Caesar's Gate XVII, Jess, 1972
The story of Sherry is an epic poem. A centuries old tale of adventure, twists and turns, technological innovations, empires rising and falling, pirates, plague, and most importantly taste. What makes studying Sherry so special is that it is also the study of a very specific place- Cadiz, the southwestern province of Spain. Within Cadiz is the capital of sherry making, Jerez de la Frontera. More commonly called Jerez, this is one of the larger municipalities within Cadiz which also is the home to cattle ranches and the Grand Prix motorcycle race. Sherry can only be Sherry if it comes from Cadiz. Because of this, Sherry has become a witness to the land and everything that happens there. Like its method of production, the Solera system, each layer of history is present in the next. There are also many different styles of Sherry from dry and salty to thick and sweet and everything in between. There are Sherries made from the same grape but in different regions/ bodegas giving its own distinction. And the food! I cannot emphasize enough the mountains of things to talk about in regards to sherry. Therefore, Sherry cannot fit into one tasting, one booklet, one conversation. It must be on going, and so this will just be Part 1. In this first installment, we will get to know Sherry in three very distinct styles (Fino, Amontillado, and Oloroso) to establish its range. To accompany these three very unequivocal bottles will be some food pairings with classic Andaluzian dishes and the early history of Sherry’s homeland Cadiz up to the 18th century. Taking in this vista will then allow us to magnify some details of sherry in future tastings with the time, patience, and reverence it deserves. I promise you, if Sherry is not already a staple in your home bar, Part 1 will give it a permanent position.
- 1104 BCE: THE PHOENICIANS
- The Canaanite tribe settled in Gadir (modern Cadiz) bringing wine making traditions and grapes from the Middle East. Gadir was founded as a trading post. Once established, Canaanites moved north and inland to also create the historic city of Xera which is now Jerez.
- 9th CENTURY BCE: THE GREEKS
- Greeks arrived to Gadir bringing with them a new tradition of making “arrope” a dark sweet syrup made from unfermented grape juice. Arrope is used to sweeten wine.
- 206 CE: THE ROMANS
- Romans conquered this area after 300 + years of Carthage rule. Wine is already a major part of Roman culture, but wine made from the city of Ceret (formerly Xera, will be Jerez) begins to spread throughout the Empire.
- 476 CE: THE MOORS
- After the Romans came the Moors from North Africa who occupied the entire Iberian Peninsula until their expulsion during the Reconquista in 1262. This period is especially interesting because the Moors brought with them Islamic rule which forbade alcohol consumption. However, wine making was permitted to continue solely for the purposes of commerce with non Muslim lands. The Moors introduced a distillation process called “alembic” which made an early form of grape liqueur that will eventually be added to sherry to make brandy. Also under the Moors, the Roman town of Ceret is renamed to Sherish.
- 1400s CE: THE AGE OF EXPLORATION
- During this early modern period spanning the 15th- 17th centuries when European nations ventured to the far corners of the globe by sea travel, Cadiz became a popular port for departure to the “New World” and “East Indies”. Stocking up on wine for these trips with sometimes unknown destinations was essential. This makes it very likely that Sherry was the first wine brought to the Americas! On Magellan’s voyages, the money spent on wine was slightly higher than what was spent on arms.
- At the same time, there were other factors impacting the global wine market. The rise of the Ottoman Empire cut off Europe from the sweet wines made in Cyprus, Greece, Romania, and Hungary. The Hundred Years War between France and England lost England’s access to Bordeaux. Spain saw this as an opportunity and eliminated the export tax on wine, spreading Sherry like wildfire and creating a strong desire for it in England. By the 1580s relations between Spain and England had soured and King Phillip II of Spain was building his infamous Armada to attack England. Before he could finish, Sir Francis Drake (who had already circumnavigated the globe in a single expedition) burned most of the fleet and stole a significant amount of Sherry in the process, creating an even greater thirst for Sherry in England.
- 1700s and BEYOND CE: MODERN DAY
- Sherry became one of the most sought after wines and it had not even evolved into its final form- fortification. By the 18th century, Grapes were still being experimented with, flor was being discovered, and the white chalky albariza soil was just realized to produce the freshest wine. During the 19th century, Sherry competed only with Rioja for most popular wine made in Spain. The Phylloxera plague decimated all of Europe’s grapevines at the turn of the 20th century, and Sherry’s global status never really recovered. Once a renowned beverage for its distinctive delicacy, Sherry has become more of a niche item. In 1933 Spain established the Cadiz region as the first denominción of Spanish wine. It is now recognized by the EU as the only region that can produce Sherry. The US produces California Sherry and American Sherry which needs to be distinguished on the label and cannot be exported to the EU. Australian and Canada have also started to make their own Sherry but have changed the name to Apera out of respect for the true region of origin, Jerez.
THE SOLERA SYSTEM
Thirty Six Ticket Stubs, Walker Evans, 1975
Collage, Judit Reigl, 1954
Years and When, Steven Sorman, 1985
LUSTAU, OLOROSO "Pata de Gallina"
L'Energie Moderne, Georges Hugnet, 1936
Blueprint for a Temple, Francesca Woodman, 1980
HOUSE OF LUSTAU
The start of this world-renowned bodega dates back to 1896 with the humble beginnings of functioning as an “almacenista” or stock keeper. This means that vines were cultivated and harvested to be sent on to larger sherry producers in Jerez. After almost 50 years of solid vine production, the owners of the vines, the Ruiz- Berdejo family, decided to move their operation more toward the center of Jerez and also acquired a winery. This allowed the family to eventually strike out on their own and start participating in the noble crowd of Sherry makers under the stewardship of Emilio Lustao Ortega, who had married into the Ruiz- Berdejo family in the 1940s. Lustau grew over the next 80 years into one of the most prominent Sherry houses in the world. They represent all that is outstanding about this area of the country: the albariza white limestone soil and the generous sunshine balanced by heavy rainfall. They are the only winery that produces in each of the three main Sherry growing cities of Cadiz, Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.