Monday, January 23, 2012

An afternoon in Jerez de la Frontera: thanks for the sherry!

Oenophiles know that the best sherry in the world is made in and around the southern Spain hamlet of Jerez de la Frontera. So, being budding sherry lovers, my girlfriend Therese and I made it a point to set aside a day during our visit to Spain back in March of 2011 to visit Jerez and tour a sherry "bodega" or winery.

The train ride southward from Cordoba on Renfe's Alta Velocidad line was extraordinary. It is often so smooth you can hardly tell that you are moving. The view of the countryside flying by with hills and plains and large puffy clouds punctuated by the occasional cows and horses medieval farm ruins is delightful.

So I had a general sense of how to get to the Gonzalez-Byass bodega, where world-famous Tio Pepe sherry is made. But I wanted to be sure, so I thought our first stop should be at the town's tourist office. The trouble was, the office had moved, and different people pointed us in different directions to get there. We wasted an hour or more finding it, and then when we arrived at the tourist office, we discovered the way to the sherry bodega was back the way we had come. Plus, the tourist office didn't even have a bathroom! I was in a bad mood.

But after I used a public bathroom in Jerez's indoor shopping mall nearby, and we finally were heading in the right direction (the tourist office did provide us with a definitive map, which was nice), my mood started to brighten. And when we stood just a short 20 minutes later in front of the concession stand at the Gonzalez-Byass bodega, deciding which ticket to buy for our bodega tour, I was getting excited about the trip again.

We opted for the tour plus sherry tasting plus tapas. Not long after, our guide showed up, and we headed with our group toward the train that would ferry us around the grounds of the bodega (it is a massive complex of buildings!).

Well, to be brief, the sherry tour was a revelation. From the antique stills in which the brandy is cooked to the rows of massive oak barrels in which the sherry is aged, my jaw was on my knees. Our guide was so sweet and good-natured, no question, no matter how wrongheaded or perverse, was beyond her capabilities to answer.

As the tour ended, we were led to a huge tasting shed with a cathedral ceiling in which a number of large circus-like tents lay in rows next to each other. We were led to one of these tents, in which were set up two rows of small round tables with chairs. Sherry glasses were brought and bottles were uncorked. Therese and I each had 6 glasses with a couple of ounces of sherry poured into them, from the intensely dry Tio Pepe to the dark sweet raisiny oloroso. These were not tastes, like a sip of each: this was enough to have a serious drink of each variety. Wow!

Our tapas came, olives and and other things with bread. We decided to make an actual lunch of it, so we ordered a few more tapas. As we sat there drinking and eating, we felt quite happy. Vivaldi played over the loud speaker. I was compelled to get up and conduct the music. I am sure my efforts improved the playing of the first violins, but I'm afraid the cellos were a bit sluggish. No doubt the cellists had been tasting oloroso sherry all afternoon just like us!

Of course before we left we had to visit the bodega shop, and against our better judgment, we bought a trio of 3 small bottles of rare "muy viejo" (very old) sherries to bring back with us (yes, they did make it all the way back to New York - in fact, one of them is still resting in our refrigerator). Then after stopping for a visit at Jerez's Alcazar (medieval fortress), where the highlight for me was taking photos from the ramparts of a wind farm several miles away, we turned ourselves in the direction of the train station.

We loaded up with a rasher of jamon iberico freshly sliced at a local restaurant, arriving at the station just a few minutes before the train was to leave (phew!). Once again, the train ride was wonderful. But this time it was improved by our remaining sherry buzz, and later our snack of iberian ham and crackers washed down with pineapple and peach juice.

Jerez was definitely interesting, but mostly the sherry made it worthwhile. But then of course, sherry always makes things worthwhile. Let's be honest!

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