The Splendor of Andalucía & Its Wines
Text & photos by Michèle Shah, CEO of Michèle Shah Travel & Michèle Shah.com
Andalucía is Spain’s southernmost region situated between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. It is rich in so many ways, boasting beautiful national parks, miles of sandy coastline, gastronomic delights, bodegas with excellent wines and a thriving local culture – not to mention a string of iconic Unesco World Heritage sites such as the Alhambra in Granada, Seville’s Alcázar Palace and the Mezquita in Córdoba.
Andalucía also hosts some of the most colorful festivals and deeply rooted Spanish traditions, such as Flamenco music and dance. There is not a town in Andalucía which does not advertise and exhibit this tradition, inspired by Jewish and Islamic music that were later transformed by the gypsies of southern Spain into modern day’s spectacular Flamenco. Jerez de la Frontera, well-known for its Andalucían horses and flamenco, has an equally deeply rooted history of wine and bodegas, and is where the wines of the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry y Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda Denominations of Origin originate.
González Byass in Jerez is one of Spain’s most well-known and historic sherry bodegas and is a great start to immerse yourself into the history and production of sherry with a guided tour of the historic cellars in Jerez.
Founded in 1835, Manuel María González was the first to create his own registered trade mark and flagship product, Tío Pepe, is distributed globally in more than 150 countries, and represents one of the best-selling Finos in the world. Its 650 hectares of prime sherry vineyards are situated in the Jerez Superior area planted to the Palomino grape, a white variety used primarily in the production of sherry.
In contrast to the large historic bodegas of Jerez, Tradición, a small boutique bodega in the heart of the historical center of Jerez, established in 1998 by Joaquín Rivero, produces an iconic series of sherries.
It’s well worth booking a visit, not only for the tasting, but also to visit the private gallery established in 2005. Bodegas Tradición owns one of the finest private collections of paintings in Andalusia, with works by Spanish painters from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, including masters such as Goya, Zurbarán, Velázquez, Murillo and El Greco, among others.
Over the course of many centuries, bodegas in the Jerez area evolved and developed some unique characteristics. They are not just a shelter for precious barrels, they are fundamental to the outcome of the wines and help them develop in the right way, just as important as the grapes, the soil, the climate or the people working inside them. Sherry unlike most wine is not stored in underground cellars, but aged inside the bodegas built at ground level.
The bodegas of Jerez and Sanlúcar de Barrameda known as cathedral-type bodegas are typically spacious, ventilated structures divided into aisles sustained by high arches, open to the elements of the Atlantic sea. Some of them with a capacity to store several thousand barrels of wine.
The making of a fino sherry or manzanilla involves a process of maturing the most under flor (a fine layer of naturally formed yeast) while other styles of sherry involve blending and ageing under the solera system, which became widespread around 1820-1880 and led to the foundation of numerous bodegas. This was known as the Golden Age of sherry with 300 bodegas registered in the 1830s and still over 50 up to a few decades ago. As trends in the world of wine changed and the sale of sherry dwindled, today there are only 15 sherry bodegas left in Jerez and 2 in Sanlúcar. (Hidalgo La Gitana and Barbadillo).
While most bodegas produce the full range of sherry styles, the bodegas of Sanlúcar de Barrameda are known for their iconic manzanilla. This is a wine unlike any other, unique to the climate of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Like a fino sherry, the wines from the Palomino grape undergoes a period of biological aging. Completely covered by a layer of flor yeast while in the barrel, the wine is protected from oxidation, providing a unique flavour and texture.
The intense Atlantic breezes of Sanlúcar create a particular microclimate with lower average temperatures and a higher humidity. As a result, the flor layer here is thicker than that of a normal fino, creating the unique profile of manzanilla sherry. Along with yeasty aromas from the flor, manzanilla is also intensely coastal; with flavours of evident salinity.
Bodegas Hildago La Gitana in Sanlúcar was founded in 1792 and since then the firm has passed from generation to generation, being today one of the few bodegas in the area still managed by the family. The name refers to its flagship product, “Manzanilla La Gitana”, made from Palomino Fino grapes that are carefully cultivated in white albaniza soils, (+80% Calcium carbonate) highly prized to obtain very fine and high-quality musts. The grapes come from the “El Cuadarado” estate located in the historic Balbaina Alta estate, one of the most prized areas for production.
Until the late 70’s Baja de Guja on the seafront of Sanlúcar was just a small village where the fisherman would trade their catch to local tabernas on the seafront, which typically serve an array of delicious tapas accompanied by the local manzanilla. Established in the 50’s, Casa Bigote on the seafront in Baja de Guja testifies to the history of manzanilla and offers some of the best seafood in Sanlúcar.
Fernando Bigote, third generation proprietor of Casa Bigote was taught by his father and grandfather to prepare some of the best seafood dishes including some of the tastiest prawns you will have ever experienced. Casa Bigote started as a small shack (today known as the Taberna Bigote) facing the beach serving amazing tapas accompanied by local Manzanilla produced in the bodegas of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. In the 70’s the Taberna expanded to house a restaurant now situated on two floors – the top floor faces the beach offering great sea views. Come rain or shine the Taberna and the restaurant are always fully booked. The lunch is leisurely and the service timely and attentive. If you like seafood this is the place to go to, especially for the prawns and langoustines of Sanlúcar.
