The Sherry Triangle

Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda

Sherry Triangle:

The name Jerez de la Frontera (JF) has several interesting connotations. The first modern settlers in the area were the Phoenicians, who called the area ‘Xera’. During the Visigothic (or Visigothic Western Gothic) period, the settlement was called ‘Seritium’ or ‘Xeritium’. The town was occupied by the Moors and they used the name “Sherish”. The city was liberated in 1264 and the Spanish used the name ‘Xerez’, with the suffix ‘de la Frontera’ to indicate that the city was on the border of the then Moorish Kingdom of Granada. The Kingdom of Granada was dissolved in 1492, but several towns, including Jerez, retained the suffix referring to the frontier. The last change to the name of the town was brought about by the spelling reform of the 18th century, when the name was changed to ‘Jerez’. It is clear that the name ‘sherry’ also derives from the name of the town.

Today JF is a bustling, modern city of 212,000 inhabitants and an important tourist destination.

To be on the safe side, let’s get a little culture before visiting the sherry factories. For a start, for example, watch the Andalusian horse dancing demonstration at the “Fundación Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre”. It is perhaps interesting to note that the first performance took place in 1973 in honor of Juan Carlos, the future King, who came to JF to present the “Golden Horse” medal to Don Álvaro Domecq Romero, the founder of the riding school. The institution has been known as the “Royal School” since 1987 and has been a foundation since 2003.

Sherry Triangle

The 90-minute performances are very spectacular, the costumes are beautiful and the horses really “dance”.

(It is essential to buy tickets online weeks before the visit.)

The lectures typically start at noon.

Official website: https://www.realescuela.org/en/

A two-minute preview of the performance: https://goo.gl/Z2YF22 )

From the riding school, it is about a 25-minute walk to the Alcazar. The fortress was built in the 12th century by the Almohads and was practically a city of 16,000 inhabitants (the Almohads were a Muslim dynasty of Berber origin, which in its heyday controlled the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula). It is well worth a walk or a rest in the beautiful gardens.

JF Cathedral is just a few hundred meters from the Alcázar.

Yes, that’s the statue of “Uncle Pepe”, we’ll come back to it soon.

Let’s now turn our attention away from the history of the cathedral, as we are very much looking forward to the “Gonzalez Byass”, a stronghold of Sherry Triangle production. Those of you who have read this far will have tasted sherry, or at least its basic ‘fino’.

The factory was founded by a young Manuel María González Ángel in 1835. Manuel Mª’s mentor was his uncle José Ángel, known as Tío Pepe (Uncle José). He showed his nephew everything he knew about ‘fino’ wines. Thus began the legend of the most famous Fino Sherry Triangle in Spain, and perhaps in the world.

Manuel María González Ángel portréja.

Gonzalez brought his agent, Byass, from England into the business in 1844. The Byass family were part owners of the company until 1988. Today, Gonzales Byass owns dozens of famous wineries in Spain and abroad.

Before the visit, let’s review the basics:

Both the wine and the spirit used for fortification must come from the “Sherry Triangle”. The sherry is made by waiting for the must to fully boil and then blending it with wine spirit. It is not matured in cellars as is usual elsewhere but in huge cathedral-like halls called ‘bodegas’.

Sherry Triangle is matured and blended using the so-called solera system. Long rows of barrels are stacked on top of each other on several levels. The youngest wine goes in the top row, the oldest in the bottom. The latter is actually called solerá (from the Spanish word ‘suelo’ – soil, floor). The wine is always bottled from the row on the ground. Twice a year, 5-30% of the wine is bottled. The quantity taken out is replaced from the row above, and so on up to the top row, which is finally filled with wine from the last harvest. The aging process lasts for a minimum of 3 years; this system guarantees the constant taste and quality of the sherry.

Schematic diagram of the solera system (photo taken in Sanlúcar de Barrameda):

Foraging, the Sherry Triangle casks are not completely filled to allow the wine to aerate and form a fine layer of yeast, the so-called “flor”, on top. About six weeks after the start of aging, the barrels are graded according to their content – at this point, the wine is still only 11-12.5% alcohol. The different categories of wine are fortified to different degrees, from 15 to 17.5%.

