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In the latest of his journeys to the world's great wine regions, Nick Tarayan tours sherry country in the heart of Andalucia in one of the newly launched Mercedes-Benz A-Class 180 CDIs
It's the end of a long day. The sun is setting over the bay of Sanlúcar de Barrameda as I sip a gorgeously fresh, briny glass of ice-cold manzanilla - the local product - and enjoy a small plate of roasted almonds, ripe olives and Iberian ham. Out in the bay, the final flicker of dusk outlines the fishing boats that have been hard at work all day. Thanks to their efforts, inside Casa Bigote - my venue for dinner - I can feast my eyes on the day's catch.
As waistcoated waiters bring plate after plate of the freshest fish and shellfish imaginable, Spanish faces light up with joyful glee. Groups of friends are seated around large tables in the vast, wooden-beamed dining rooms, which are linked by wide, tiled corridors. The place is thick with the buzz of Andalusian accents.
It's a great end to a day that started well, too. My journey through sherry country, in a nippy new A-Class Mercedes-Benz, began in Jerez de la Frontera, the inland apex of the sherry region. (This region is shaped roughly like a triangle, with one of the three sherry towns - Jerez, Sanlúcar and El Puerto de Santa Maria - at each corner.) The Phoenicians settled here in 1100 BC and called it Xera, while the Moors later called it Seris, so it's not hard to imagine why the wine now produced here is called sherry.
My first visit in Jerez was to one of the biggest names in sherry: Gonzalez Byass' Tio Pepe cellars. This brand is so famous here that there are official signs around town pointing visitors towards 'Bodegas Tio Pepe'.
Manuel Maria Gonzalez started the business we now know as Gonzalez Byass in 1835. He was given enormous help by his sherry-making uncle, José Angel, after whom he named a blend. When you realise that 'tio' is Spanish for 'uncle' and that 'Pepe' is a slang version of 'José', it's clear that José Angel is enjoying longstanding international fame.
It's sad, however, that in the UK the understanding of sherry is nothing like it ought to be and many people still think of Tio Pepe as the half-drunk bottle at the back of their granny's drinks cabinet that comes out every Christmas as a rather nasty, tepid drink, having turned brown and cloudy. In fact, served as it should be, fresh and cold, Tio Pepe is one of the finest, most consistent white wines produced on a large scale in the world. It has a pale straw colour and a fine, fresh, bone-dry character, the perfect example of a fino, one of two basic types of sherry made.
Unlike most wines, the most important part of making sherry is where it is matured - not where the grapes are grown. That is not to say that the vineyards are not important; it's just that the character that different types of sherry take on depends on where they are produced - and that's in the hands of the cellars, not the vineyards. Wine matured in Jerez but made from grapes grown near Sanlúcar, will take on the character of Jerez, and vice versa.
The vast majority of sherry is made from one grape variety: the Palomino Fino (although two other permitted varieties - Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel - are grown and normally dried to extreme richness before being used to sweeten dry sherries). These white Palomino Fino grapes come from vines planted, mostly, in deep, chalky soils. Once the grape juice has gone through its fermentation, it is graded either as a wine that's delicate and light enough to be a fino or, if it's fuller and richer, it will become an oloroso. Sherries such as amontillado, palo cortado and cream are all merely stylistic variations of either fino or oloroso.
At one end of the scale, fino from Jerez (about 20km inland and therefore hotter) is rich and round, while Sanlúcar is famous for another type of fino, manzanilla. It differs from other finos because of Sanlúcar's proximity to the coast and a special combination of salty air and humidity. The third hub, El Puerto de Santa Maria, produces sensational fino, too, which fits somewhere between the two in body, again a reflection of the local climate.
The differences can be largely attributed to flor, a type of natural yeast that grows on the surface of fino wines, preventing oxidation while they are in barrel. Flor grows more evenly throughout the year in the cooler coastal towns, particularly Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Hence the differences in flavour between the sherries made in these towns.
Wines that do not develop flor belong to the oloroso family. They are matured in contact with air and are fortified to around 18o alcohol, which stops any stray yeasts forming the flor blanket. This controlled method of oxidation results in darker, richer, mellower wines.
