One of the places we wanted to visit on our roving retirement tour through Spain was Jerez, the home of Sherry wine. We visited Jerez on our last trip to Spain, but we happened to be there on a Sunday when everything was closed so we didn’t get a drop of Sherry. This time, we were able to stay for a few days and see the town and learn about Jerez and its namesake Sherry first hand.
On our way to Jerez, we stopped off for lunch in Gibraltar. We visited Gibraltar the last time we were in the area but we decided to visit again. Many things have changed, including the long line of cars trying to get in and out through border control. When I say a long line, I mean half an hour on the way in and about 20 minutes on the way out. The last time, we hiked up the rock to see monkeys and Old St. Michael’s Cave. On this trip, we had lunch and walked around the old town. As we tried to find a way through the big stone wall to get back to our car, we got a good view of the British batteries used to defend the rock. The wall is pretty solid I would say.
Hotel Tio Pepe in Jerez
Jerez de la Frontera is the place where Sherry wine is produced and was founded by the Moors around the 9th century. It is on a hill overlooking fertile fields growing vegetables and Palomino grapes. Located just a couple of minutes walk away from the main town plaza is Hotel Tio Pepe, a fine location from which to explore.
Tio Pepe, the company, has been a major sherry producer in Jerez since the 18th century. They decided not long ago to open a hotel on their property. It looked like a wonderfully fun way to spend a few days. The room was lovely with a beautiful garden and a close-up view of the cathedral. There was also a pool on the roof with a sun deck overlooking the cathedral. Besides our daily breakfast in the garden, we were treated to a sherry-paired dinner as part of our stay. From the garden, a grape-covered path led to the Tio Pepe complex. We were told that it is actually a road that was voted one of the 10 most beautiful roads in Spain. Overall, we were really happy with our hotel splurge.
We learned a lot from our first tour at the Tio Pepe winery, even though the tour was all in Spanish. Sherry is made by fermenting juice from the Palomino grape. The fermentation happens in barrels over a long period of time. The long, oxygen-free fermentation gives fino sherry its defining sharp taste. The barrel aging racks are always 3 levels high and instead of moving the barrels, siphons are used to remove some of the oldest sherry for sale. Then the liquid is replaced with younger sherry from the barrels above.
Amontillado sherry comes from a 2nd pressing of the Palomino grapes and has anaerobic fermentation, resulting in a darker-colored wine with less of a sharp taste. Fino’s that are blended with Pedro Ximenez grapes becomes sweeter. The result is a dessert wine called Oloroso that can have varying sweetness depending on the blend.
The barrels on the bottom are called Solera and they are the oldest. The 2nd and 3rd levels are called Criadera and are like “the son” and “the grandson”. Every year, the producer takes one-third of the sherry from each of the Solera casks to sell. The bottom barrel is replenished from the next level up. Then the middle level is replenished from above. Before bottling, the sherries are blended with distilled alcohol made from a 3rd pressing, which brings the alcohol content up to 15 and 17%. This is done to make the final product more temperature stable when shipped.
What We Learned at Sandeman
We chose to hit the Sandeman sherry tour, in English, before we headed out of town. As a result, we were able to get more information about the Sherry process. The whole fermentation process only works if the temperature is 20 C or below. To keep the temperature low, the barrel houses are built really high to let the heat rise and they paint the outside of the buildings white to be reflective. They also paint the casks black to keep the wine cooler. Finally, they bring in yellow dirt to put on the floor and water the dirt every day to help cool the barrels. These extreme measures are enough to keep the temperatures in the barrel houses low even when it is 40 C out, like it was during our visit.
We learned a lot about sherry from our two tours and sherry tastings. Frankly, the details would really only appeal to wine nerds like us. More practically, we found the Fino sherries to be a bit too sharp for us and the darkest sherries to be too sweet and syrupy. Our favorites were the semi-sweet amontillado and oloroso sherries. Of the two vendors, we found we preferred the Sandeman blends for these offerings.
Marketing and Branding are Big
During our tours, we saw many signed and dedicated barrels. Orson Welles signed a barrel and another was signed by Ayrton Senna, a famous Formula 1 driver. The Spanish Grand Prix was sponsored by Tio Pepe and the race took place in Jerez prior to moving to Barcelona in 1994. When Senna won the race, a barrel was dedicated to him and he was invited to sign it.
At Sandeman, marketing is king. The Sandeman tour focuses as much on the company story as it does on the sherry itself. Scotsman George Sandeman started the company in London in 1790. He was successful enough selling Sherry and Port to begin his own wineries for each starting in 1810. Even today, Sandeman sells Port and Sherry using the iconic Sandeman silhouette called “The Don”. The 1928 silhouette merges the rakish hat of the Jerez region with the cape of the Porto region of Portugal.
Jerez the Town
Beyond the barrels, there are a few other attractions in Jerez. In last week’s article, Famous Bull Ring in Ronda and Equestrian School in Jerez, I wrote about the Riding School and their Dancing Stallion performance. It is truly worth making time between winery tours to see that. The main square attracts many people at night and has an old, beautifully lit building as one of its highlights. Another highlight is some fine restaurants worth trying, we especially enjoyed Amar. I added a couple of pics for that below.
The Alcazar of Jerez
Another major draw is the 11th century Alcazar of Jerez de la Frontera. We have mentioned Alcazars in other articles we have written about southern Spain. Alcazars typically had palaces for the local king as well as sturdy walls to protect the townspeople in the event of an enemy invasion. As a result, they usually occupy a large tract of land and few have been preserved. The Alcazar in Jerez has recently discovered intact Moorish baths, as well as some of the original walls, towers, and a mosque. The fountains in the oldest portion of the Alcazar all about evoked a tranquil feeling. There is also a massive, complicated 18th-century olive oil press. Very interesting.
The site that includes the original mosque, gates, gardens, and baths also, at one time, had a Moorish palace that was not habitable by the 18th century. When the property changed hands around that time, the new owner decided to construct a Baroque-style palace inside the walls of the Alcazar.
Would you make time for Jerez on a visit to southern Spain? What appeals to you?