Jerez is Spain proper. It’s the Spain that big city sophisticates in Madrid and Barcelona say isn’t really Spain, it’s something that doesn’t really exist they’ll tell you, but here it is nevertheless. Jerez is sherry, flamenco and the blistering sun. It’s dusty, gypsy haunted and poor. The sherry business ain’t what it used to be, us Brits don’t drink it that much anymore, and consequently Jerez has some of the highest levels of unemployment in the country. Yet, everywhere you look is sherry. It’s in the street signage and furniture and town clocks paid for by the bodegas in happier times. Tio Pepe, Domencq and the slightly jarring British names; Sandemans, Williams and Humbert, Harveys, testament to the importance of “sack” in the British imagination in years gone by. The high walled compounds of the bodegas themselves are like white washed fortresses with impossible visiting hours. Well, nine till six during the week, anyway. Unless it's a fiesta. Which seems to be quite often. There’s a faded grandeur to the town, and the people, as well turned out as anywhere else in Spain (they are a dressy lot on the whole) have a provincial air. Noble, haughty and brassy.
Sherry is the perfect drink for the climate. It’s fair to say it’s a reflection of the place itself. A glass of chilled fino is the colour of the local chalky Albariza soil and dry as a bone, like sipping on a refrigerated glass of midday sun. Not the jolly yellow midday sun of an English summer. This is a searing white light that feels like an x-ray. At five in the afternoon, the temperature sits at an egg frying 45 degrees Celsius (Fahrenheit junkies can work this out for themselves using the gizzards of a chicken of whatever it is you guys use) and the only people on the streets are heat addled Northern Europeans grinding their way through the tourist spots like World Of War craft players hoping to level up. It’s too hot to sweat; the moisture just evaporates immediately leaving you slowly desiccating, like a leg of jamon iberico.
We’d just finished lunch and poked our noses out of the air conditioning. It was a meal spiked with sherry and we were ready for bed, ready to wait out the remaining heat of the day and reclaim the streets for dinner at around midnight. Kidneys in sherry, bulls tail in sherry, a semifreddo of Pedro Ximenez with raisins, pistachios and cinnamon, glasses of ice cold fino and the pruney sweetness of a dessert PX. Every dish jagged with complex citrus and herby medicinal flavours, every dish simply bloody amazing. Oddly, a trip back to the same restaurant a couple of days later was utter crap. I guess the planets had lined up for us. Walking back through the afternoon heat little white tents were being set up in the main square ready for sherry tastings. Another fiesta, commented a woman from Madrid, “...they never do any work down here”, she said poking her Andalucian husband in the ribs with a smirk.
Jerez is celebrating its harvest festival at the moment. La Fiesta de la Vendimia. It runs for three weeks and it kicked off with a concert in the bullring. It seemed the whole town had turned out to see the Bulerias performed. The Buleria is one of the mainstays of flamenco. A fast paced melange of guitars, hand claps and song. A pure stripped down slice of lost loves and land, pain and solace. The voice of muezzin calling the faithful to prayer is in its DNA. They take their flamenco very seriously here, almost as seriously as their wine and it comes as no surprise that Jerez is home to the largest extant Gypsy quarter in Spain and it’s here that the Buleria was born. Where the fashion for prodigious mullets that the young chaps were sporting comes from, however, is anyone’s guess. Luckily for us they take their food just as seriously. One stall was selling huge piles of fried baby squid, chunks of cuttlefish and whole anchovies. Another freshly made potato chips, paper cones of tiny dried shrimp and enormous sandwiches of fried pork and green padron peppers. No one is the mixed crowd of young and old, locals and tourists was going hungry.
A tour round a bodega seemed churlish to refuse, especially one with it’s own collection of Old Masters. Bodegas Tradicion specialise in VOS (vinum optimum signatum or happily Very Old Sherry) and VORS (vinum optimum rare signatum or with even greater luck Very Old Rare Sherry) which are the oldest and rarest appellations allowed by the sherry police. These wines are aged in solera (the fiendishly labyrinthine system in which sherry is made) for up to 30 years and they have a bizarre complexity from the tar like sweet PX to the apothecary aromas of the Amontillados and Olorosos. Tradicion do not grow their own grapes, instead they pick and choose from the best and blend these wines, which are like Jerez itself, are complex and something of an acquired taste, but one worth pursuing.