If you are like me, sherry has been something that is used for cooking, but is not much good for anything else, like drinking. But here in the place where sherry was invented, it’s possible to get another perspective. It is not just the sweet stuff of Harvey’s Bristol Cream. There are also varieties—such as fino and manzanilla—that are bone dry and drinkable. One type—called oloroso—has a deep caramel color and a rich warm flavor and is still very much on the dry side.
The word sherry is an anglicisation of Xeres, the word used by the Moors when they created the fortified wine in this region more than 1000 years ago. The town where we are staying now is called Jerez, a spanishization of Xeres. Today, under Spanish law, all wine labelled as sherry must come from the Sherry Triangle, an area in the province of Cádiz between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. These three towns are shown on the map below, which was created in tiles and is displayed in the bodega of one of the main sherry-making companies (González Byass) where we did a tour and tasting. [Many towns in this region include “de la Frontera” in their names because they were once at the border between the Moorish—Muslim—controlled area and the Spanish—Christian—controlled area. But more on that later.]
But what is the terroir of sherry? The region is in the low-lying coastal plain of southwest Spain. To the south are the mountains of southern Spain that were created by the most recent collision between Africa and Europe. The low-lying area north of the collision zone is known in geology as a foreland basin. It is the Guadalquivir River valley where the great towns of Córdoba and Seville are located (more on that later in the trip). The three towns of the Sherry Triangle are located at the western end of this lowland, where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean. The soils are chalky—they contain microfossils made of calcium carbonate and are a type of limestone. These soils are notably infertile but can produce wines with distinctive character. The chalky white soils are the light green color in the map above and can be seen in the vineyard displayed in the photo below.
The process of sherry making contrasts with normal wine making in that any bottle produced is usually a mix of many years; brandy, a distillate of grapes, is usually mixed in to increase the alcohol content. So a sherry bodega, like the one shown below, will include barrels that date back to many decades before.
A sherry bodega in Jerez is like a wine cellar in California—everyone wants one. Our hostess at the Airbnb where we’re staying brings us tapas she has made in her kitchen. Yesterday she even brought us glasses of oloroso sherry produced in the bodegita (small sherry making facility) located in the bottom floor of their home. Carmen (shown below with me in the bodegita) and her husband restored their 19th century house and created their own bodegita. The smaller barrels next to the oloroso are sweeter versions of sherry.
The coastal lowlands include vast areas of tidal wetlands. These areas are now recognized as valuable parts of our ecosystems and the remaining undisturbed areas here are, as in other parts of the world, now protected as natural sanctuaries. We were able to get out into the wetland areas that are protected in the south of Portugal. From the kayak is visible the old town walls of Faro (Algarve Province).
The view south from our hotel shows the tidal marshes and channels with a sandy barrier island in the distance. Unfortunately, the reason the island is visible is because of all of the houses that have been built upon it. Not a good thing in earthquake country—like Lisbon, Faro was mostly destroyed as a result in the 1755 earthquake.
Another interesting town in the area of the Sherry Triangle is Cádiz—once the principal port town for trade with the Americas. It’s still a prosperous town, although tourism is now more important than shipping. This view across the town may provide a glimpse of the Arabic architectural influence that will be explored further in subsequent posts. (For location, see westernmost point on tile map above.)
Final Footnote—fun food. Because this coastal lowland region is so accessible to the sea, fish and seafood are ubiquitous options on restaurant menus. In Faro, we tried a regional dish called Cataplana de Polvo (octopus). Yes, we ate every bit of this dish, which was delicious. The octopus was not chewy at all, but was a soft, wonderful texture. The small clam-like bivalves are cockles (“singing cockles and mussels, alive alive oh”—a Irish folk song you may have heard)!