Quiet revolution shakes dusty world of sherry
Daniel Flynn, Reuters/Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain
Amid the rows of musty oak barrels piled high in the cellar of La Guita sherry, a dusty wooden statue of a saint stretches out his arms in blessing.
Miguel Oraujo remembers his surprise at finding the figure when he bought the bodega 20 years ago -- a reminder that the historic building was a hospital for the poor run by the Catholic mystic Saint John Grande in the 16th century.
"This is not a nuts-and-bolts factory!" said Oraujo. "We maintain an ancient tradition in Sanlucar. Grapes first arrived here 3,000 years ago with the Phoenicians."
"There are modifications according to the tastes of the times, but tradition is the key," he said.
In Sanlucar, the grapes are still hand-picked each year and the sherry is aged by the "solera" system of slowly transferring it to casks holding wine of increasing maturity.
Few things are as typically Spanish as sherry. The distinctive black bulls which graze on many Spanish hillsides were used on billboards for the Gonzalez Byass brand that was bought by the state in the 1960s as part of the nation's heritage.
In Madrid's famous Puerta del Sol, a bustling plaza at the heart of the Spanish capital, tourists snap photos of a gigantic bottle of Tio Pepe sherry brandishing a guitar atop a building beside the motto: "Bottled Andalusian sunshine".
Yet, a quiet revolution is taking place in the genteel world of sherry, long dominated by enormous wine cellars in the aristocratic town of Jerez de la Frontera, famed for its equestrian school and its dancing Cartusian horses.
Spanish tipplers are turning from the dry fino variety of sherry made in Jerez to the softer, more aromatic manzanilla which comes only from the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Situated at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river facing the wetlands of Donana, Sanlucar was where Columbus left to sail to the Americas. Today its mild climate and moist Atlantic breeze gives manzanilla a distinctive salty tang.
Manzanilla sales rose 7 percent in Spain last year making it more popular than all other types of sherry combined. Sanlucar's cellars hope to parlay that success to the larger export market -- led by Britain, the Netherlands and Germany -- dominated by fino, medium-dry and sweet "cream" sherries.
Religion played a part in sherry's popularity. The expulsion of the Moors and the Jews from Spain in 1492 left a gap in the wine trade which was filled when religious persecution brought English and Dutch Catholics here.
That laid the foundations of commerce with northern Europe evidenced by the names of great wine cellars such as Harveys, Osborne, Sandeman and Gonzalez Byass. Sherry barrels shipped to England were used to distil Scottish whisky.
Shakespeare was reputedly a lover of sherry, then known as "sack". Falstaff pledges in a speech in praise of "sherris": "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be ... to addict themselves to sack."
The white, chalky soils of the so-called "Sherry Triangle" between Sanlucar, Jerez and the nearby Puerto de Santa Maria help make the wine unique. Known as Albariza, the earth is ideal for cultivating the palomino grape used for sherry.
For miles around Jerez, whose Moorish name "Seris" gives the wine its name, fields of vineyards stretch across the Andalusian hills, with trellises to make the grapes easier to pick and sheltering them from the scorching mid-summer sun.
"The palomino grape is virtually tasteless and very versatile -- the secret is in the fermentation," said Jose Carlos Garrido, the head oenologist at the cellar, using a cane ladle, or venezia, to scoop this year's wine from a casket.
The "mother of the wine", he insists, is the flor or yeast which grows on top of the sherry in the barrel, preventing it from turning to vinegar and providing its distinctive flavor.
Only in Sanlucar do climatic conditions allow the flor to flourish year round, contributing to manzanilla's flavor.
Francisco Toribio, or Don Francisco as he is known in Sanlucar, has the contented air of a man who has dedicated his life to sherry. In his days at giant Andalusian conglomerate RUMASA, he was revered as one of the best "noses" in sherry, overseeing half a million barrels a year.
RUMASA was nationalized in 1983 by Spain's Socialist government, which dismantled its interests ranging from sherry to construction. But Francisco boasts he never lost a barrel.
"I have spent a lifetime with sherry. The process has changed, but for the better," he said. "These days the wine is better taken care of, it is better looked after."
Often disparaged in Britain as a tipple for the elderly, sherry is trying to change its image in Spain. Producers launched a campaign last year to get Spaniards to stop drinking it as an aperitif and start having it at meal times.
Asked how he likes to drink his sherry, Don Francisco replied with the Spanish refrain: "One at 11 o'clock and 11 at 1 o'clock."
GetRTR 3.00 -- MAR 7, 2005 09:06:41