In search of the perfect sherry
Sylvia McKeown recently tried road-tripping across the south of Spain in search of the ultimate fortified wine. Well, sort of
Finally we pulled into Jerez de la Frontera, the heart of Spanish sherry country. Literally, Jerez means sherry.
We had driven there from Seville, after a morning spent traversing the streets in the rain buying scarves, visiting a countess’s garden and spending some time under the Metropol Parasol, a giant mushroom-like wooden canopy that I had been obsessed with since it was erected in 2011.
But the whole reason I had rented a tiny Fiat 500 to begin with, was so that we could get to Jerez and go on a sherry road trip.
Sherry — for those who weren’t lucky enough to drink with their grandmothers — is a fortified wine; technically a concoction of fermented white grapes, sugar and yeast and a grape brandy called destilado. Your interactions with the liquor may have been limited to brushes with Sedgwick’s Old Brown at art exhibitions and opera events in Pretoria (I speak from experience here) but sherry actually has its roots firmly set in the Spanish countryside. In fact, if it’s not grown there, it can’t be called sherry — hence Sedgwick’s no longer carrying the "sherry" bit on its bottles.
Jerez’s winemaking prowess goes as far back as 1100 BCE and the Phoenicians. But it was the Moors, who ruled Andalusian Spain for hundreds of years from the eighth century, who used the area’s grapes in their distillation process. The sweet fortified wine’s history has played out like a paperback romance ever since; complete with prominent roles in city sacking, fires and insect plagues. It has been loved and claimed by more than its fair share of countries.
In Jerez we hit an obstacle to our sherry trip. All the bodegas are closed, but my mother is making big eyes at me. "Please can we go? It’s just down the road. I saw we passed the big yellow sign a little way back," she begs me.
My mother and I have taken yearly bonding trips since my father died 12 years ago and luckily we get on well enough that, in this instance, her lack of sympathy for my sherry cravings didn’t bother me too much.
Sherry’s history has played out like a paperback romance; complete with prominent roles in city sacking, fires and insect plagues
"We came all this way; we have to at least try to drink something?" I respond. "Sure, but after. Please!" Her whining gets louder. And so it was that we drove all the way across the Andalusian countryside in search of sherry, only to land up at Ikea.
The next morning we wake up in the city of Cádiz, situated at the very tip of an ancient natural port. It’s awash with majestic gardens filled with trees, rumoured to have been brought back by Columbus from "the New World". The greenery is dotted among architecture from the ancient Greeks, the Moors and the 18th century, when Cádiz hit a golden age as one of Spain’s greatest and most cosmopolitan cities — it even had a prominent Irish trading community.
It’s also regarded by many as the oldest continuously inhabited city in Western Europe, but to me it’ll always be the place where I had the best sandwich of my life. It was a mini baguette, called a Bocadillo, loaded with melted cheese sauce, Iberian bacon, roasted pork and fresh tomato. Enough said.
While sitting on the steps of Cádiz cathedral — a beautifully domed structure, erected in 1260, but that took 116 years to rebuild after it burnt down in 1596 — I plot our course armed with Google maps and a bunch of travel blogs. After her Ikea shopping workout, my mother purchased a box of tiny official Jerez Sherries to cheer me up.
"We’re driving around and now we have sherry, it totally still counts as a sherry road trip adventure," she says. And so we climb back into the petite car and begin our jolly bastardisation of my original intentions.
Setenil De Las Bodegas: De Príncipe Amontillado, age 15 years
Carved beneath the overhangs of the cliff face of a deep gully are the charming whitewashed houses and restaurants of Setenil. The city’s defining narrow river gorge is the home of the Rio Guadalporcún. Its cave-like wonder provides endless Instagram fodder as you snack on some local lemon sorbet or the city’s famous chorizo. It’s here I try an Amontillado variety of sherry that is first aged under a yeast-like growth called a "flor", before being exposed to oxygen, which gives it its medium-dark colour. This type of sherry is supposed to be naturally dry but it still has a lot going on. Its cacophony of flavours provide tartness, a sweetness and then a wild, dry smack to the back sides of the tongue to finish. It leaves me with the pursed-lipped face of someone who is unimpressed with their daughter-in-law’s choices.
Ronda: Real Tesoro Pedro Ximénz
The city of Ronda makes an entirely different use of its dramatically deep gorge, El Tajo. They built a spectacularly skinny bridge, called Puente Nuevo, between their old town and the 15th-century "new town". And yes, driving over it in our tiny car is an experience. The bridge towers 120m above the Guadalevín river canyon floor and is an excellent place to get both vertigo and inspiration. Past residents Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles, would, no doubt, have agreed.
The view is nothing sort of breathtaking, once you find your spot between the tour-bus hordes, that is.
I decided to pair it with a sherry made from fermented Pedro Ximénez grapes, better known to us under its other name, Muscatel. It offers a powerful and sickly sweet punch to the nostrils. Taste-wise, not even a citrus aftertaste can save it from offering more cloying sugariness than a five-year-old’s birthday party.
Málaga: Royal Cream
Welcome to the coastal city of Málaga, Andalusian tourist central and the hypothetical set of trashy British reality TV shows. The location of the biggest airport in the area means teeming throngs of bad tans and accents, but with picturesque beaches and wonderful weather, who can blame them? Two streets down from the main McDonald’s thoroughfare, you will find delightful tapas, old forts and bars where you can drink vermouth from the barrel.
But we’re not here for that. We’re up at the Alcazaba fort of Málaga, trying sweet cream sherry, first made in the 1860s. The blend of darker, older Oloroso and our aforementioned sweet friend, Pedro Ximénez, makes for a good combo. I finally find a sherry that’s smooth and balanced in its dry sweetness. It’s genuinely delightful.
Granada: Fino Tio Mateo
The south of Spain’s darling, Granada, offers the perfect mix of modern and ancient architecture. It is also home to the most reasonably priced and well-portioned tapas, and if you steer clear of the old city, you might even get a small plate or two free with every drink purchased. Granada is home to a Unesco bucket-list wonder, the Alhambra, built for the last Muslim emirs of Spain and with probably the most graceful Islamic architecture in the country. This mid-13th-century majestic palace and fortress complex is definitely worth booking four months in advance to see.
If you don’t snag an all-important ticket for the palace tour — or in our prebooked case, are kicked off said hallowed excursion by a dodgy operator — you can still traipse around the outer palace gardens and say hello to the nuns while trying a spot of Fino. This is the driest and palest of the traditional sherry varieties because it is aged exclusively under that flor yeast cap. Frankly, it’s underwhelming — the sort of thing someone puts in their coffee at a campfire.
Post Spain, I have new appreciation for that small bell-shaped glass of Old Brown that I know I’ll get at my next cultural excursion in the Jacaranda City. But if the experience did teach me anything, it’s to always, always go to Ikea.