It was my first day of self-induced unemployment. Time to turn over a new leaf. After 21 years of “working for the man” in corporate America, I was finally free. Free to discover myself. Free to find my voice and harness my inner strength. On my terms. So I signed up for a SoulCycle class. I mean, the marketing had some serious allure: “With every pedal stroke, our minds clear and we connect with our true and best selves... so come in for a ride.... Take your journey. Change your body. Find your Soul.” Yes! Sounds amazing. I wanted to be just like the beautiful people in the ads and find my soul.
Totally out of shape but eager take my journey, I fumbled through class in the dark (figuratively and literally) and sweat like a 300-pound man wearing a polyester suit on the Fourth of July. After class I was elated I made it out alive, but I felt broken. Literally broken. My legs revolted against me every few steps, as if they were going on strike for the hell I just put them through. And for two weeks after class, I struggled to get out of a low chair or off the toilet - needing my husband to pull me up more than once. So, yeah, screw SoulCycle. I would take a different path to find my soul.
The Path to Sherry
In the last few years, something kept drawing me to Sherry. By nature, I am drawn to complexity and mystery. Exploration and discovery drive my dining and travel habits, so Sherry’s magnetic pull should not be a surprise. Perhaps at first it was a distraction from a stressful job and the work it entailed. I became enamored with Sherry as I explored the various styles at Spanish restaurants near and far - in cocktails and by the glass. Then by the bottle. Many bottles — mostly procured at The Spanish Table in Berkeley. Perplexed by and obsessed with Sherry’s unique qualities, I felt “called” to visit the bodegas of the Sherry Triangle in southwestern Spain where they have been making Sherry for over 3,000 years. So as I neared the end of my corporate job, I planned a trip to Jerez de la Frontera. Alone. Just me and my curiosity. I was on a mission to understand sherry but also myself. In a sense, to find my soul.
Jerez de la Frontera is a soulful and passionate place. It is beautifully decayed and yet preserved. It feels authentic. It has aged naturally and embraces the markers of time and circumstance. There are abandoned bodegas, facades of beautiful buildings with empty lots behind them and weeds growing from their tiled roofs next to beautifully preserved and restored structures, like the Cathedral of Jerez. There is so much beauty, strength, and passion spilling from every turn on a walk through the winding streets. The natural scenery within the city forms a fitting backdrop for its hometown star, Sherry. Like a VORS - a Very Old Rare Sherry, the town of Jerez de la Frontera proudly displays its age.
On my first night in town as I exited my Airbnb loft in a converted bodega near the Bodegas Fundador, I started on my short walk to the city center down winding, centuries old stone streets. The air was thick with humidity and carried the sound of music from somewhere nearby. Naturally I followed the sound. It led me to the Cathederal de Jerez. I stumbled onto a ceremony celebrating the grape harvest as part of the annual Las Fiestas de la Vendimia y Otoño. The music was so powerful bounced against the stone walls surrounding the plaza: a single guitar, a woman’s voice, and hands clapping out a seductive rhythm. Simply listen to Spanish Flamenco music to evoke the timelessness appeal of Jerez. It feels like Spanish Soul music. That music, along with many glasses of Sherry, helped me reconnect with myself and find my soul.
Sherry is often misunderstood or simply unknown to many. It is a fortified wine with both sweet and dry styles. Dry styles dominate sherry production, despite the belief of many Sherry doubters that it is just a sweet variety enjoyed by old ladies or an exotic cooking ingredient. If you want to know more about Sherry, watch this 11-minute video by GuildSomm that beautifully describes and illustrates the uniqueness of the Sherry producing region, the solera system and aging process, and the various styles of Sherry. In short Sherry is made from one or more of the three white grape varietals permitted (Palomino Fino for dry styles plus Pedro Ximénez and/or Moscatel for sweet styles) in Spain’s Sherry Triangle - an area bound by the only three cities where sherry can be aged: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria. Sherry is aged in oak barrels either biologically (under flor - a layer of yeast) with 15% alcohol content or oxidatively (exposed to oxygen within the barrel) with 17% alcohol content.
Sherry is incredibly diverse and pairs beautifully with food, with styles ranging from bone dry and crisp to lusciously sweet and full bodied, respectively, below:
Fino - a bone dry, pale white wine aged under flor for at least two years with notes of white almonds, citrus, and olives with a crisp mouth feel (15% abv). Fino pairs well with nuts, cured ham (like Iberico or Serrano), and most salty foods. I love it on a warm afternoon with Marcona almonds, Manzanilla olives, or a handful of good potato chips (my favorites are Torres Black Truffle Chips and Trader Joe’s Kettle Cooked Olive Oil Potato Chips).
Manzanilla - a Fino aged exclusively in the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda offering the additional complexity from briny sea air and chamomile notes. Pair it like a Fino and consider enjoying it with shellfish and seafood to honor its seaside origin.
Amontillado - a fully developed Fino that is then aged in contact with oxygen (either by the flor’s natural consumption or by a second fortification up to 17.5% alcohol to kill the flor). This gives the still light-bodied Amontillado tertiary notes of hazelnut, toffee, and coffee with a beautiful color (but not flavor) of caramelized spun sugar.
Palo Cortado - a dry wine with the nose of Amontillado and the body and flavor of Olorosso.
Oloroso - a dry wine never exposed to flor during its lifetime, so it begins oxidizing from the initial introduction into the solera system, developing deep tertiary flavors of walnut, coffee, toffee, and pairing beautifully with rich red meat, stews and game.
Cream Sherry - A sweet dessert wine made by blending together dry Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, or Oloroso Sherry with the delectably sweet Pedro Ximénez.
