Although by law it is one of the three towns where sherry wines can be aged, El Puerto de Santa María does not have the reputation of its neighbours. It has lived on the shadow of the wineries in Jerez, which have taken advantage of El Puerto’s maritime climate and exposure to the winds blowing from the Atlantic to stock and store casks of fino sherry which keep the veil of yeast (or flor) all year round.
Real estate pressures and a considerable drop in sherry sales have played against the town, known in its heyday as The City of a Hundred Palaces. Many of the old cellars have been sold for conversion into more lucrative activities but a handful of them are unwilling to quit. It is the case of Gutiérrez Colosía, whose aging cellars, built in 1838 and purchased by the Gutiérrez family in the 1920s, are the only ones left on the banks of the Guadalete river. This prime location gives the wines an unmistakeable flor character and salinity that Juan Carlos Gutiérrez Colosía skillfully reflects in his wines.
The winery functioned as almacenista, selling its wines to well-known houses such as Barbadillo and González Byass, until 1997 when Juan Carlos decided to set up his own brand, admired by top sommeliers such as Pitu Roca (El Celler de Can Roca) or Nico Boise (Mugaritz), whose autographs adorn the butts of Solera Familiar, a selection of wines with an average age of 30 to 50+ years. Touring the winery while Juan Carlos, accompanied by his wife Carmen, while he recalls anecdotes spanning 50 years among casks and venencias (tool to draw wine from the cask) is a real pleasure. You can tell they are both passionate about what they do: it is worth visiting the Gutiérrez family and taste their range of wines - all of them have personality and are loyal to their seaside origins. Luckily, they can also be bought at unbeatable prices -both in bulk and bottled- at the winery’s cute shop.
Bodega Obregón also deserves a visit. As well as almacenista - it supplies both the Fino and Amontillado de El Puerto to Bodegas Lustau - it functions as bar and despacho (shop selling the house sherries). It is worth going on a Saturday -the only day of the week when food is served- to try its famous chicken with Pedro Ximénez as well as other typical dishes such as papas aliñás (seasoned potatoes) surrounded by casks, old photographs and bullfight posters. Obregón sells its wines to the large houses in Jerez, but a small part of its 200 casks remains in El Puerto and is sold at the despacho in Zarza street, the oldest in town. Its La Draga fino and palo cortado are two great options to sample the style of this winery.
A completely different experience available at El Puerto is the chance to enjoy a gastronomic descent to the bottom of the ocean with Aponiente. This adventure is reflected in the two menus that chef Ángel León offers at his restaurant, in a journey of sea flavours and textures worthy of the second Michelin star that he has recently conquered.
In his Gran Menú (€140), the Chef del Mar (Sea Chef, as he is affectionately called) serves traditional dishes with local products such as razor clams, prawns or his faultless shrimp omelette and innovative marine suggestions such as boga, sarda (a less valued type of tuna) or leatherfish as well as two plankton-based dishes, a speciality of the Andalusian chef. This marine-based arrangement becomes a symphony when it is paired with the wines (€55) suggested by sommelier Juan Ruiz. His love of sherry becomes apparent when you sample the 10 selections matching the 24 dishes of the menu. It is not an inexpensive pleasure, but it is certainly an unforgettable an unique experience in Spain.
Wine négociant Antonio Barbadillo Mateos recalls an anecdote that summarises the carefree unpretentious character that abounds in this seaside town. After a full day of tastings with a journalist, Antonio took him to a bar where ordinary sanluqueños go so he could sample the local atmosphere. “What does Manzanilla smell of?”, asked the journalist to one of the patrons. Perhaps he was expecting some original and inspiring descriptors, but the answer he got was simple and emphatic: “What do you expect, man? It smells of Manzanilla!”
