Philip Rowles, of the Rowles Partnership Wine Education Consultancy, adviser to the WSET and expert and author on Sherry, has lived and worked in Jerez since his University days. We were very lucky indeed that he not only provided us with an insider’s itinerary, but made most of the practical arrangements for our visit. There were not one, but two Manuels who drove for us on alternate days, starting with the journey from the airport.
We had flown from Heathrow, leaving the house at 07.00 on 17 January to walk to Andover’s bus station where the Salisbury airport bus picked us up promptly at 07.20 and dropped us at 08.45 at HR terminal 5. Astonishingly quick (only one stop – we had waved in the direction of the Basingstoke branch of the tribe as the coach roared in and out of its bus station) Never has the journey to HR been this easy!
The prompt arrival in Madrid went some way to alleviating anxiety about the tight connection for Jerez, as the signage led us efficiently to the internal flights terminal where we met fellow MW student Anna Jarosz whose flight from Manchester had also neatly coincided. The hotel Sherry Park was ten minutes walk from the historic centre of Jerez, along surprisingly wide busy avenues.
It was timely to remember that Franco had held sway here until our early adulthood. The twentieth century architecture had a monumental feel about it reminiscent of napoleonic Paris – if less grand.
The next morning we met the Consejo President – Beltran Domecq – whose English was impeccable – his mother had been a member of one of the English Sherry families – as was his attire which included brogues, tweeds and a closely fitting waistcoat (but quite unlike that of Gareth Southgate). His slender pale white hands, piercing eyes and gracious manner confirmed him as a model of timeless elegance.
And his presentation was a model of clarity, full of useful, detailed information about a subject notoriously complex, and the wonderful array of sherries we tasted set us up for the rest of our visit. (If you want to learn all about the complexities of sherry, try Philip Rowles’ book: http://www.thesherrybook.co.uk)
From the Consejo Manuel I took us to Lustau, to meet Federico Sanchez-Pece, the export manager, who showed us their remarkable, Cathedral-like Bodega. These extraordinary high-roofed structures are Spain’s answer to traditional cellars. Open windows set high in the clerestories manage the prevailing winds – some hot, (from Africa) some cool, (from the Atlantic) in order to create a natural airconditioning, pulling out the hot air as it rises. The bare clayey, chalky soil at floor level is regularly sprinkled with water in very hot spells to maintain the humidity.
Stunning to look at; and no doubt a pleasant environment to work the complicated cycles of drawing off from the bottom row of barrels and topping up from those above, which is the Solera system.
After Federico had provided us with a fantastic tasting of Lustau’s sherries, we crossed the road and headed to a very small restaurant of his recommending to slake Anna’s appetite for octopus. (We soon learned that it was unslakeable – several plates later). Certainly the food was delicious; sea-based, and wonderfully varied.
We had decided to walk to our next appointment at Bodegas Tradicion, in order to see a little more, off the beaten track. Jerez is not prosperous, and there were too many derelict buildings to remind us that Sherry’s fortunes have still not recovered since the slide from fashionability in the 70s and the disastrous loss of quality which resulted from the nationalising of the industry in the early 80s.
Some have benefitted from the slimming down of the industry and contribute to restoring its reputation. Bodegas Tradicion, despite its name, is a relatively recent addition. Its founder chased down old soleras, and even older barrels to create wines of remarkable quality. It also houses their extraordinary gallery of spanish art – including works by Goya and decorated tiles by Picasso. This is said to be the most impressive private art collection in Spain.
We walked back to the main part of the town by a convoluted route, taking in the Cathedral and a large municipal park atop a multi-story car park. It is strange to realise that this part of Spain, under Moorish rule from the seventh century has only experienced Christianity since the twelfth century.
On Saturday morning Manuel II drove us to Barbadillo in Sanlúcar where we joined a larger English-speaking tour, after which we went on foot in search of a fine seafood restaurant, Mirador de Donana, recommended to us by Philip. It overlooks the estuary beach looking out to the nature reserve across the river.
The good Manuel II collected us and drove us back to Jerez, in time to tour the huge Gonzalez Byascomplex (the small train used to keep us tourists on track was surprisingly efficient) which has successfully risen to the challenge of maintaining both its wine-making business and attracting lucrative tourism.
This last evening was spent once again searching for tapas bars which didn’t morph into fully fledged restaurants serving substantial three course meals. We weren’t very good at this. Our Spanish is non-existent – and Anna had had her fill of octopus.
The Spanish part of the flight home was efficient; the transfer in Madrid much less alarming second time around. However, the London flight was delayed, and resulted in our needing to find some supper in HR’s terminal 5, while we awaited the late evening door-to-door bus. Carluccio’s came to our rescue!