Head to Jerez in Andalucia for a chance to sample the town's amber nectar and catch a splash of colour at one of the local fiestas
Forget everything you think you know about old Aunty Flo’s favourite Christmas tipple. Sherry, or jerez, is a wine that’s been lubricating the social wheels, spicing up tapas recipes and Spanish get-togethers long before Pedro Almodóvar was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. Jerez is the lifeblood of this region of Spain, and the town and region that gave it its name are peppered with sherry bodegas (cellars).
Between Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on the south-west coast of Andalucía, is the Golden Triangle (or Jerez Superior District) of wine production. Here, only fortified wines produced from the Palomino grapes, or from the sweeter, richer Pedro Ximénez grapes, can truly call themselves jerez.
Jerez town is a distillation of modern and ancient Andalucía. Vespas whizz past as you travel from the airport along the arterial Avenida Andalucía, passing acres of sunflowers, towards a statue of two prancing stallions. These are the city’s Cartujano horses, as much an export of the town as a barrel of its amber nectar. There are daily horse shows at the Royal Andalucían School of Equestrian Art (Avenida Duque de Abrantes) and a Horse Fair at the beginning of May in the Recinto Ferial del Caballo, in the beautifully cultivated Jardines de la Rosaleda and Parque González Hontoria. These formal gardens are a strong reminder that this semi-arid province was shaped by Moorish horticulture, viticulture and agriculture into what it is now.
The Hotel Los Jándalos, situated near the ancient bullring, is close enough to the town centre to be convenient, but far enough away to offer peace and a chance to walk everywhere. While the hotel breakfasts (served in the palatial medieval-esque Salón Bodega Pando) suggest the rest of the hotel’s food is good, on your first night you’ll want to eat out and begin soaking up the atmosphere of historic Jerez.
For local flavour, both La Taberna Flamenca on Angostillo de Santiago and the more tourist-orientated El Lagá del Tío Parrilla on Plaza del Mercado offer dinner and a fairly authentic flamenco show. While the meal at the latter is nothing to applaud, its dancers, musicians and singers are good - worth the €35 per person cost. If you don’t enjoy the idea of foot stamping with your dinner, equally good are Bar Juanito (Pescadería Vieja 8-10) and Cafetería Arenal 15 (Plaza Arenal 15; closed Sundays). The tiny Taberna Marinera (Plaza Rafael Rivero 2) is quieter.
The locals claim that flamenco was born in Jerez, and the Barrio de Santiago is its cradle. Walking beside fruit-laden orange trees along Chancillería the next day, we hear the ripple of a buleria and the rhythmic stamping of a class in session at the Andalúz Flamenco Centre. Aficionados should explore the streets around the Iglesia de Santiago, where there are numerous hidden clubs and brotherhoods.
Walking south from the hotel, shaded from the sun by tall, purple-blossomed jacaranda trees, you arrive at wide Larga, a shopping street that offers all the major quality clothes stores. After a morning’s shopping, we grab a refreshing half-fino, half-lemonade spritzer at El Gallo Azul, near Plaza el Gallo Azul, before heading down Plaza del Arenal and Pozuelo to the Alcázar.
The Alcázar was the 12th-century seat of power of the Moorish caliphs of Seville, and from here you can view the whole town from the camera obscura in the tower. Right next door are two other major attractions: the impressive Cathedral of San Salvador and the ‘Holy See’ of the town’s other religion, the extensive Bodega González Byass. Founded in 1835, the latter has a hugely successful marketing machine behind its most famous brand, Tío Pepe, named after the great-great-great uncle José of our guide, Vicky González Gordon.
Vicky showed us around the impressive cellars, including the shell-shaped La Concha (seashell), designed by Alexandre Eiffel (he of Paris tower fame), but the most imperious show-bodega is the Los Apóstoles gallery, where 12 casks named after the Apostles flank an enormous central barrel, El Cristo. The bodega de los reyes ('the kings’ bodega') is more intriguing. It houses rows of barrels signed by Byass’s famous visitors. Liz Taylor came here with her first hubby, Mike Todd. Lana Turner, Orson Welles, Jean Cocteau, Cole Porter and Margaret Thatcher, of all people, are among its other bibulous luminaries. It’s a reminder of Hollywood’s love affair with Hemingway’s Spain (we wondered if the man himself had been here, but then remembered he was more of a rum man).
A visit to the area, however, wouldn’t be complete without a trip out past acres of chalky fields – dry and dusty, but waiting, perhaps, for the new plantings of vines – and modern wind turbines (a reminder of Spain’s burgeoning renewable energy programme and, idiosyncratically, of Don Quixote’s windmills. Wonder what Cervantes would have made of these particular giants?) to the Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Here, you are taken through cool, barrel-stacked cellars where, among other types of sherry, Hidalgo La Gitana makes Manzanilla, a very dry, fresh fino that thrives on the coastal conditions at the estuary mouth of the Guadalquivir river. Only Manzanilla made in Sanlúcar can carry the denomination of origin ‘Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda’.
If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive (as we did) at the start of one of Sanlúcar’s many weeks of feria and fiesta. El Romeria del Rocío pilgrimage is one of the most important in the town’s Catholic calendar. Walking to the feria ground, you’ll pass chattering groups of women in flamenco dresses of every hue and pattern, like a garden of animated flowers. Join the crowds at one of the colourful casetas (some are private, so ask before you sit down) and sample succulent, salty gambas with breadsticks and copas of cold Manzanilla, then watch as the townsfolk dance a sevillana.
Ryanair flies twice daily from London Stansted to Jerez Airport, with prices from just over £36 one way (including taxes). There are no buses or trains from the airport, but a taxi costs around €17 for the 5km journey into Jerez.
Where to stay
A night at the chain Hotel Los Jándalos costs between around €64.20 (April) and €96.30 (August).