Friday, 11 May 2012

Essex Eating Does Sherry in Jerez

A few years ago, if you’d offered me a glass of sherry, I’d have laughed in your face, assuming you were winding me up. Sherry not being a drink for a young thrusting hipster, man about town like me, but more suited to senile, blanketed OAPs, rocking catatonically by the fire smelling faintly of stale biscuits and piss.

How wrong could I possibly be?
Massively it turns out.

My eyes were well and truly opened, when one day, I was introduced to Fino and Manzanilla. Two similar, pale, crisp, bone-dry types of sherry, utterly opposed to the sweet, cloying dark cream varieties so beloved of grannies. It was a revelation. I was completely blown away. I just couldn’t believe no one had told me about this before.

Perfect with most types of food, served chilled, refreshing and incredibly drinkable, Fino and Manzanilla are nowadays, very often my alcoholic drinks of choice, and I assure you, I’m well hip, and I don’t often wrap myself in a blanket, or smell of urine, that much. I’m definitely a card carrying, full on convert to the sherry cause, and have been for quite some time.

So, bearing this in mind, you can imagine how I felt when one of the major sherry producers, Gonzalez Byass, makers of Tio Pepe, recently offered me the chance to visit their bodega (winery) in the Spanish town of Jerez, and basically drink a load of amazing sherry and eat tapas.

Oh go on then, If I must *sigh*

Jerez, an attractive small city in the Southern Spanish province of Cadiz is known as the capital of sherry and one of the three principal areas forming the ‘sherry triangle’ the others being Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. In Spanish law, for a product to be called ‘sherry’, it has to be from this area.

All of the sherry producers have bodegas around the area and dotted throughout the city. The bone white earth of the surrounding countryside is patchworked with vineyards growing the Palomino and Pedro Ximénez grapes used to produce sherry. Unsurprisingly, every bar sells it, and displays their allegiance to one of the city’s sherry producers with liveried umbrellas and signage. It’s without a doubt the centre of the sherry universe.

The first thing that struck me about Jerez, arriving in the evening was the warm night air heavy with the strong scent of orange blossom. It’s everywhere. Lining every main road and in every public garden. In springtime, the whole city smells incredible.

The next day, and onto something else that smells incredible, the Gonzalez Byass bodega, spread over a fairly large area and situated smack bang in the centre of town, right next door to the Cathedral and a moorish fortress. The overwhelming whiff upon entering is the deep almost raisin like aroma of sherry maturing in barrels. It’s absolutely lovely and I spent a fair bit of time inhaling deeply with an inane grin on my face.

Being shown about the bodega, on the surface, it almost felt like a sherry theme park at times, with a mini train to cart tourists around the site, but upon being ushered into the cool shade of the darkened, vast old warehouses where the sherry is matured, it feels like something else entirely. This is serious. There’s an almost church like quiet and something akin to a feeling of reverence. There’s no one around, you’re hemmed in on every side by massive oak barrels filled with ageing sherry, stacked one upon the other 3 or 4 deep, neatly layered in the solera system, and stretching off as far as the eye can see into the gloom. It’s epic, a cathedral of sherry.

Every place of worship needs its relics and the Gonzalez Byass bodega is stuffed to the gills with them. Variously, the very first barrels used to produce sherry from the company founding in 1835, a gigantic special barrel of sherry produced for the Queen of Spain, the original musty cellar where Tio Pepe was originally conceived (still in use) and numerous barrels chalked with the signatures of pretty much every heavyweight celebrity and statesmen of the past 100 years or so. Not forgetting the founder’s tasting room, preserved in a Miss Havisham style, exactly as it was when he died, and now suitably layered in a thick blanket of dust.

Of course, the real business of visiting the bodega is to taste the goods, and to this end, our group were introduced to the rather elegant Head Winemaker, Antonio Flores who apparently knows what’s occurring in every single barrel of sherry on the site, numbering thousands. Which isn’t actually that surprising when we learn that his Father also worked for Gonzalez Byass and he himself was born (and conceived!) in a room upstairs, above the original cellar.

With the aid of Christopher, his English interpreter for the afternoon, we were led back into the cavernous, sherry cask-stacked warehouses where Antonio picked out specific barrels for us to try, plunging a venencia, (basically a cup on the end of a stick, specifically designed for extracting sherry from casks) into the barrel and then in a swift easy, very stylised movement, at arms length poured us each a glass.

