“Que alegria!” What joy! to visit the world-famous town of Jerez de la Frontera, that rambling, gold-toned, elegant town in the vineyards.
Victor Hugo Loved Jerez
The famous French writer wrote: ” Hurah for Sherry! The town of Jerez ought to be in heaven.” And I agree, for with its charming, provincial airs and huge trucks heavy with Sherry casks, it has a splendid pre-1914 feeling. Tassels, flounces, Cordoba hats, flowers worn in button-holes and tucked behind ears and elegantly habited riders everywhere – for the cult of the horse is deeply ingrained in Jerez. In fact, there is a horse fair in May every year.
Location of Jerez on the Sherry Coast
Jerez is approximately an hour’s drive south of Seville in Andalusia, that seductive southwestern part of Spain with olive groves, rippling, green, irrigated fields and mile upon mile of vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see.
The Main Attraction
What most visitors go to see, apart from the Carthusian Monastery of Our Lady, founded in 1477, is a Sherry factory. Here, they will be welcomed and shown around the various labelling and corking departments and the huge bodegas with vintage barrels put down for the nobility. In April or May the vines begin to sprout; in September the grapes are ripe for picking and a visit to the vineyards at that time is especially recommended.
On leaving, you are invited to taste a glass or two of the fragrant local product. It is interesting to note that people in Jerez order Sherry by the half-bottle, not by the glass. Even tourists seem to be able to quaff more in its country of origin without ill effects. I was surprised that the local white jug wine, has both the golden colour and the taste of Sherry.
Origin of the Grapes and the Name
Sherry vines originally came from the East, brought by either the Phoenicians or the Greeks. The Phoenicians, who arrived in southern Spain around 3,000 years ago, knew the town we know as Jerez by the name “Xera”. When the Romans arrived to conquer and settle, they found that the local wines compared very favourably with the best Roman whites. In the days of the Romans, when Julius Caesar was living in town, it was know as “Ceret”. The Moors arrived after the Visigoths and the English form of the name comes from the Moorish, “Scherisch”, which gradually became “Sheris” (the way Shakespeare wrote it) and finally Sherry. Spaniards call the town Jerez, which they pronouce “Hereth”.
The Sherry Coast
Today, Sherry and Jerez are synonymous, for Sherry is the name of a particular geographical site, starred by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. In the north the region is bounded by the Guadalquivir River; in the south it stretches beyond the tiny Guadalete River; in the west it
extends to the Sherry Coast, which is washed by the Atlantic Ocean.
Specially Controlled Labelling
Spanish Sherries, unlike those produced in other countries, are subject to a very special process of fermentation, aging and blending (called “solera”). The name to look for when buying Sherry is “Consejo Regulador de las Denominacion de Origen Jerez-Xerez-Sherry-y Manzanilla Sanlucar de Barrameda” or in other words, Control Board for Designation of Origin Jerez-Xeres-Sherry and Manzanilla Sanlucar de Barrameda. It is the label guaranteeing origin and is also used for vinegar.
The Climate, Earth and Grape Type
The particular climate of Jerez and surrounding countryside and the very special qualities of the soil have proven ideal for the cultivation of the grape. The chalky white “albariza” soil with its abundance of calcium carbonate and the way it stores up rainfall, the 295 days of sunshine, together with just enough rain and temperate winds and sea breezes from the Atlantic combine to create the special characteristics of true Sherry wine.
Most Sherries are blended wines, made from the Palomino grape. Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel grapes, which are used to make sweet wines of the same name, are left out in the sun for several days to allow the grape juice to develop a higher sugar content. There are many varieties of Sherry ranging from a pale gold to dark brown and from very dry to sweet. Slightly sweeter types include those called Oloroso and Amoroso and the darkest and sweetest of all is Cream Sherry.
The September Air
In September, even the air smells of wine in Jerez. Grape pickers begin to arrive, casks and machinery are prepared, wine presses washed, mats and baskets piled up waiting for that special day when the grapes are ripe.There are dozens and dozens of bodegas in and around Jerez in which to sample Sherry and Jerez Brandy. It’s fun to watch the venenciador, who with practised hand, plunges a silver-cupped whalebone rod called a venencia into the oak barrel, then pours wine into glasses from a height of two or three feet without spilling a drop. When I was there, visitors could try pouring themselves a glass with a venencia. It’s harder than you think!