Although I’ve long been a fan of fino and manzanilla, and dabbled a bit in olorosos and amontillados, some of you may remember that just over a year ago I kind of underwent a sherry conversion, which ended up being the inspiration for starting my own Introduction to Sherry tours. I wanted to give others the chance to experience sherry the way I felt it should be enjoyed – poco á poco, together with food and friends. But although my knowledge of sherry was enough for a “beginners” tour, I was keen to learn more. So when I found out that I wasn’t able to get into this September’s Sherry Educator course (though I’ve been promised a place for next year by the Regulatory Council) I was feeling all disappointed. And so of course the obvious thing to do was go to Jerez and start educating myself!
The whole three day adventure came together in just a few hours. Hotel was booked, train tickets reserved, and four fabulous bodega visits were set up. My friend Peter Tatford @SVQconcierge came along with me as he was also interested in finding out more about Jerez (both the city and the wine).
Other than the regular tourist visit we did at González Byass when we first arrived the rest were all private tours, and I felt both honoured and privileged that the people at these very special wineries made me feel so welcome. It was not only super educational, it also felt like entering a whole other world, and as much as I learned (which was a lot!) the main thing I learned was that I still have a lot more to learn. I asked each person to take me through the sherry making process from the beginning, in their own way, and left myself in their capable hands. Each bodega was unique and everyone I spoke to was incredibly passionate about their work. In fact, it wasn’t like a job for any of them, it was a way of life. Here are the bodegas I went to in the order we visited them (click on the images to see bigger versions)…
Bodegas González Byass
I almost can’t believe that it took so long to visit Bodegas González Byass because I’ve known Antonio Flores (master wine blender) and José Argudo (brand manager) for ages, and have been to many of their tastings and events both in Sevilla and Jerez. They have always told me I was welcome to visit the bodega anytime, and that time finally came. It was the first tour we did, almost as soon as we arrived in Jerez. And it was quite a show. You are immediately impressed by the size and importance of the place. But it’s not just show as the wines are excellent and – I can’t help it – I adore the iconic Tío Pepe logo.
The bodega was founded in 1835 by Manuel María González and its most famous brand, Tio Pepe, was named after his uncle José. It’s the biggest of the Jerez bodegas, and also has the most open spaces around the buildings, almost like a small town, and we hopped on and off a small train to visit the various points of interest. Although the bodega buildings are generally traditional, the oldest, Real Bodega La Concha is a round structure designed by Eiffel (he of the tower). Also worth seeing are the old brandy stills, and the casks signed by celebrity visitors.
Daily tours are given in Spanish, English, French and German. On our tour we got to taste Tío Pepe (bone dry fino) and Croft Original (sweet cream blend). There are other options if you want to either taste more wines and/or have them with tapas. I think it’s a very interesting tour and the short film you get to watch part-way through helps to give you a feel of the family history and the long tradition of this world-renowned bodega.
Bodegas Tío Pepe
Calle de Manuel María González, 12
Tel 956 35 70 00
The power of social media. I had mentioned on Lustau’s Instagram that I was interested in visiting their bodega and they suggested I leave my phone number on a private Twitter message (DM). Which was then seen by Lustau’s brand manager Federico Sánchez-Pece, who remembered meeting me at a sherry event in Sevilla … and that’s how he ended up calling me to invite me on this very special tour!
The company was founded in 1896, and acquired by Luis Caballero in 1990. Sherry production was only transferred to the bodega we visited in 2000, and extensive renovation was carried out, including the restoration of the “albero” floors that maintain the humidity inside the buildings. Also interesting to learn that the names La Ina (the Fino sherry) and Botaina (the Amontillado derived from it) have different origins, and that the casks in which lower quality wines are aged before being distilled into the spirit used to fortify the sherry are the ones sent to Scotland for aging whisky.
Federico was a brilliant teacher. He spent the most time with us, taking us not only through the stages of sherry production, but also through the history of the Lustau family and their business, including insights into the construction of the buildings and explanations about how each bodega has its own special micro-climate. We were fascinated and the time flew by… then suddenly we were in the tasting room and WOW! Federico pretty much poured us a bit of everything to try. We tasted as much as we could manage at that hour of the morning, and enjoyed the aromas of the others. It was definitely a visit to remember.
Lustau offers visits daily in various languages, so just get in touch via their website to set up your own. You’ll love it!
Calle Arcos, 53
Tel 956 34 15 97
We were met at the door of Bodegas Tradición (you have to knock!) by Ulrike Eisenbeutl, who we later found out had been drawn to Jerez from her native Austria many years earlier by her love of sherry wines. Her knowledge and enthusiasm was apparent from the start and I really enjoyed her easy-going nature, letting conversation drift from wine and gastronomy to travel and art.
Tradición produces “only” four VORS wines, and one brandy, and they will occasionally bottle some limited edition finos and other special orders. We tried their entire selection: splendid 30-year-old amontillado, oloroso and palo cortado, followed by a 20-year-old Pedro Ximénez. And that brandy! All exceptional.
The other exceptional aspect to our visit was the private art collection of bodega owner Joaquín Rivero, including works by Zurbarán, Velázquez, Valdés Leal, Goya, Murillo, Sorolla and some plates and tiles painted by an 8-year-old Picasso. At the bodega the works on display change from time to time, and Ulrike is just as knowledgeable about art as she is about wine.
Tours are given in Spanish, English, German, French and Italian, and must be booked in advance. A unique experience, definitely not to be missed.
Calle de los Cordobeses, 3
Tel 956 16 86 28
Urium is a small family bodega run by father-daughter team Alonso and Rocio Ruíz. It produces a full range of classic sherries and two limited productions: fino en rama and manzanilla pasada, and their VORS collection of 30+ year old wines. After briefly meeting Rocio at Vinoble a few months ago, and tasting their 30-year-old oloroso, I was left wanting to know more.
When I got back in touch with Rocio about visiting the bodega she told me they don’t actually do scheduled tours but said her father would be there on Thursday afternoon and would be happy to show me around (unfortunately Rocio wasn’t able to make it). I didn’t know what to expect but certainly hadn’t anticipated Alonso Ruiz’s amazing “vertical tasting” (his term) of all their olorosos through the years, culminating with the VORS 30+ I’d fallen in love with in Jerez, but starting first with two en rama finos. Some friends of Alonso’s were also there and when I asked my (by now) usual question about what differentiates a palo cortado from an amontillado… well, let’s say it provoked some serious discussion. To be honest, I got a different answer to this question at each bodega I visited, and I most enjoyed Alonso’s very passionate version, but it would take far too long to recount here (wish I’d taken a video of it!).
This was definitely more of a tasting experience than a tour, filled with bodega and family histories, personal anecdotes and even poetry. Like visiting an old friend at home.
Tel 956 33 55 97
In case you’re wondering, I cannot say which was my favourite. Simply because I loved all of them for very different reasons. Each visit had its own special charm and, as I said, I learned something new from all of them. All are highly recommended.