We had an opportunity to try using a venencia ourselves. Antonio made it look incredibly easy. Under his direction, I got a little in the glass and the rest over my feet.

It’s explained to us that tasting sherry from the barrel is as good as it ever gets. The Fino sherry in the cask, protected from exposure to air by a layer of yeast called flor is absolutely pristine, lively and fresh. Despite best efforts to bottle it and capture this straight from the barrel taste, it always loses a little something in the process.

We get to try a few of Antonio’s favourite barrels, including what he considers to be one of the very best, Del Duque, a vintage amontillado, an amber type of fortified Fino which is slightly exposed to air, so oxidises, hence the colour. It’s bloody incredible. Bone dry, nutty, slight salty. Straightaway I added a bottle to my already lengthy mental shopping list.

I also took part in a more formal sherry tasting which was a real eye opener, even for me, someone who loves the stuff. I was only really familiar with three sherry styles, my favourite, Fino – pale and bone dry, Manzanilla – basically a Fino with a touch of saltiness from it’s sea air ageing (It’s only produced in the costal town of Sanlucar) and finally Pedro Ximénez, the dark raisiny sweet stuff. In fact, there are a number of sherry types that fall in-between; Amontillado, Olorosso (Dry and Sweet versions) and Palo Cortado among others. Basically there are so many styles and variations to declare that you don’t like sherry is almost like saying you don’t like wine.

My particular favourites, apart from Fino, were (getting sweeter as you head down the list);

The already mentioned incredible Del Duque, a 30 year old amontillado.
Alfonso Olorosso Seco
Leonor Palo Cortado
Solera 1847 Olorosso Dulce
And finally, a 30 year old syrupy PX, called Noe.

I should mention that I stuffed my suitcase to bursting with bottles from this list and only just scraped past the baggage allowance on the flight home.

My visit to Gonzalez Byass Bodega was absolutely awe-inspiring. I love sherry, but had no real comprehension of how it was produced and what it took to make one variety over another. I learnt a ridiculous amount and filled in a lot of the gaps in my knowledge. But the main thing is, I got to sample the good stuff straight from the barrel and that’s not something you’ll get to do everyday. Yes, I realise, I’m one lucky bastardo. If you ever get the opportunity to visit, I highly recommend you leap at the chance.

Whilst staying in Jerez, I had a few days to explore the town, visit the market, stuff myself silly with a ridiculous amounts of tapas, get the bus to nearby Sanlucar (home of manzanilla) and do my best to drink every bar I encountered dry of sherry (Hello 1 Euro frigging 20 a glass of Fino!!!!). I’ll be following this post up soon with another describing all of that.

Thanks to everyone at Gonzalez Byass, Rachael, Liz, Jeremy, Louise, Claire, Christopher and Antonio for hosting such an unforgettable visit.


laura@howtocookgoodfood said...

What a trip! It sounds amazing and I can safely say that after spending my birthday meal at Jose Pizarro, I totally get Sherry now too. Both Fino & Manzanilla plus some other really dark & rich stuff that we tried with pudding that was incredible.
I hope to go back soon! But your Sherry trip must have been superb :)

Sarah said...

Colourful, fun, invigorating and ... INTOXICATING!! Thanks for that, Dan!

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

Good effort, Dan. Really. Especially with the sherry pouring ;)

Dan said...

Laura - It was bloody awesome, visit of a lifetime. Jose or Pizarro is definitely a couple of the place in London to 'get sherry'. Love it. The Dark and Rich stuff sounds like a PX.

Sarah - Hey thanks Sarah, glad you enjoyed it.

Aforkfulofspaghetti - Hahahaha cheers Helen. I did my best.

Emma Jay said...

Fucking hell Dan, this sounds amazing! I am sooooooo jellz. Also, just meeting artisans who know EVERYTHING about the thing they produce (whether it's sherry, cigars, shoes, paper) is so, so gratifying.

Dan said...

Emma Jay - Got to agree, always amazing to meet artisan producers, no matter what the product.

Darren said...

Dan - great description. Loved Sherry since 1st getting to Jerez in 2000 and trying the 'range'. Best ever - 125yo PX out the wee barra left (silky velvet in the mouth). Many drink Manzanilla though. Love telling folk what a great drink they're missing !