What a Visit to Jerez Can Teach You About Sherry

"What the hell did I get myself into?" I wondered as I tugged my suitcase past alternating active and empty storefronts in Jerez de la Frontera. The first destination on my list? La Rosa de Oro, a bakery where I would re-group before my appointment at the famed Bodegas Lustau a few blocks away. Having just listened to a chatty Frenchman's travel tales on the train from Seville to Jerez, I desperately needed some caffeine. I sat alone, enjoying my coffee and pastry, pondering my question further, until some older gentlemen came by for their early afternoon chat. They filled the bakery with soft conversation and I started to feel more comfortable with my new surroundings. I centered myself on a different question, the one I always ask when traveling: "What will this place teach me?" More specifically, what might it teach me about its most prized product, sherry? As sources debate whether sherry is dying or not, I needed to see for myself in Jerez.

Sherry at Bodegas Lustau

Jerez is located in Andalusia, a region known for its fortified wine called sherry, horses, Moorish palaces, and unfortunately, staggering unemployment (22.85% in April 2019). Allegedly over 200,000 people live in Jerez but, wow, does it feel quiet on an early December afternoon. The remaining windows of the iconic, yet vacant, El Gallo Azul rotunda building reflect an undeniable number of weathered buildings and shuttered former bodegas hoping for a new purpose. Some, like my rented loft in a converted bodega, will get a second chance; others will crumble. (To be fair, El Gallo Azul appeared to be under construction—perhaps for a new tenant?)

While it isn't all bad news, I can't deny the faded facades. I won't paint a perfectly pristine picture for you because that's not the truth. So why am I telling you to travel there? You should visit if you've got an adventurous spirit and want to learn about one of the world's most unique wines in an imperfect setting that, like sherry sales, has seen better days. Visit to walk under the crystal Andalusian sky dotted with the tops of palm trees. Visit to meet kind people who are hugely proud of their wine and culture. (And candidly, visit because it's a very affordable wine destination.)

Most importantly, visit because Jerez can teach you about sherry.

View of Jerez's cathedral

There's more to sherry than you think

Don't you think it's time we put the stereotypes aside and acknowledge that there's a world of sherry beyond your nana's favorite cream sherry? I know: It's easier to make that joke than to learn the eight primary styles. But you're reading a wine blog and I believe in you.

While the state of sherry is questionable, the love of this fortified wine is alive and well in Jerez. I asked my taxi driver, Alvaro, if he liked sherry and was basically met with "duh!" In fact, he seemed perturbed as to why someone would want to drink any other type of wine. After visiting Bodegas Lustau and tasting some of the selection at Fundador, I tend to agree with him. When you have access to some of the best food-pairing wines on Earth, I probably wouldn't drink much else either!

Take for example the driest and freshest styles: fino and manzanilla. Lustau's Manzanilla en Rama tastes like it was created for seafood and fresh vegetables. It's incredibly dry, salty, and tart with notes of Granny Smith apple and chamomile. As for fino, I paired Harvey's with a fresh tomato and bell pepper salad and have to say, it was one of the most refreshing food pairings I've had in a while. The salad didn't even need salt; the fino provided seasoning.

Midway through the sherry spectrum you'll find my new favorite style: Amontillado. I'm having dreams of Lustau's Almacenista Amontillado de Sanlucar, a wine perfumed with both yeasty flor notes and oxidized aromas of hazelnuts and mandarin oranges. It's a nice bridge to their Almacenista Palo Cortado de Jerez, a style whose confusing origins only add to its allure. Lustau's is classic, bitter, and nutty: a perfect pairing for the country's famous jamon. Rounding out the dry styles, you need to try an oloroso to fully appreciate oxidized sherry. I had the pleasure of tasting Lustau's Rare Oloroso Emperatriz Eugenia, which is richly sprinkled with notes of dry fruits, roasted nuts, and dark chocolate shavings.

Hey, sweet wine haters, you might want to skip to the next section because this part might scare you. For those still here, this is where we get to talk about one of the greatest dessert wines: Pedro Ximenez. Judge me if you want but my favorite dessert pairing is PX and s'mores and I will die on that hill. Other sweet styles include sweet oloroso, including Lustau's Añada vintage series (the 2002 is incredible), moscatel, and yes of course your nana's cream sherry. If you're willing to give cream sherry another try, I enjoyed Lustau's classic East India Solera for its yummy maple notes.

Cathedral ceilings of Bodegas Lustau

Bodegas are magical ecosystems

I've visited chalky caves in Champagne and stood on hilltops overlooking Barolo but nothing could prepare me for the majesty that is a sherry bodega. Truly, a sherry bodega is among the greatest wine experiences in the world. From the outside, they look tidy with their whitewashed walls and vibrant orange trees against piercing blue sky. Then, stepping inside is like transporting to another world. Rows and rows (and rows) of black barrels are organized into a solera system designed to facilitate fractional blending.

But what I found most intriguing was above and below the barrels: sandy floors and cathedral ceilings. The floors are made of "albero," a sandy soil that retains humidity. At first glance, dirt floors might seem humble and not at all fascinating, right? But these are critical to the sherry process, just like the cathedral ceilings. Both play important roles in the well-oiled sherry bodega machine. The floors are periodically misted to help control humidity. The massive ceilings encourage optimal air flow. Both air and moisture are critical for the development and sustainability of flor, the special yeast that grows on biologically aged sherry. With only small windows for minimal light, a bodega is like a dark, mystical cavern scented by yeast and clay.

Tapas and sherry

Sherry is best with tapas

Most reasonable sherry lovers will concede that sherry is an acquired taste. But how to acquire it? Pair it with its soulmate: tapas! Sherry's yeasty minerality creates beautiful melodies when coupled with Andalusia's signature dishes.

One of my favorite meals of my entire trip across Spain was at La Taperia Fundador, a tapas restaurant attached to their adjoined winery. As luck had it, my aforementioned loft was directly across the street. After my fino and salad course, I matched their amontillado with crispy shrimp croquettes and berenjenas con miel, or fried eggplant drizzled with honey. The bright, nutty sherry worked across the range of flavors: marine, salty, fried, earthy, and sweet.

Sherry is at its best when you pair it with food. Traditional Spanish salmorejo is a cold tomato and bread soup that calls out for a glass of chilled sherry! They are like yin and yang. Other sherry and food pairings that you should try: marinated artichokes with fino, tortilla de patatas with manzanilla, ham croquettes with amontillado, aged manchego with palo cortado, chorizo with oloroso, and of course churros with PX. Oh, and don't miss salt-cured tuna in Andalusia, too! I would pair that with any of the dry styles.

My street in Jerez

Jerez is sherry

Jerez is analogous with sherry: a beautiful adventure if you'll take a chance on it. Perhaps neither are at the top of your list, but off the beaten path you'll find an enchanting wine and a charming city. I'll admit it was outside my comfort zone but now my comfort zone is a little wider. If that's not the point of traveling, I don't know what is. Take the train, perk up over a cup of coffee, and dive into some delicious wine.

Here are some of my favorite sherries that are available in the U.S.:
Interested in more wine travel? Here's my travel log.