The Seaside Spirit of Sanlúcar de Barrameda
It was my third day here in Jerez, and I was ushered into a car at around nine in the morning. Now, full disclosure: I am only ever about 85 percent certain of exactly what is happening at any given time because everything is being told to me in Spanish, and my Spanish—while existent—is certainly less than fluent. So I hopped into the car and got super excited when I realized we were heading to Sanlúcar de Barrameda for the day. Sanlúcar is only about a twenty minute drive from Jerez and is famous for its stunning sunsets and horse races on the beach. But that’s not what we were in search of. Sanlúcar is also synonymous with a type of Sherry called Manzanilla. Unique to the region of Sanlúcar, it is a fino aged exclusively in this seaside town. I was lucky enough to be in the area during the famous carreras de caballos (horse races), but until now hadn't had the time to actually see any of the bodegas.
There is a refreshing lack of pretense in the wine industry here. Everyday I’m lucky enough to be shown around the Sherry Triangle by so many incredible people in the industry who are knowledgable and passionate about Sherry yet incredibly humble. On a daily basis, I have to take a moment to stop and look around at my company because I can’t believe how bad-ass these people are, yet how generous and sweet they are to be showing me around. This time local enologist Manuel Torres Zarzana would be showing me around Sanlúcar. He had two bodegas on the schedule for us.
Our first stop was at a Bodega Manuel Cuevas Jurado where my guide is the Technical Director. This bodega is an almacenista for Emilio Lustau. An almacenista is a small, artisanal producer that doesn't have its own label, but sells its wine to larger producers. Lustau works with many fantastic small almacenisitas including Bodega Manuel Cuevas Jurado. The capataz Pepe showed us around—an extremely sweet, jovial man who knows this charming bodega like the back of his hand. With extremely delicious and complex wines, it's easy to see why Lustau sources from this bodega consistently.
At this point you may still be wondering exactly what makes Manzanilla special. I got all the low-down from Pepe. Sanlúcar de Barrameda is situated at the confluence of the ocean and the Guadalquivir river. It is the river that sets Sanlúcar apart from its neighbor, El Puerto de Santa Maria; a town that also makes Sherry on the coast. The river provides perfect conditions for flor to thrive. Flor is a surface yeast that forms on top of the the wine while it ages in barrels and protects the wine from oxidation. For flor to survive the bodega needs humidity, cool air and certain level of alcohol (around 15% abv) which is why fino styles thrive on the coast, especially in Sanlúcar.
En rama is a term you can find on some bottles of Sherry, literally meaning raw. The idea of en rama Sherry is that the wine will have little to no fining or filtration. Above is a photo of manzanilla en rama straight of out the barrel (never bottled), you can see the little white flecks of the veil of flor it has been aged under. This photo was taken at our next appointment at Bodegas Baron.
Bodegas Baron is a family owned winery that is now run by two brothers and, as luck would have it, my host Manuel is the enologist for Bodegas Baron. The team that runs Bodegas Baron has a passion for Sherry and the lifestyle that comes with it. Their wines burst with character and everything that makes Sanluqueño special. These wines stand out from the wines of Jerez because they are a bit finer and softer. This bodega has some extremely old solera systems which date back to 1631 so even their standard wines have more age on them than what is typical. Bodegas Baron also makes an incredible Manzanilla Pasada from that very solar system, another speciality of Sanlúcar. Typically, Manzanilla is aged for about three to five years, a Pasada is anything that has been aged longer than usual, as a result the flor beings to dissipate. Bodegas Baron’s Manzanilla Pasada clocks in at about eight years of age.
You can only stay in the bodegas for so long before everyone is a little buzzed and someone suggests heading to get some tapas to balanced it out. The Baron guys lead us to their favorite spot on the beach to show us how to eat and drink like a Sanluqueño. We entered a bustling beachside tapas bar and the buckets of cold Manzanilla and fresh shrimp started flowing.
In true Andaluz style, you can’t just stay at one bar. Before I knew it, we were down the street at another seaside joint eating langoustines, clams, mussels, raw shrimp, anchovies and chasing it all down with Manzanilla. Soft, salty Manzanilla and fresh local seafood is quite possibly one of the best pairings I’ve ever had. They go together the way passionate, free-spirited people go with the Sanlúcar: effortlessly.