Pedro Ximénez (“PX”) - a sweet dessert wine with a full body, dark color, and potentially syrupy consistency made from Pedro Ximénez grapes harvested with a high sugar level and then dried in the sun for two or more weeks to raisen and deepen the sugars and flavors. Pedro Ximénez exudes aromas of fig, prune, coffee, chocolate and/or baking spices and begs to be poured over vanilla ice cream or sipped between bites of cheesecake or a rich blue cheese.
Visiting Sherry Bodegas
During my visit to the Sherry Triangle, I toured four bodegas - each one with their own unique appeal. if you are able to visit Jerez and only can visit one, I highly recommend Bodegas Tradicion for sherry lovers or Lustau for the sherry curious and sherry lovers alike. Book ahead to ensure a spot during your visit, especially since English tours are not offered every day at all bodegas.
For Sherry Lovers: Bodegas Tradicion was one of the highlights of my trip. Not only is the tour incredibly intimate (with only five people on my tour) and the wines spectacular, particularly the VOS and VORS wines, but the bodega also houses a wonderful Spanish art collection visitors can browse after the tour and tasting.
For the Sherry Curious: Lustau provides The Full Tasting option (25 Euros) with a wonderful tour of the cellars by a knowledgeable guide followed by a tasting with each one of the available sherry and vermouth offerings. We tried nine sherries and two vermouths. Lustau pours similar styles together so guests can fully appreciate the nuances of each wine, such as the side by side tasting of the finos from each of the cities within the Sherry Triangle.
For the Sherry Tourist: Gonzalez Byass - makers of the Tio Pepe brand - is a touristy place, complete with a motorized train ride. It offers multiple tours in different languages at the same time slot, so guests wait in a large waiting area for their tour to be called. After a movie giving the winery history, guests are hurried through the cellars and for various photo ops before ending in a large, modern, neon lit tasting room to taste the wines. As with most tourist destinations, there’s a gift shop at the end of the tour. I took the tour and tasting of four sherries (21.50 Euros).
For Seaside Sherry: Bodegas Barbadillo is located in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a 20 minute, 36 Euro taxi ride from Jerez de la Frontera, Barbadillo offers tours for 10 Euros, which includes admission to their Museo de la Manzanilla and a tasting of four wines. I purchased two 375 ml bottles of the “Pastora” Manzanilla Pasada en Rama (10 euros each), an unfiltered wine, aged an average of seven years with more depth - one of my favorite Manzanillas to date.
Eating Well in Jerez
La Carboná provides a modern, convivial environment for a memorable meal in Jerez. Looking like a cross between Judd Nelson (in the Breakfast Club years) and a hipster rock star, Chef Javier Muñoz Soto pairs Sherry with each course on his delicious tasting menus. Although ordering à la carte is possible, the best way to experience sherry is paired with food. I opted for the Solera menu paired with Very Old Rare Sherry (VORS) selections (70 Euros). My favorite course was the Squab Roasted in Oloroso with Pedro Ximénez Paté and Apple paired with the Bodegas Tradicion VORS Sherry - aged an average of more than 30 years. I also loved the Skirt Steak with Black Truffle Potatoes paired with a Lustau Palo Cortado VORS.
El Almacén, Vinos y Tapas, is a wonderful restaurant with friendly service and indoor or outdoor seating. I love the interior with beautifully tiled floors and rich wood tables and shelving - creating a warm environment to relax and enjoy a meal. The fried eggplant with honey was sinfully good, along with the charred octopus. The waiters hummed as they walked by and made excellent suggestions for wine pairings with each course. I strayed from my typical sherry pairings to try a Chardonnay from Cadiz on the waiter’s suggestion.
Tabanco Plateros is a lively tavern with an abundant selection of sherry and tapas. It sits on the northern edge of Plaza de Ia Yerba and fills up with locals inside and outside. I sat at the bar, marveling at the multitude of Sherry bottles and casks before my eyes. I started off with the house Fino, an order of Iberico ham, and bright red peppers stuffed with cheese, drizzled with Pedro Ximénez and served with potato chips. I also enjoyed a glass of the Oloroso VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry) from Urium - it was rebellious and righteous; aged for an average of more than 30 years, it was dark, richly flavored of walnut, wood, and tobacco. This is the kind of place you want to revisit again and again - like many locals do.
Tabanco El Pasaje features Flamenco performances each Saturday evening and an abundant selection of sherry and tapas. I watched an incredible Flamenco performance with a fellow solo traveler, Nicole from Germany. The space is L-shaped and intimate, with a strategically placed overhead mirror so everyone can see the performance from the small stage in the back. For the total price of 17 Euros, I enjoyed an El Maestro Sierra Fino, a Fina Manzanilla, an Amontillado from Manzanilla, a Gonzales Byass Oloroso (Alfonso), and a Cayetano del Pino Palo Cortado along with fresh Manchego cheese and membrillo (quince paste), chorizo, and a sirloin tuna fillet. This was a peak experience not to be missed. After having so many glasses of Sherry at Tabancos El Pasaje and Plateros, on my walk back home, I stumbled into La Rosa de Oro Heladeria Bomboneria for a Brandy and Chocolate ice cream cone.
Bar Juanito is a popular, old-school restaurant tucked away on a quiet alley. I popped in at the end of the night for a glass of Oloroso and a plate of cheese at the bar. I’d love to return to sit outside and enjoy a leisurely dinner on a warm evening lit by the canopy of lights strung overhead.
La Moderna is the perfect spot to grab lunch after the Lustau tour and to people-watch. I loved their Montadito (a small sandwich) with pork loin roasted in Oloroso paired with an Oloroso, naturally, and the creamy Croquetas de Jamón were also excellent.