Stepping into the Bodega
When you step into a bodega in the provincial town of Jerez de la Frontera, you feel Spain. These high ceilings, thick walls and rows of black casks on floors of yellow sand – the same they use in bull fighting rings – give off a yeasty aroma and hushed coolness. In the summer heat, the floors can be irrigated, keeping the ideal temperature and humidity for the successful maturing of the sherry wines. It’s easy to understand why these fine buildings with their beautiful courtyards are often reverentially referred to as cathedrals.
This particular bodega is called Diez Mérito and is famous. Wine Tourism Manager Maria de la Torre shows a picture of the Spanish queen on a visit. There are other historical elements here: old scales, agricultural implements, and early advertising posters. A display from the World Exhibition of Paris in 1900 shows that this bodega won prizes.
Bodegas Diez Mérito traces its lineage from two families of wine makers, the Diez and the Merito. The most colorful stories feature the three brothers Diez, who got into the wine business in 1876. One of them lived in France and missed his Spanish sherry. When his father, a banker, sends him some, he discovered he wasn’t the only one to appreciate the drink.
Just like the drink, champagne which can only be produced in the French region of Champagne, real sherry only comes from this one part of the world. A golden triangle formed by the three towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria in the southern part of Andalusia. The grapes here grow in extreme arid soil, and as watering the vines if forbidden, it’s a difficult business.
The busiest time in the vineyards is at the end of August and beginning of September, when the harvest begins. Large numbers of workers are taken on to harvest the grapes just as they reach their optimum maturity, the collection going on from very early in the morning until midday, so that the fruit is as fresh as possible when it reaches the pressing plant. The grapes have to be crushed within an hour to avoid bacteria developing. The Bodegas then collect the new wines to begin the maturing process.
100 Year Old Wine
Unlike most vineyards, the Andalusian bodegas are within city boundaries and are specialist storehouses rather than wine-producing farms. The emphasis here is on the care of the sherry and the hard work goes into the blending and maturation. De la Torra takes me to the casks to show how sherry is matured using a layer of yeast that prevents oxidation. This is also the reason the barrels can be kept open, and visitors can taste the sherry strait from the cask.
Sherry is aged in what’s known as the solera, an unusual method of aging wine where rows of barrels are stacked atop each other, the youngest cask of wine is on top and the oldest can be found on the bottom. As the sherry from the bottom is removed for bottling, the wine stored on top is moved down to the next layer, eventually making its way to the bottom.
Sherries are aged for a minimum of two years, De la Torre tells me, and sometimes much longer. The Mérito sherries here can be as old as 15, 25 and 35 years, and then there’s the rare Solera Especial 1876, which dates back to the foundation of the bodega and is drawn from Botas No – barrels marked ‘don’t touch’. The brandy in these barrels has an average age of more than 100 years, and only 100 bottles are released each year. Popular with Asian clients, De la Torre says and points at one of the luxury dark bottles.
We end our tour, of course, with sherry tasting. In many European countries, very sweet Sherry called ‘Cream” used to be a very popular drink for women. At one point there was a sherry diet, which was so popular that even members of the royal families used it as a means to lose weight. In recent years, sherry has started a revival as it is popular with chefs and shown in cooking shows.
Local people prefer to drink the dry Sherries, I am told, and they clearly have a point. But no matter which kind you like, one thing is clear. If you want to really to get to know the repertoire of sherry styles and understand the peculiar production method, you have to taste it here, in the bodegas of the Spanish golden triangle.
Jerez de la Frontera can be easily reached by a one hour train ride from Seville, and the Diez Merito bodega is at easy walking distance from the station. The town is also known for its historical center, and for its riding school.
Link to relevant sites: www.diezmerito.com
The article was reproduced with permission from hi-europe.net.