With a hot climate and diverse geography, Andalucia offers a fertile environment for growing a variety of grapes. Within this region, the Jerez area is particularly amenable to growing grapes.
When it comes to wine in Spain, the north region of La Rioja often gets most of the attention from wine lovers around the world. However, grapes are grown in many parts of the country, including in the south in Andalucia.
Located in southwest Spain not far from the coastal city of Cadiz, Jerez is known throughout the world for its sherry, the most famous type of wine made in Andalucia. The wine is made in what is often called the Sherry Triangle, which consists of the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlúcarde Barrameda. This is what makes the wine from this region so special:
Grapes grow well in this region thanks to the albariza soil, which is white and chalky and develops a hard crust during the Andalucia’s scorching hot summers. The region also gets rain at just the right times of year, in the fall after the intense summer heat and again in the spring.
The grapes commonly grown in the region include Pedro Ximènez and Palomino. The latter is a white grape that is the bedrock of all Jerez wines. Dating back to the times of the Phoenicians, all of the Palomino’s must sugars are converted to alcohol (must is the freshly crushed grape conta many Jerez wines their characteristic dryness.
However, Jerez wineries also produce sweet wines called amoroso. In addition to Palomino, the sweet wines contain Pedro Ximènez, which gives them their sweetness and aromas of spices and chocolate. Winemakers expose these grapes to sun light until they become almost like raisins and develop sugar-concentrated nectar.
Within the Sherry Triangle, Jerez de la Frontera contains most of the wine cellars (bodegas), which are known as “wine cathedrals.” The buildings date back to the early 19th century, when sherry became widely known and exports increased.
Marvels of Spanish architecture, the wine cathedrals feature a double sloping roof, high ceilings, and multiple aisles divided by thin pillars and arches. Some are so big that they contain thousands of barrels of wine.
The high ceilings were vital to maintaining low temperatures, as the large volume of air doesn’t heat up as quickly as it does in buildings with low ceilings. Further, when the wine cathedrals do warm up, the hot air stays high above the barrels. The central arch in some bodegas is as high as 15 meters.
The wine cathedrals also feature small windows at the top that serve as a type of chimney. Some cathedrals have round windows to resemble those of Spain’s famous churches. Winemakers often cover the windows with esparto grass to keep light out and moisten the grass to cool off any air that enters the bodega.
The roofs usually have an A-frame design and curved Arab tiles reminiscent of Spain’s Moorish history. These features further insulate the cathedrals.
The wine cathedrals feature albero floors, which consist of sandy clay or gravel. During the summer, winemakers moisten these floors to add humidity and reduce the ambient heat. Some cathedrals without albero floors feature earthen floors or Arabic tiles, which effectively serve the same purpose.
Even the location of the bodegas was carefully planned and contributes to the quality of the wines to this day. The wine cathedrals are situated so that the poniente (west) wind from the Atlantic Ocean brings in cool humid air, while the dry air from the levante (east) winds is kept out. Even in the city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the bodegas are situated strategically in high locations where they benefit from sea breezes.
Within the wine cathedrals, winemaker splace various vintages in different places according to the most favorable conditions for aging. For example, winemakers place biologically-aged wines, such as Manzanilla and Fino, in casks close to the floor, while oxidative sherry wines are near the top of stacks in the solera system.
The solera system refers to a complex process for aging all types of sherry wines, whether dry or sweet. The system makes use of fractional blending, with the barrels stacked in tiers known as criaderas. During each saca, or extraction, vintners take wine from the oldest tier (also called the “solera”) and add wine from the first criadera, or previous tier, which is a little younger.
Winemakers then add wine from the second criadera to wine from the first. Next, wine from the second criadera receives wine from the most recent harvest, which is called sobretabla. This extraction process occurs several times per year, and the young wine slowly assumes characteristics of the old wine. The resulting sherry features consistent flavors, aromas, and quality.
Visiting the Region
With a rich history and wine making process dating back centuries, Jerez stands out. It is a wonderful place, not only to taste award-winning wines, but also to learn about the history of wine in the region.
Before visiting, be sure to research some of the well-known bodegas, such as Tio Pepe and Gonzalez Byass. Also, check out some of the smaller, boutique wineries to get a well-rounded, authentic Andalusian wine tasting experience.