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Sherry tends to get a bad name: often regarded as little more than that dusty bottle of sweet wine residing in the back of a drinks cabinet, only seeing the light of day to offer a favoured spinster aunt a drink at Christmas. But there is so much more to these styles of wines, which is slowly being rediscovered, not least their wonderful ability to pair with food.
However, even for sherry lovers, the city that sired this famous drink is often overlooked. Situated on the western tip of the provice of Cadiz, Jerez has played an important role in the political and social development of Andalucia for centuries.
Inhabited since the Neolithic, the area we now know as Jerez was an important city for successive empires. From the Romans to the Almohads, the city was fortified and lavished for centuries, until the reconquest by Catholic Spain in the thirteenth century. With the expulsion of the Islamic caliphate, Jerez prospered as a trading city, particularly after the founding of the New World.
Throughout this turbulent history Jerezanos continued to make wines. Introduced by the Phoenicians as early as 1100 BC, viticulture continued through Muslim rule. The stability of Jerez’s fortified wines meant they could survive the long voyages of Columbus and Magellan. The wines became hugely popular in Britain and were exported across the sprawling British Empire, leading many entrepreneurial Englishmen to the south of Spain to found wineries that retain their name to this day.
In 1894 phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Jerez. Many small producers were wiped out and vineyards were abandoned across the sherry triangle, leaving only the best producers. Recovery was slow and the wines fell out of favour for much of the twentieth century. Currently sherry is seeing a small revival in fortunes, but these unique wines are still some of the best value, food-friendly wines in the world. Perhaps that old spinster aunt was on to something after all!
When to Visit
Jerez Vendimia poster (1949)
Although there are no bad times to visit this wonderful, historic city, the busy and scorching hot summer is probably not ideal for Irish skin tones! Instead try to coincide your trip with one of the many festivals either side of the summer months to really appreciate the Andalucian fiesta atmosphere.
The biggest of these are the Vendimia in September, to celebrate the grape harvest, the Feria del Caballo in early May and Holy Week, which is designated a Spanish Fiesta of National Interest. If you are interested in MotoGP, Jerez has hosted a round of the World Championship since 1987.
Find a full list of festivals here.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of accommodation options to suit any budget around the city, but one little gem is La Fonda Barranco. Located just outside the centre of the city, this little guest house is a converted merchant’s house, built around a central atrium. Breakfast is served on the rooftop with an unrivalled view of the cathedral and is substantial enough to set you up for a day of sherry tasting. Tip: request a room with natural light as the interior rooms are very dark.
A little more central, located on the Plaza Rafael Rivero, is the beautiful Palacio Garvey Hotel, set in an old renovated townhouse.
Bodegas to Visit
Gonzalez Byass, Bodegas Tio Pepe: This is the best known and largest bodega in Jerez and no trip would be complete without a visit. Situated beside the cathedral, tours begin with a train ride around the grounds and run all day.
Bodega Fundador Pedro Domecq: One of the oldest sherry houses in Jerez, Fundador Domecq is a combination of three different brands, including Harvey’s. This is a wonderful, intimate tour through their cavernous ageing rooms. I recommend you pay the extra to taste the stunning VORS Palo Cortado and Olorosso.
Most bodegas offer guided tours and all are well worth visiting. Pick a few and work them in to a leisurely stroll around this wonderful city. Turismo Jerez provides a full list of bodegas and contact details.
Fino under its layer of flor, Bodegas Lustau, Jerez
Solera aging in Beodegas Lustau, Jerez
This Tintilla in Bodegas Luis Perez was aged in amphora under the sea
Amontillado, Fino and Olorosso aging in Fundador Domecq, Jerez
What to Do
Alongside the wonderful bodegas that dot Jerez, the city offers a wealth of history and architecture that can rival any in Andalucia. To trace the depth of Jerez history, don’t miss the newly renovated Museo Arquelogico on Plaza Mercado.
The Alcazar, situated behind the Cathedral, is the cultural and festival heart of the city. This twelfth century building is one of the few remaining examples of Almohade architecture in Spain. Spend a lazy afternoon wandering amongst the ancient orchards within the fortified walls before taking in the spectacular views from the Obscura.
If the Alcazar represents the cultural heritage of Jerez, the Cathedral is the religious heart. The flying buttresses and cavernous dome of this baroque building dominate the skyline of the city, whilst inside is a fascinating museum well worth the modest entrance fee.
Less well-known, but no less impressive, is the Church of San Miguel on Plaza San Miguel outside the original city walls. Lavished with art and statuary by local merchants, this fifteenth century church boasts a magnificent altar that took over 50 years to complete. Well worth the €2 entrance fee. Note that opening times can be irregular, so early morning is the best time to visit.
San Miguel Church
Altar San Miguel Church
To get out of the city, take one of the many tours or local buses to the other towns that make up the Sherry Triangle- El Puerto de Santa Maria or Salucar de Barrameda.
If you have a car, take the time to drive up to Bodegas Luis Perez outside the city. Making dry wines in the heat of Andalucia, this stunning bodega has unrivalled views of the valleys below. Don’t miss their Tintilla aged in amphorae under the sea!
Where to Eat
Jerez has no end of good eateries to fill the belly after a long day of sherry tasting. From tapas to fine dining, there are plenty of options to suit any budget.
Not to be missed is Albores; situated on a wide cobbled street just off the main square. It offers an extensive wine list (dozens of sherry by the glass) and a modern take on tapas dining. Arrive early or book a table in advance, as it is very popular with locals and tourists alike.
Also worth noting is Reino De Leon Gastrobar, located on Calle Latorre behind the Ayuntamiento building. It offers a good wine list and well-crafted menu at very reasonable prices.
Wash down your dinner with a glass of fino in nearby Tabanco El Pasaje. This renowned little tabanco doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the crowd will spill on to the streets to hear a favoured flamenco artist, while your bar tab is marked in chalk on the counter!
Note that the Jerezanos traditional take on flamenco rarely includes dancing. To get a full flamenco show with dancers, catch one of the impressive shows at Tablao Flamenco Puro Arte. Also drop in to the small El Tabanco Mariñiguez for great value, delicious sherries. Check their Facebook page for upcoming events.
How to Get There
Ryanair have discontinued their Dublin to Jerez route, however both Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly regularly to Málaga from Dublin and Cork airports year round and add Shannon to their summer schedule. Ryanair also fly an irregular route from Dublin to Seville.
From Málaga the easiest option is to rent a car and take the excellent Autopista del Mediterráneo straight to Jerez in about 2.5 hrs.
For very competitive rates, book with Malaga Car.
However, unlike many wine regions, a car is not necessary in Jerez, as most of the bodegas are concentrated within walking distance of the city centre. The buses and trains that connect Málaga to Jerez are neither convenient nor direct. The best option is the train that leaves from Málaga’s Maria Zambrano station, which is linked to the airport by the local rail service. Note that the only train to Jerez is via Sevilla, so takes about 4 hrs. Renfe run the regional trains in Spain.
Tourist Information: http://www.turismojerez.com, http://www.cadizturismo.com
Consejo Regulador: http://www.sherry.org
Ayuntamiento de Jerez: http://www.jerez.es