Re­dis­cover the Span­ish li­ba­tion in its home­land

Sherry might have fallen out of fash­ion, but it waits to be re­dis­cov­ered in its home­land in south­ern Spain

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - CONTENTS - WORDS WENDY FEUELL AN­DER­SEN

If you find your­self in south­ern Spain and want to learn more about sherry, a tour of the bode­gas is a must. Th­ese are the only wine cel­lars in the world that can of­fi­cially pro­duce this for­ti­fied wine cre­ated from grapes grown in Cadiz prov­ince’s Sherry Tri­an­gle. I choose the Gon­za­lez Byass bodega in Jerez, pro­ducer of the fa­mous Tio Pepe sher­ries. It has guided tours, and as well as tour­ing the var­i­ous build­ings you also get an in­sight into the his­tory and process of sherry-mak­ing. As with other wines, much of this comes down to the grapes and the soil, which is nearly white from the high chalk con­tent. “The chalk re­tains mois­ture de­spite the dry cli­mate here,” my guide ex­plains, crum­bling some earth in his hand. “The grapes are not ir­ri­gated, so the sea mist and the wa­ter in the soil is what gives the grapes their unique flavour.”

Step­ping into a bodega, you leave the dry heat of An­dalu­sia be­hind and the re­spect­ful hush of the cel­lar en­velops you. Bar­rels are stacked in rows, three casks high, as far as the eye can see. Each has white writ­ing on its face – ded­i­ca­tions and quo­ta­tions from fa­mous vis­i­tors in­clud­ing roy­alty, from Harold Lloyd to Steven Spiel­berg. My favourite: “His­tory, Love, Colour. All in­side a bot­tle of Magic from Jerez.”

As the tour con­tin­ues we also get a lot of lo­cal, and then world, his­tory. An­dalu­sians in this area have been pro­duc­ing wine since the Phoeni­cians ar­rived in 1100 BC. Dur­ing Ro­man times, wine pro­duc­tion be­came an im­por­tant part of the lo­cal econ­omy, with wine shipped through­out the empire. Sherry quickly be­came known for one of its most cel­e­brated char­ac­ter­is­tics, one that en­dures to this day: sherry is a wine that trav­els well.

Dur­ing Moor­ish times, the town of Jerez was known as al Sher­ish, which is where the modern-day name for sherry comes from. De­spite the Qur’an pro­hibit­ing the con­sump­tion of al­co­hol, some­how wine pro­duc­tion con­tin­ued to flour­ish. The Moors even in­tro­duced a dis­til­la­tion process for for­ti­fi­ca­tion of the wine that has re­mained vir­tu­ally un­changed for 500 years.

Af­ter King Al­fonso X re­claimed con­trol of the area in the 1200s, the sherry re­gion be­gan large-scale pro­duc­tion, ex­port­ing bot­tles around the world dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages. Even Shake­speare was a keen drinker. In his own words, “all drinks stand hat-in-hand in the pres­ence of sherry.”

As the tour and his­tory wind to a close, I am ready for the grand fi­nale: the tast­ing. My guide hands me over to

Even Shake­speare was a keen drinker: “All drinks stand hat-in-hand in the pres­ence of sherry”

Si­mon, the som­me­lier, to ex­plain the var­i­ous meth­ods of pro­duc­tion of each of the sherry-filled glasses be­fore me. They re­mind me of a pain­ter’s pal­ette, rang­ing from a pale liq­uid to a dark, rich caramel. We start with a fino. It is made from the first press of the Palomino grapes and aged for four years un­der a pro­tec­tive layer of f lor yeast so that the wine never comes into con­tact with the air. The yeast feeds on the acids and sug­ars, leav­ing the wine ex­tremely dry and pale. Si­mon tells me this sherry goes well with sushi, spicy foods or creamy soups, and is of­ten drunk as a palate cleanser be­tween cour­ses. He is very pro­fes­sional, sip­ping, swirling and spit­ting… I am not a pro­fes­sional, and take a good mouth­ful and swal­low it. I think I am ex­pected to wax lyri­cal about the hint of al­mond flavour, but for me this is too dry. I soldier on how­ever and fin­ish the glass. Si­mon is ever the pro­fes­sional and hides any dis­ap­proval at my “tast­ing tech­nique”.

We move on to an amon­til­lado. Like the fino, it is aged for four years un­der a pro­tec­tive layer but at that

The sherry-filled glasses re­mind me of a pain­ter’s pal­ette, rang­ing from pale to a dark, rich caramel

point the yeast runs out of nu­tri­ents and dies away, ex­pos­ing the wine to the air. It con­tin­ues to ox­i­dise and age for an­other eight years. It is darker than the fino with a dry, nutty flavour and an al­most salty af­ter­taste, which is ideal for rice dishes and white meats, Si­mon in­forms me. Bot­tles are of­ten sold out as soon as that year’s sup­ply is re­leased. I make a note and hap­pily fin­ish the glass.

My third glass is a palo cor­tado. There’s quite a story be­hind this one. Once upon a time, bar­rels were each marked with chalk to record what was in­side. One scratch (palo) meant fino. If the yeast died off for some rea­son, a line was drawn through the scratch (the palo cor­tado) and rather than be­ing sold, it was given to the work­ers. The bot­tles of palo cor­tado be­came highly sought af­ter, and about 40 years ago the bode­gas started to pro­duce them com­mer­cially. The process, how­ever, is a bit like alchemy: each bodega has its own means of pro­duc­ing this sherry. I thor­oughly en­joy my glass – it is less dry than the oth­ers, and has not just the colour of caramel, but also a hint of the flavour too.

Next comes the oloroso, which loosely trans­lates as “pun­gent”. Si­mon ex­plains that the am­ber colour and fuller body is due to the sherry com­ing from the sec­ond press­ing of the grape. It is aged for eight years but with­out any pro­tec­tive yeast layer, so it takes more flavour from the Amer­i­can oak bar­rels in which it is stored. There is def­i­nitely a taste of oak and spice, and some­thing akin to vanilla about this sherry.

Our penul­ti­mate glass is dulce, a sweet sherry, and more rem­i­nis­cent of what I think of as a clas­sic sherry. Si­mon ex­plains a com­pli­cated method of mix­ing Palomino grapes (as used in an oloroso) and Pe­dro Ximenex grapes with the must (the pulp and juice ex­tracted from the grape) from each aged sep­a­rately for four years, then blended and aged un­der full ox­i­da­tion for a fur­ther four years. Just like Goldilocks, I find this the most de­light­ful of all the sher­ries, not too dry and not too sweet.

Fi­nally, there is the ic­ing on any cake, the sweet­est nec­tar of them all, Pe­dro Ximenez, a dessert wine, sweet, dense and as dark as cof­fee. Th­ese grapes are left on the vine much longer, then dried in the sun for sev­eral weeks to con­cen­trate the sug­ars be­fore they are put through a strong press and aged for at least eight years. The sherry tastes a bit like figs and raisins. Si­mon tells me this par­tic­u­lar sherry has been aged for 30 years, and lo­cals like to pour it over ice cream as a favourite dessert. “You don’t hap­pen to have any ice cream?” I ask hope­fully. “No,” says Si­mon, as he gen­tly guides me to the door…

ABOVE: The soil of south­ern Spain’s vine­yards is very high in chalk con­tent, pro­duc­ing a unique flavour in the grapes

CLOCK­WISE FROM OP­PO­SITETOP: Sherry ranges widely in both colour and taste; a bot­tle of Tio Pepe Pio X 1903; bar­rels in the cel­lars of the Gon­za­lez Byass bodega bear words of praise from fa­mous vis­i­tors

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