Typical dishes of the cuisine of Jerez include many variations of tapas, excellent fish and shellfish and also very good meats which are often cooked in sherry which could be a fino, amontillado, oloroso or Pedro Ximénez. Other typical dishes include gazpacho, stew with chickpeas, oxtail and plenty of the iconic jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) which characteristically hang form the ceilings of the tabernas or local restaurants only to be sliced, rigorously by hand.
La Carbonà restaurant in Jerez housed in an old winery is another must in order to enjoy a great culinary experience. Converted by the Muñoz Soto family, creating a modern cuisine based on traditional flavors and ingredients, in which sherry is the true protagonist, both in the elaborations and in the pairings, the menu is accompanied by an impressive wine list. The service is friendly and professional, allowing you to enjoy a relaxed atmosphere.
Continuing south of Jerez, it is only a short drive to Cádiz, one of the oldest cities in Europe. Its entrance to a large sheltered bay assisted its commercial growth, which reached its golden age in the 18th century, due to its position central to sea routes and commercial trade with the Americas.
Today, this past is still visible in its architecture. Cádiz reminds us of the typical colonial town, with long and narrow streets, sunny squares, magic gardens, an impressive fort and cathedral. The city is not only one of the oldest settlements in the West, but also one of the most intriguing.
Cádiz still has a very vibrant open-air food market — Mercado Central de Abastos — where locals go to buy their fresh fish, seafood, fruit and vegetables. It’s well worth a visit just to get the buzz of this busy port city where commerce is still a vibrant part of its culture.
You will be mesmerized by how many fish stalls there are and how much fish there is of all sizes, shape and color. Enough to inspire you to enjoy a simple lunch with freshly pan-fried fish, prawns and octopus at my favorite taberna, El Tío de la Tiza, situated in a small, quiet plaza in the centre of Cadiz, just around the corner from the market. Be sure to ask for the local manzanilla or fino.
If you’d like to take a trip to Puerto de Santa Maria just outside Cádiz, plan lunch or dinner at Restaurante El Faro, considered one of the top restaurants in the area, famous for its well-stocked cellar personally supervised by Javier Manso González and managed by Ignacio García de Quirós. This is one of the most accomplished restaurants in Cádiz, so you need to book well in advance. The absence of tourists and the lively buzz of Spanish families make it an absolutely authentic experience.
Moving away from the coast and into the hills, Ronda situated in the province of Málaga, is celebrated for its spectacular mountainous scenery. Cliff-hanging houses perch upon a 120-meter gorge known as El Tajo (The Deep Cut) created by the Río Guadalevín that flows through the center dividing the town in half. Ronda is considered one of the oldest cities in Spain, first settled by the Celts, followed by the Phoenetians, the Romans and later the Moors. It is said to house Spain’s oldest bull ring, which gave rise to the tradition of bullfighting.
The town of Ronda is connected by three bridges that cross the deep canyon adding to the city’s remarkable features. The Roman Bridge is the oldest dating to the 11th century. Although it is Arabic in origin, it was likely constructed over an older Roman bridge. But the most impressive bridge is the striking Puente Nuevo (New Bridge.) This colossal architectural work, built during the second half of the 18th century, plunges over 90 metres into the canyon. From here you can also admire the incomparable views over the Serranía de Ronda Mountains and the picturesque white-washed houses overlooking the canyon.
Pilar Martínez-Mejías Laffitte and Nené Ramos-Paul Ruano own the beautiful Ramos-Paul winery which sits above Ronda at 1000 meters, just under the Acinipo Roman amphitheater. The two were pioneers to winemaking in this area until a few years ago. Today there are over 20 wineries in the area of Ronda. Ramos-Paul produces two lines of finely crafted wines, Baetica Munda, a fresh natural line with no-oak ageing and Ramos-Paul a classic blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The percentage of the varieties depends on the vintage quality. Wines age 36-months in barrel and 12 years in bottle in tunnels excavated under the Roman ruins. The wines show complexity elegance and balance. The production runs from 60,000-90,000 bottles with 90% exported globally.
Andalucía is rich, spectacular and colorful. There is much to see and do, and as always never enough time to do it all. This is just a start, to explore so much more.
La Carboná: www.lacarbona.com
El Puerto – www.elfarodelpuerto.com/
Restaurante Casa Bigote – www.restaurantecasabigote.com
Taberna El Tío del la Tiza – www.cadizalacarta.com/en-cadiz-restaurante/el-tio-de-la-tiza/
El Convento – www.hotelelconvento.es/en/ (restaurant and hotel)
Parador de Cádiz – www.parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-cadiz
Parador Arcos de la Frontera – www.paradores-spain.com/spain/pafrontera.html
Hospederìa Palacio de Los Guzames – www.ruralduquesmedinasidonia.com
Bodegas Tradición – www.bodegastradicion.es/en/
Bodegas González Byass – www.gonzalezbyass.com/int-en
Bodegas Holdago La Gitana – www.bodegashidalgolagitana.com
Bodegas Ramos-Paul – www.ramos-paul.com/en
Michèle Shah has championed and promoted Italian wines for more than 30 years. A noted marketer, writer, communicator and judge, she works with producers across Italy. She is passionate about bringing the quality and diversity of authentic Italian wine to an international audience: her “Speedtasting®” b2b tastings have helped hundreds of producers find new export markets. Her clients include the Consorzi of both famous and emerging Italian wine denominations. A great lover of Italian gastronomy and heritage, Michele also organizes wine tours for businesses and enthusiasts. These allow her to share her infectious love for Italian culture, deep wine knowledge, and connections with many inspiring figures in Italian wine. www.micheleshah.com