The flavor of sherry is strongly influenced by the “flor”. The yeasts use ethanol, glycerol, and organic acids as well as many other substances in the wine.

The three basic types of sherry:

  • Fino (“fine” in Spanish). This is the classic sherry, always served well chilled. Light straw yellow in color with a dry taste. Always made with 100% Palomino Fino grapes at the Sherry Triangle Triangle.
  • Pedro Ximenez. This is a real sweet dessert wine. The Pedro Ximenez grape variety (according to the latest DNA research) is a descendant of the Gibi grape variety used by the Moors to make Arab table wines, which were introduced into Andalusia. After harvesting, the grapes are dried in the sun to increase the sugar content of the wine.
  • The favorite sherry of the English. A typical “cuvée”, is made using aged dry sherry and sweet Pedro Ximenez. The name was born in the 1860s in Bristol, in the Harvey brothers’ sherry warehouse. Until the 1950s, Bristol Cream was the largest selling Sherry Triangle in the world.

We will get to know the special, matured sherries in another “bodega”, so we can start the tour. Let’s get on the miniature train and have a wander around the factory. We will visit the warehouses and the solera system will be explained in detail, no doubt about it. They’ll also show you the barrels with names on them, like the retired King John Charles:

It is also important to book your visit to Gonzales Byass in advance. In addition to the regular visit, special combined tours are also available:

https://www.bodegastiopepe.com/en/

Thanks to Anna Komoróczki for the idea of the second Bodega to visit. Bodegas Tradición, located on Calle Cordobese, is a real jewel box and a specialty of its kind. While Gonalez Byass distributes millions of bottles of Sherry Triangle a year, Bodegas Tradición distributes only 16,000 bottles a year. The history of the company dates back to 1650 when it started as Bodega CZ, J.M. Rivero. After several changes of ownership, the winery was bought back in 1998 by a successful descendant of the family, Joaquin Rivero.

The “production process” at Bodegas Tradición begins where it ends at most Sherry Triangle factories: at the fino. While others sell the fino, they buy it in bulk for further maturation over decades. Three of their six products are bottled after 30 years of aging.

  • Amontillado is a variety of sherry, which is characterized by being darker than fino. Amontillado sherry also starts as fino. A barrel of fino is considered amontillado when the flor layer is no longer able to develop properly, which is achieved by deliberately killing the fungus by subsequently increasing the alcohol content or by allowing it to die by not topping up the barrel. Without the flor layer, the alcohol level of the amontillado must rise to 17.5 percent to prevent it from oxidizing too quickly. The end result is an aged Sherry Triangle with a darker flavor and richer aroma than fino in slightly pitted American or Canadian oak casks.

“A Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe is a not very soul-stirring short story: http://mek.oszk.hu/00400/00464/00464.htm#12

“- Dear Fortunato, it’s good to see you. How particularly well you look today! But I have received a barrel of alleged amontillado, and I have my doubts.

“- Dear Fortunato, it’s good to see you. How particularly well you look today! But I have received a barrel of alleged amontillado, and I have my doubts.

‘I have my doubts,’ I said, ‘and I was foolish enough to pay the full price of the amontillado before I asked you about it. You were nowhere to be found, and I feared I had missed the deal.

– Amontillado!

– I have my doubts!

– Amontillado!

– And I need to reassure myself.

– Amontillado!

– Since you’re busy, I’m off to Luchresi. If anyone has a critical instinct, it’s him. He’ll tell me.

– Luchresi does not know the difference between amontillado and sherry.”

The sequel to the short story will be far less light-hearted, and will have a very bad ending…….

