of long-aged sherries by the glass which can be enjoyed listening to some flamenco in the pleasant al fresco terrace. Reino de León is also a good place to drink reasonably priced sherries by the glass as well as dry still wines from Cádiz, such as Samaruco by Luis Pérez or the popular Barbazul, a blend of local Tintilla de Rota (as Graciano is called in the area) and other international varieties. Breakfasts are a good excuse to visit Reino de León: their olive oil and tomato toast served on different types of bread is simple but delicious and healthy.
An informal, cheaper and thoroughly authentic option are the tabancos. They act as wine shops -where locals refill their plastic bottles or jugs from the barrels on the wall-, and sherry bars serving copitas from the barrel with simple but delicious tapas such as cheese or ham and other cured meats. El Guitarrón de San Pedro, run by Mireia Dot, a Catalan woman who is passionate about sherry, offers a large array of sherries by the glass matched with tapas, paninis and specialities from the Cádiz mountains and the nearby fishing port of Barbate.
Mireia organises numerous cultural activities in her tabanco -poetry sessions, flamenco singing courses or Tablas pa Ti (A stage for you), a sort of jam session-cum-class where flamenco dancers, singers and guitar players have a chance to show their skills accompanied by professional artists. Hip and old-fashioned El Pasaje, is the oldest tabanco in town and offers live flamenco performed by local artists. Its sherries are sourced from El Maestro Sierra, one of Jerez’s greatest wineries. Its tangy bone-dry fino at €1 a glass is worth trying.
In these days of cash-strapped pockets, the reasonable pricing policy applied by tabancos is very welcome. After going through some hard times which almost put them out of business, the tabanco scene is alive and has brought back old traditions like young people drinking sherry. That is no mean feat.