Such candour is reflected on the wines sold by Antonio. He left the family winery -prominent producer Barbadillo- to launch his own project which involves choosing casks that stand out for their character. Under the name Sacristía AB, Antonio selects two wines. Manzanilla en rama (bottled from the cask, without filtration) is aged for an extended period of time and is drawn from the solera (the last tier of the fractional blending system) for bottling every three months. It comes from casks owned by Bodegas Yuste, a Sanlúcar-based winery which has recently purchased some butts from Pedro Romero, a historical house which has suspended activities.
This marketing model has been successfully applied by Equipo Navazos, a négociant team that sells outstanding wines from selected casks -some of which are not commercialized -chosen in different wineries across the Sherry Triangle. Their first label, La Bota de Amontillado, came from a striking wine owned by Bodegas Sánchez Ayala, one of the oldest wineries in Sanlúcar. Coincidentally, this winery also supplied Antonio Barbadillo with his first manzanilla selections for Sacristía AB.
Built in 1798, Sánchez Ayala is not open to the public but its wines are available for purchase at the pretty despacho adjacent to the winery in Banda Playa street, in the Barrio Bajo area. Pipiola is the name of the brand sold in bulk; Gabriela and Gabriela Oro are bottled but they are only available in Sanlúcar, Málaga, Seville and London, thanks to Les Caves de Pyrene, a savvy importer who discovered these authentic wines sourced from vineyards located around Jerez and controlled by José Luis Barrero and his family, owners of the winery since 1986.
The Barrio Alto is largely taken over by Barbadillo, the largest and most prominent winery in Sanlúcar. Founded in 1821 by Benigno Barbadillo, it is now run by the seventh generation of his family. Among the sprawl of buildings in the compound, La Catedral stands out for being the largest cellar in Spain built under one nave. The cellar known as Toro was built in 1660 and was the first one purchased by the founder.
In its heyday, Barbadillo provided must for Bristol Cream, the world’s best selling sherry, and still produces Castillo de San Diego, one of Spain’s most popular white wines. Among its range of premium fortified wines, the best known is Solear, a zesty saline manzanilla with an average age of 6-7 years. The top butts of this wine are used to refresh the solera of Solear en Rama, which is naturally clarified with egg white to maintain its pungent aromas. Only 4,000 bottles are produced annually.
Barbadillo was the first winery in the region to produce manzanilla en rama, highly regarded nowadays. As this wine is drawn off its solera four times a year, the behavior of the flor can be observed throughout the seasons (the spring and autumn sacks, when flor activity is more intense, are usually more saline than the summer and winter sacks).
Good places to eat and drink are many, but we followed the advice of Manolo and Pepa, owners of Hostal Alcoba, a charming and cosy hotel in the centre of Sanlúcar.
The area around Plaza del Cabildo, the city’s main square, has some traditional spots such as Balbino, with “10 busy waiters who frantically run around to serve everyone. Their food is top class”, or La Barbiana, “a tavern which has been around forever; its papas aliñás con melva (seasoned potatoes with tuna) are a must-try”.
Bajo de Guía is a pleasant area with outdoor bars facing the Guadalquivir river, spectacular views of Doñana National Park and sunsets to die for. One of these bars is Casa Bigote. According to Manolo, “dishes are still first class and its counter is a temple”. Close by is Mirador de Doñana, with a varied selection of sensibly priced wines from the Sherry Triangle to pair with good fish.
A narrow street in Sanlúcar hides one of the best wine bars in Spain. At first sight, La Taberna der Guerrita looks just like any other tapas and wine tavern, but it is in fact the ultimate destination for die-hard sherry lovers across the country. The shelves of its Sacristía (sacristy) shop are filled with wines from across the Sherry Triangle, something rather unusual in an area where it is almost impossible to find wines from Jerez in Sanlúcar or viceversa.
At der Guerrita counter, patrons have the chance to drink fabulous wines such as the house manzanilla, which comes from owner Armando Guerra’s solera. His selections go well beyond the Triangle; every summer he holds some spectacular tastings with the Who’s Who of Spain’s avantgarde wine producers. It is worth keeping an eye on his calendar.