In many parts of the world, visiting a cellar means going underground and meandering through long tunnels, but not so in Jerez. I was taken around its above-ground cellars by Vicky Gordon, great, great granddaughter of the founder of Gonzalez Byass.
Some of the cellars, she explained, were designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. Indeed, the structural and decorative touches are often reminiscent of his namesake monument in Paris. Wandering in to the La Concha Bodega (seashell cellar) is enough to make you gasp: this huge, circular cellar with a clear span roof of steel girders contains a display of 214 casks, stacked four high around the walls.
Another cellar, the Gran Bodega Tio Pepe, was finished in 1964. It is truly massive and boasts three floors each with a capacity of 10,000 wooden casks. There are more and more such cellars, each with a different story to tell. The place makes for a fascinating visit.
During my stay I decided to visit one of the largest and one of the smallest of the big-name sherry houses. Lustau is not yet a household name in the UK, but it has its own big-brand fino - Puerto Fino, named after the town of Puerto de Santa Maria - and has a special talent for providing many smaller cuvée sherries found on wine lists in London.
It was founded in 1896, but the bodega's fortunes changed dramatically in 1990 when the company of Luis Caballero - producer of Spain's largest selling liqueur, Ponche Caballero - took a major shareholding in the company and gave Lustau considerable and secure financial backing. Controlling 170 hectares of top-quality vineyards and totally renovated bodegas, Lustau is now a fighting force in the gastronomic wine world. Many of its wines are of its own production and several others are known as 'almacenistas'.
There are many almacenistas in the sherry towns. They are often tucked away in the maze of small streets housing as few as a hundred or so casks. They are cellars - just like those we'd all love to have beneath our town house or apartment in London - and they are where people who have an absolute love for the wines of their region buy sherry from local vineyard owners and mature the wines. Often, they are owned by businessmen who have no other direct link with the wine-producing world.
For many of the almacenistas owners, the love of sherry is their reward. They don't aim to make vast fortunes from allowing these casks to mature slowly and silently in dark, airy cellars; they simply take great pleasure in creating fine wines.
Founder of the company Emilio Lustau was one such person and it has become part of the company's philosophy to encourage others. A number of Lustau's specialist sherries are, therefore, bought from almacenistas, bottled and then labelled, alongside the name of Lustau, with the name of the person who 'grew the wine'.
Just being there, smelling the vastly different wafts of sherry in each individual cellar, is fascinating. Feeling the cool of the cellar as you step in out of the bright sunlight and seeing the wines being treated with proper reverence should be enough to convince even the most sceptical to take a chance and experiment with fine sherry.
My visit to Jerez and the rest of sherry country certainly left me with a thirst to sample more different sherries. And thanks to my responsive, easy-to-drive A 180 CDI, even the maze of new one-way systems here were a breeze as I made my way for home, a few bottles stowed safely in the boot.
The solera system is an ageing and maturing process whereby the young wine goes into a barrel at the top of a heap of barrels. The barrels are 80 per cent filled to allow oxidation to occur and the flor (yeast) to form. Sherry is drawn from the barrel at the bottom of the heap and topped up by the barrel above it and so on. There's never more than one-third of the barrel being drawn off in a year, which means that any barrel will have at least a smidgeon of incredibly old wine in it. Fino sherries, such as Tio Pepe and Puerto Fino, are made in this way and have an average age of five years.
The basic types of sherry include manzanilla, fino, amontillado, oloroso, and cream.
To make fino sherry, the winemaker adds neutral grape brandy after fermentation, bringing the alcohol content to 15.5 per cent. With the proper alcohol content and temperature, a flor develops on the sherry. This is responsible for the unique taste of a fino-style sherry. Sometimes the flor dies away and the wine takes on a deeper, fuller taste. It is then reclassified as amontillado. Manzanilla is a fino that has been made in Sanlúcar and tends to be lighter and saltier than its Puerto and Jerez counterparts.
Palo cortado is a rare hybrid that begins as a fino, thanks to flor, and then develops the deep, nutty characteristics of an oloroso through oxidation. It ends up with the body of oloroso and the aromas of amontillado.
Olorosos are made from sun-dried Palomino grapes. Like fino sherries, the neutral grape brandy is added after fermentation to bring the alcohol content to 15.5 per cent. If no flor has developed after 18-24 months, brandy is added to this coarser more acidic wine, raising the alcohol content to 18 per cent.
