After visiting Jerez the la Frontera, the birthplace of this noble fortified wine, the indelible memory will be quite opposite: lively music bars and cosy cobblestone streets packed with a relaxed youth enjoying small (don´t forget it contains up 16 percent alcohol content... ) glasses of chilled wines with all possible shades of colours and flavours.
Finding your way through the many varieties is metaphorically as complicated, and at the same enjoyable if you are not in a hurry, as understanding the intricate maze of streets of the convoluted medieval city center.
Downtown Jerez hosts more sherry “bodegas” (wineries) than you can handle in even a week of furious and fanatic tasting, from the giant global enterprises with flamboyant visitor centres and cathedral-like halls lined with tens of thousands of barrels, to picturesque “tabanco” bars.
Founded in 1730, this winery is located in the heart of the medieval quarter and it is the oldest in town, embellished by shady patios and lush gardens around charming historic cellars, the most notable of which being the mighty “bodega mezquita” or "mosque winery": an overwhelmingly colossal and at the same time elegant storage hall built in 1974.
Originally called “La Gran Bodega", it contains all types of soleraje produced by Fundador in over 40.000 barrels with 600 litres each, meaning a stunning 2.4 million litres of sherry and countless daily refills with the solera system. Thanks to the hundreds of single and double horseshoe arches typical of Moorish medieval architecture and to its extraordinary dimensions (over 25.0000 sqm or 4 football pitches), the cellar was quickly nicknamed “the mosque” and truly reminded me of the famous mosque-cathedral of Cordoba, an experience in itself.
Mr Juan Mateos Arizón, who accompanied me in an exclusive private visit to the elegant, atmospheric cellars and offered a complete wine tasting, greets me with these magic words: “here we make great wines, not gadgets for tourists”. Music for my ears. The creator of their extensive range of true oenological gems is the oenologist Mr Manuel Lozano, holder of the title of “Best Fortified Winemaker” for 6 consecutive years, a true authority in the field, and we will soon discover why.
The beginning of a sherry career is quite easy: the local Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes cultivated in a scenic region bordered by the Quadalquivir river and the Atlantic Ocean are turned into still white wines and aged for 2 years by the local producers, called “almacenista”, and then sold to the major exporting sherry producers.
The origins of bodega Lustau are exactly there: Mr Ruiz-Berdejo in 1896 started to make wines in his spare time as almacenista, until his son-in-law, Mr Emilio Lustau Ortega, in 1940 moved the bodega into the present buildings which formed part of the ancient Moorish city walls. Inside these shady vaults, the complex system of “Solera y Criaderas” and the expert addition of extra alcohol turns winemaking into art.
The most prominent characteristic of the dry sherry wines (which are by far the most appreciated by the locals) is the sharp contrast between a promise of intense, even excessive sweetness suggested by the delicate aroma, and the remarkably bone-dry, almost sharp taste, especially if drank without food pairing: an experience which many beginners might find unpleasant, turning them to easier wines or to the sweet variations, which are reserved almost exclusively to tourists and for export markets.
“Amontillado” starts its life as Fino or Manzanilla with 3 years of biological aging, then the subsequent oxidation donates a deeper amber colour and richer and nuttier aromas. Served slightly chilled at 13-14° with dried fruits, consomme´, white meats, artichokes, truffles, is a perfect match for spicy Asian cuisine.
“Palo Cortado” also undergoes both types of ageing for 12 to 15 years, and its great complexity would deserve a chapter in itself, since many producers proudly maintain that its origin is mysterious and basically can not be produced under control: “”it just happens” starting out as a Fino, but the flor yeast fails to develop. Less popular and rarer than the other variations, it offers the richness in the mouth of an Oloroso with the delicate aromas of an Amontillado, recommended with red meats and dried fruits.
My personal favourite among the dry sherries is “Oloroso”, which acquires its caramel colour and intense aroma through years of ageing in barrel and natural air oxidation. Paired with jamon Iberico, stew, game dishes or aged sheep cheese, it can easily accompany your whole evening in a lively bar from pungent aperitif to refreshing digestive.
Lustau´s “Oloroso Imperatriz Eugenia” was established in 1921 to commemorate the visit to Jerez of the last Empress of France and is rightfully rated among the best in the world.
At the sweetest end of sherry family we find 2 wines made from peculiar grape varieties: “Moscatel” blessed by a remarkable floral aromas with citrus notes, a perfect match for fruit-based desserts; and “Pedro Ximenez”, whose grapes are laid out in the sun until they practically turn into raisins, generating a very rich, for someone excessively sweet nectar recommended with foie gras and creamy desserts.
OLE ´ !