  • Oloroso Sherry Triangle starts life in a similar way to fino, but the flor is broken down much sooner, so it is much more oxidative than fino but has less of a “yeasty” taste. It is typically dry and has an alcohol content of around 18%. The difference between amontillado and oloroso is therefore that amontillado is aged longer under flor.
  • The third special Sherry Triangle is the “Palo cortado”, which means “broken stick”. In fact, barrels containing fino are marked with a vertical line that is crossed out if the flor accidentally (by itself) disappears in the barrel. This phenomenon occurs in 1-2% of barrels, which is why Palo cortado is considered the rarest sherry. Its taste characteristics place it somewhere between oloroso and amontillado. In addition to its delicate flavor, it is also appreciated for its rarity value.

As it’s a relatively small bodega, we soon get past the formalities of a visit to the warehouse and can taste the really special 30-year-old sherries in an elegant setting:

In addition to being perhaps the finest aged Sherry Triangle on the market, Bodegas Tradición is also hiding a surprise, a mini Prado! Yes, a picture gallery where you can admire works of art by the greatest masters of Spanish painting from the 15th to the 20th century.

Joaquin Rivero’s collection consists of around 300 paintings and includes names such as Zurbarán, Velázquez, and Goya.

Bodegas Tradición is open by appointment only.

JF’s annual week-long attraction is the “Feria del Caballo”, or “Horse Fair”. In fact, it would be more accurate to call the event the “Horse and Sherry Triangle Festival”. In short, for a week people come and go (many on horseback), riding in horse-drawn carriages of all kinds, dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, and drinking lots of sherry. Oh, and dancing, of course, and lots of it.

The second corner of the Sherry triangle is Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The town lies at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river and is exposed to the fresh, salty sea breezes that will be of importance in the future. Horse races are held on the sandy banks of the river. The other side is now part of the province of Huelva and the Parque Nacional de Donana. We’ll visit here on a future occasion.

Sanlúcar de Barrameda is a much smaller (almost rural) place than JF, but there is a good supply of sherry producers here too.

The largest plant is probably the Barbadillo, built on the highest hill in the city. Their basic sherry (I’m not writing fino on purpose) is marketed under the Solar brand.

Yes, it’s not fino, it’s manzanilla. It’s similar to fino, but it tastes distinctly saltier than fino, thanks to the salty sea breeze blowing through the leather-shaded windows of 10-12 meter high warehouses. It is important to note that sherry can only be produced as manzanilla in this city

This is how Anna Komoróczki describes Antonio Barbadillo Solear Manzanilla:

“A perfect aperitif and an ideal accompaniment to Spanish tapas: olives, serrano ham, mussels, or even rice and fish dishes.

Clear, pale yellow with a greenish sheen, bright and intense. Its powerful yet elegant nose blends the chamomile and savory notes of its namesake with the classic notes of yeast aging. An exceptionally dry wine with a refined and harmonious finish that lingers for a long time.”

So “manzanilla” means chamomile in Hungarian, which can lead to strange misunderstandings. It happened to me on 30 December 2014, around 6 pm, in the well-known café Lepanto in Malaga, that when I ordered manzanilla, the waiter brought out chamomile tea. I stared endlessly and ordered a real vino de manzanilla. (The next picture is called Las dos Manzanillas.)

The third stop on our tour is El Puerto de Santa María, where the main attraction is the 13th century “Castillo de San Marcos”. The castle is owned by the Caballero Winery and you can pre-book a combined Castle and Bodega tour on the website below.

https://winetourismspain.com/85/visit-of-the-caballero-wineries-castillo-de-san-marcos-el-puerto-de-santa-maria/

If you haven’t had your fill of sherry tasting, head to the medium-sized Gutiérrez Colosía Bodega, founded in 1838, around 5 pm.

You won’t find many new things or surprises here, but it’s a great place to brush up on your knowledge of the secrets of cherries.

The visit here also ends with a wine tasting, starting with a fino and ending with a Pedro Ximénez.

Our Sherry tour ends here. If you decide to stay overnight in El Puerto de Santa María after a tiring wine tasting, I highly recommend the 18th-century hotel Duques de Medinaceli, which is an art experience in itself.

Telki, 28 July 2018.

Imre Réthy