Cream sherries are a blend of Pedro Ximenez (PX) and oloroso. PX sherries are made from PX grapes that have been sun-dried for two to three weeks. The wines are very dark, thick and sweet.
Pale, dry styles (serve well chilled):
Alegria, Williams & Humbert, Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) Fresh, nutty nose, clean tang, excellent depth.
Puerto Fino, Lustau (El Puerto de Santa Maria) Firm fruit on the nose, mouth-puckeringly dry. A great aperitif wine.
¦ Tio Pepe Fino, Gonzalez Byass (Jerez de la Frontera) Warm glow of aromas; some alcohol and weight on the palate. Good-quality high-production wine.
Darker, medium-rich styles (serve chilled):
¦ Palo Cortado de Jerez, Almacenista, Lustau Fantastically warm, spirity and rich. Hints of pear and fig - crisp, long and beautifully balanced.
Sibarita Palo Cortado (30-year-old), Pedro Domecq Thick, unctuous, sweet, dried fruit nose. Needs cheese or a fat cigar! Not for the fainthearted.
Almacenista Oloroso, Pata de Gallina, Lustau Rich rum and raisin. Beautifully round.
Rich styles (summer, chill/winter, room temp):
Finest Old Oloroso, aged 15 years, Williams & Humbert Lovely, soft, sweet, sultana and fig nose. Gorgeous poise and balance.
Old East India, Lustau Lovely raisiny character on the palate. Wonderful dry finish and fantastic balancing acidity.
La Sacristia, Pedro Ximenez, Sanchez Romate Huge, concentrated and fascinating: Christmas pudding in a glass! Aged for at least 35 years.
Noe, 30-year-old Pedro Ximenez, Gonzalez Byass Older character than Romate, same intensity.
Avenida de la Cruz Roja 7
Tel: 00 34 956 153 100
Luxury hotel in which beautifully furnished rooms overlook the well-maintained gardens and swimming pool. About £175 per room per night.
AC Hotel Jerez,
Avenida de Chiribitos
Tel: 00 34 956 327 222
The hotel and rooms are beautiful and spacious. About £60 per room per night.
Pasado de Palacio,
Tel: 00 34 956 364 840
Gorgeous hotel with wonderful balconies and cool courtyards. £90 will get you a super room.
Tel: 00 34 956 345 859
Within walking distance of the riding school, its brick arches are decorated with ceramic plates and photos of well-known diners. Traditional Andalusian menu.
Tel: 00 34 956 307 030
Set in an attractive old building, decorated with paintings of famous bullfighters. Traditional Andalusian food with a twist.
La Mesa Redonda
Tel: 00 34 956 340 069 Impeccable reputation for its cuisine based on regional ingredients.
Tel: 00 34 956 362 696
The most fantastic seafood restaurant.
Mirador de Donana
Tel: 00 34 956 364 205
Another fabulous seafood restaurant.
Tel: 00 34 956 854 232
Well-prepared seafood in the best restaurant in El Puerto.
Tel: 00 34 956 541 254
Lively, fun and if you just want a wander on the beach, you can take away one of five types of prawn. Good value, too.
Ryanair flies direct to Jerez from London Stansted. Hire of a Mercedes-Benz A-Class is easily arranged through Hertz.
Engine: 4-cylinder, 1992cc
0-62.5MPH: 11.1 seconds
Top speed: 112 mph
Price: £16,315 (three-door: £15,715)
Nick Tarayan's verdict: Mercedes-Benz is famous for big-car luxury and those of us who live in busy cities such as London often lose out. We want luxury but also need economy and we don't want to compromise on space. The A-Class fits the bill completely. While even the most basic package is well thought through, every extra imaginable is on offer. You sit high, there's plenty of room and there's even a neat little box in the boot to hold the odd bottle of sherry.
Top Gear's Andy Wilman's verdict: What the A-Class always needed to make it a genuine Swiss Army Knife of usefulness was more space. Happily this new one is roomy, with a facelift that's improved on the original for classiness. The cabin feels properly screwed together and the 180 diesel punches well in a car this size, while still banging in 50mpg. All in all, a very good all-rounder.