JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA -- Too long dismissed as a Christmas tipple for maiden aunts, sherry is poorly understood and shamefully undervalued in the United States. Most people think of it merely as a treacly aperitif, but the range of sherries is more varied and complete than that of any other regional wine on the planet. They're a world within a dark brown bottle.
The southwestern Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera is the home of sherry wine, called in Spanish "jerez." It's been so since the Carthaginians first cultivated grapes here 3,000 years ago. This part of the country is one of those Mediterranean battlegrounds that have heaved for millennia with conflicting religions, races, and languages; under every church lies a mosque, under every mosque lies an older church, temple, or shrine to some ancient wood nymph. Such are the fruits of history. Grapes are the fruit of Jerez. The center of the old city is home to many of the most famous wineries in Spain, all of which are open for sampling.
Not that that is easily done. Driving into downtown Jerez is a torturous experience. Traffic is typical of Andalusia, meaning that it's at once violently fast while not going anywhere, and the roads might have
been plotted on the lines of a Jackson Pollock painting. After you penetrate a protective ring of ghastly concrete apartments, the old town rises up in a thicket of golden stone. It's along these ancient alleyways, under Arab walls and Baroque church domes, that sherry is made.
"It takes a lot to teach people that sangria is not what you drink with tapas," says Ken Oringer , owner of the upscale South End restaurant Toro. "In Spain, sherry is what you drink with tapas."
More than that, sherry is a complicated breed of wines produced in a small triangle of land between the inland city of Jerez and the coastal towns of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa María, all in the province of Cádiz. The chalky, white soil traps moisture when it dries under the hot levante , which concentrates the juices in the rich, Palomino grapes. A cooler wind, the poniente , then hatches a yeast that is vital to the fermentation of most sherry styles.
"Fino" is the driest sherry, pale in color and served cold. "Manzanilla" is fino from coastal Sanlúcar, which gives it a salty tang. "Amontillado" is amber-colored, and more nutty. "Oloroso" is dark, full, and often sweet. The most common sherry in the Anglo world -- Harvey's Bristol Cream -- is a blend of oloroso with sweet wine from the Pedro Ximénez grape, making for a drink that's considered either rich or cloying.
Ever since 1587, when Francis Drake attacked the Spanish fleet at Cádiz and stole 2,900-odd casks of the stuff, Britain has been sherry's biggest export market, as sherry houses with names like Osborne and Garvey attest. But Jerez's oldest sherry bodega has a French name: Domecq.
Up a dusty cobblestone road around the corner from the cathedral, the Domecq wine cellars stand above ground in old, tile-roof warehouses separated by sun-dappled courtyards hung with vines. Crossing out of the white, Spanish heat into the shadowed damp of the wine cellars, visitors on a winery tour are greeted by vast rows of American oak barrels, blackened with age and stacked five butts high.
Wine is drawn from the lowest butts, which are then replenished with wine from the next tier. This is repeated up the stack until the top tier is refilled with fresh, new wine. In this way, old is always mixing with new, and the wine maintains a uniform character. There are no sherry vintages.
To inhale the smell in the cellars is alone worth the price of a tour. There's a dense aroma of raisins, must, and citrus that pervades the whole Domecq complex. That's because wine butts are left with a little air inside, allowing a small amount of sherry to evaporate into "the angels' share."
After passing through several cellars, seeing the spot where Spanish brandy was first distilled, and pausing to view enough dusty vinicultural apparatus to stock a renaissance fair, the tour ends in a colonnaded courtyard. Three of the walls belonged to a 15th-century Dominican monastery and have been restored to fashion an elegant spot for sherry tastings and banquets.
Plates of cheese, potato chips, and sausage appear, and bottles of La Ina (fino), Fundador (sherry brandy), and Harvey's Bristol Cream are uncorked. Visitors are welcome to linger. Since most of them are Spaniards, they do.
Foreigners are more prevalent at the massive Bodegas Tío Pepe, covering several blocks of Jerez's old town. Run by sherry giant González Byass, its flagship product is the world's best-selling fino, famed for its trademark bottle dressed up in red jacket, jaunty hat, and spindly arms. Its spirit -- fun, cocksure, and consciously silly -- permeates the tour: Guests pass through 19th-century lemon gardens on an amusement park train.
The tour includes stops at a bodega designed by Gustave Eiffel, a building aptly called "the cathedral of brandy," courtyards brimming with geraniums and jasmine, streets lined with jacaranda trees, and, of course, barrels (in one grandiose cellar, a huge cask named "El Cristo" presides over 12 lesser barrels dubbed "los apóstoles ").
González Byass is Spain's most successful sherry marketer and the bodega has been courting celebrities since 1867; guests can pose with barrels signed by Oliver Hardy, Lana Turner, Rex Harrison, and Winston Churchill.
The tour ends, appropriately, in a carnival tent piped full of flamenco music and flowing with fino. Visitors are urged to sample as many González Byass products as they have stomach to drink, including the exquisite Lepanto brandy .
Outside in the Andalusian sun, it's easy to get disoriented. The center of Jerez is a tangle of spaghetti alleys and unexpected plazas around the wide, dusty Plaza del Arenal . This adjoins Jerez's cathedral -- a mash of Gothic, baroque, and Renaissance elements that looks more formidable than the Moorish castle, the Alcázar , next door. Both are best seen at night, when a stroll around the battlements under the moonlight and the pomegranate trees is a postcard idyll.
After wine, Jerez is best known for its Andalusian horses -- thoroughbreds that could outstrut Nureyev. The Real Escuela Andaluz del Arte Ecuestre puts on equestrian shows at its opulent 19th-century palace. The stables are worth a visit just to see the training sessions for these four-legged ballerinas.
But gastronomy is the real reason to visit. The central Calle Larga is strung with tapas bars serving local specialties like lamb kidneys and beef consomme with sherry. The best spot is El Gallo Azul , an old-fashioned outdoor cafe with marble bartop, strategic tables for people-watching, and snacks like sirloin in brandy, pork braised in oloroso, and duck in sweet Pedro Ximénez.
Of course, there's nothing to aid digestion like a deafening wail of passion. The flamenco in Jerez is among the most traditional in Spain, exemplified in bracing floorshows at Tablao de Bereber and La Taberna Flamenca . The colors, the stomps, the gritty emotion, and the furious guitars can be punishing after a day in the sun, but that's the point. Love is pain.
Jerez de la Frontera, however, is most certainly a pleasure.
Contact Andrew Rimas, a freelance writer in Boston, at email@example.com .