Farida Zeynalova discovers a truly authentic corner of Spain
I was born up there,” Antonio Flores says, pointing to the attic above the entrance to a dark, damp cellar. I’m juggling two glasses of cold sherry in my hands, faltering down centuries-old stairs here at the distillery of Tio Pepe, the world-famous sherry brand named after the uncle of founder Manuel Maria Gonzalez Angel. The air is musty, but the cool temperature of the room is just what I need after a punishing morning in the Andalusian sun. Antonio — who was voted Best Winemaker of Fortified Wines in the World for 2016 at the Winemaker of the Year awards — heads up Gonzalez Byass, the city’s largest bodega in Jerez de la Frontera and a sherry-making powerhouse since 1835. “En que año naciste?” he asks. I tell him I was born in 1991, and he leads me to a barrel with the year of my birth scrawled on it in chalk. After scooping out a glassful of 26-year-old sherry, I sample my fifth variety of the day — and it’s only 11.30am.
I’m in Jerez de la Frontera, an unruffled, quintessentially Andalusian city where flamenco singers entertain on sun-struck streets and horses clip-clop past yellow-painted buildings, where every hour is sherry hour and every night is flamenco night. Barrels of sherry are artfully stacked up in the main square, Plaza del Arenal. Jerez is one corner of Cadiz’s ‘sherry triangle’, along with Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. Retired Spaniards congregate daily under orange trees, clutching churros (fried dough pastries) wrapped in sheets of newspaper; everyone else meets over plates of cheap tapas across the city’s many bars, known locally as tabancos. Founded by the Phoenicians, the city was captured by the Moors in the eighth century, who renamed it Sherish — later Hispanicised to Jerez.
In the UK, sherry is often commonly thought of as an excessively sweet drink that only sees the light of day during Christmas at grandma’s. Here, though, it’s dry and sharp, cutting through the grease of the ubiquitous jamon iberico (cured ham) like nothing else. Back at the bodega (home to around 21,000 casks), the dapper Antonio continues to regale me with stories of sherry. “Try this. This is what I call the wild Tio Pepe,” he chortles, handing me a glass of an eight-year-old unfiltered sherry known as Tio Pepe En Rama. It’s an acquired taste. A total of 16,000 bottles of this unclarified sherry were sent to the UK last year, each cask carefully selected by Antonio himself. Every drop sold out within 48 hours. The region is rich in a white, chalky soil called albariza, and is famed for its palomino grape production, making a type of sherry that can’t be produced anywhere else. Sherry-soaked and hungry, I make a beeline for Calle Consistorio for lunch.
At a table at the popular tapas bar La Cruz Blanca, my guide, Karen, teaches me the three loose rules of tapas and sherry matchmaking — if it swims, fino; if it flies, amontillado; and if it walks, oloroso. For dessert, a glass of Pedro Ximenez is sweet enough on its own — this is the widely available sherry that most visitors are familiar with, Karen tells me, adding that most newcomers start with this before educating their palate with the more piquant fino.
In the evening, I head for Tabanco El Pasaje, a 92-year-old traditional bar that moves to the rhythm of improvised flamenco. Down a narrow, shabby street, plastered with peeling show posters, I walk through a conspicuous tiled entrance and push open the creaky wooden double-doors to a room teeming with people. I shuffle through the crowd to the bar, where I spot staff pouring sherry into bottles straight from the barrel and then scribbling the bill onto the counter with chalk. Vintage flamenco and bullfighting posters adorn the walls of the tiny stage where Jerez-born flamenco singers Lola Flores and Fernando Terremoto performed in their youth; this is an old-world Spain that isn’t easy to find.
“Olé!” cries a waiter, carrying a chorizo platter high above his head. As part of the daily scheduled flamenco performances here, a guitarist and a black-clad gentleman get comfortable on a pair of chairs and, without any warning, the latter’s poignant voice silences the room with lamentations of heartbreak. The woman next to me shushes those who dare to speak during the performance, then leans into me. “Solo se está calentando,” she murmurs (‘it’s just warming up’).
The guitarist closely watches the singer for cues, and pluck-by-pluck builds up a rhythm (this part of the performance is called el toque). I make my way to one of the very few free tables just as two locals hop onto the stage, clapping their hands and shouting words of encouragement. One suddenly takes centre stage and launches into a fervent dance, raising dust from the wooden floor with each stomp, and the room flies into an uproar. I finish my third glass of sherry, and before I can even think about retiring for the night, a local family escorts me to another flamenco bar to do it all over again.
Jerez is a beautiful place that will please even the most passionate of hispanophiles. Which includes me.