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TEXT:  Mark Little
PHOTOS:  Fernando Briones/ICEX

Taken From Spain Gourmetour January-April 98 (pages 74-85)

With this issue, our continuing series on the wine routes of Spain takes us to Andalusia - the land of flamenco, brave bulls, and legendary wines, a country rich in tradition, delicious seafood, and dramatic landscapes.  In our journey through the vineyards of southern Spain, we'll relive Columbus' historic journey and see the natural treasures of Donana in Huelvca, explore the vast wine cellars of Jerez, Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlucar, and soak in the breathtaking scenery of the mountains of Malaga.

El Rinconcillo in Seville is the very image of a classic Spanish tavern, with its glazed tiles, old posters, cast iron pillars, and wooden counter where the waiter chalks up your bill. It seems to belong to another age, and no wonder: founded in 1670, El Rinconcillo is Seville’s oldest bar.

As you bite into a tapa of crisp pavía de bacalao (a batter-fried strip of codfish), your gaze wanders across the rows of bottles displayed on shelves overhead—every possible shade of sherry seems to be present, from bone dry fino to smooth, sweet Pedro Ximénez. In fact, our food and wine tour of Andalusia could start and end right here, in the enchanting capital of Andalusia, as we explore dozens of bars serving great tapas.

But we mustn’t tarry. Those tasty tapas will have to wait for later. We have a whole region to discover, some awe-inspiring landscapes to admire, some of the world’s great wineries to visit, and a tank full of gas to burn. Furthermore, there’s a ship waiting for us.

Encounler with Columbus 

Three ships, to be exact.   Taking the A-49 highway west from Seville, we reach the province of Huelva and the turnoff for the Lugares Colombinos—the place where one of history’s greatest adventures started. The road takes us past the towns of Moguer and Palos de la Frontera to the mouth of the Odiel river and the Muelle de las Carabelas, the Quay of the Caravels. This outdoor museum is a reproduction of a 15th-century port, and in it is berthed Christopher Columbus’ famous flotilla, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María, exact replicas of the original ships made with the same shipbuilding techniques of Columbus’ day.

Not far from here is the Monasterio de La Rábida, the 15th-century Franciscan monastery where Columbus sought shelter when he first arrived in Spain in 1485. Seven years later it was from nearby Palos de la Frontera that Columbus sailed. Most of his crew were from Palos and Moguer.

Columbus took with him his dreams of discovery. His crew took more practical things, such as dried tuna, wheat, legumes and, of course, a good supply of Huelva wine, the first Spanish wine to be exported to America.  Their descendants still make wine in the Condado de Huelya, as this area is known. This is one of the four denominacion de origen winemaking regions in Andalusia. The oldest winery in the district is located in Moguer—Diezmo Nuevo, founded in 1770.

Huelva wines are made with the Zalema, the indigenous white grape of the region. Traditionally, it is used to make an amber-colored oloroso style fortified wine, Condado Viejo, an earthy, nutty, mouth-filling wine that goes perfectly with the famous hams of Huelva. But living in the shadow of Jerez, this wine region seemed forever condemned to play second fiddle to its mighty neighbor. Many bodegas went out of business, and those wine growers with good land switched to strawberries, today the biggest cash crop in the province.

In the late 1970s a new generation of vintners started to experiment with un-aged white Zalema wines, using modem technology and temperature controls that could halt the grape’s proclivity to oxidation. The results were fresh, light wines that go perfectly with seafood, and their success was immediate. Although the district’s 30-odd bodegas still make the traditional lines, young white wines are fast becoming the Condado de Huelva’s star product.

Most of the Condado de Huelva’s winemaking activity is centered around Bollullos Par del Condado, our next destination. The coastal road from La Rábida slices through a pine forest 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the beach resort of Matalascañas. Drive carefully here, especially at dawn and dusk: deer and wild boar have the habit of wandering onto the road.

We are approaching one of the great natural treasures of Europe: the Doñana National Park, an expanse of scrub, marsh, sand dunes, and pine forest that spreads over 57,700 hectares (142,000 acres) at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river. Millions of birds use Doñana as a vital stopover during the long migration from northern Europe to Africa. Many other species breed here, or live year round. Golden eagles wheel overhead, lynx hunt amongst the rugged undergrowth.

The park’s main reception center is located at Acebuche, a few kilometers from Matalascañas. From here you can join a tour through the park in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Heading north, we arrive at Almonte, at the edge of Doñana. It was a shepherd from this village who, in the 13th century, stumbled across an image of the Virgin concealed in the hollow of a tree. A shrine was built on the spot. in honor of the Virgen del Rocío—Our Lady of the Dew. Every year at Whitsuntide, around a million people converge on the shrine to honor the virgin in the three-day Romería del Rocío, which combines religious fervor with all the color of an Andalusian fiesta.

It’s a short drive from Al-monte to Bollullos Par de! Condado, the winemaking capital of Huelva. The main street of the town is lined with barn-like establishments offering local wine, ham, sausage, and cooked shrimp by the ton. For a preview of the local winemaking scene, visit the Casa del Vino, a small white building at the northern exit of the town. The products of all the region’s wineries are on display here. You can sample and buy local wine, and they will also supply you with maps and brochures.

The first winery on our list is the family-owned Bodegas Andrade. Visitors are treated to an audiovisual show explaining the wineries history before stepping into the aging cellars to sample the bodega’s products. Outside, there is a large corral where guests are treated to a demonstration of Andalusian horsemanship.

Like the other wineries in Huelva, Bodegas Andrade produce a classic oloroso, Doceañero, as well as a lighter pálido wine, but above all a young white in the new style, Castillo de Andrade. With the reputation of Huelva whites firmly established, it was only a matter of time before vintners started considering new variations on the theme. The Nuestra Señora del Rocío wine cooperative in Almonte, for instance, now makes Andalusia's only sparkling wine, Raigal. For its part, Bodegas Andrade are excited about their latest wine, a vino de aguja, a petillant white with a certain amount of natural carbonic gas. There are other interesting developments taking shape at the region’s largest wine cooperative, Vinícola del Condado, also in Bollullos. The bodega’s young oenologist, Juan Alfonso Ojeda, was part of the team that helped develop the first young Huelva white. Now Vinícola del Condado is involved in a publicly-funded project that could change the face of winemaking in Andalusia. Four hectares in each of the region’s eight provinces have been set aside to be planted with introduced grape varieties, ten red and ten white. The idea is to see which ones grow best in the different terroirs of southern Spain, with a view to coming up with new blends for table wines. Meanwhile, Vinícola del Condado makes a dry white, Privilegio del Condado, and a semidry Don Condado, as well as a variety of traditional fortified wines.

Before leaving Huelva, make a short detour to the town of Niebla to admire the spectacular, well-preserved medieval walls which encircle the town. For centuries Niebla was a strategic fortress, protecting routes that carried the rich minerals mined in the Huelva mountains. It was virtually impregnable, and the Moorish town fell to conquering Christians in 1257 only after a nine-month siege in which gunpowder was used in Spain for the first time.

From Niebla, heading hack towards Seville, the highway takes us across the impressive Quinto Centenario suspension bridge just south of Seville, speeding us towards our next destination, one whose name is synonymous with fine wine: Jerez de la Frontera.  

Into the heart of Sherry Country

Jerez is known as the birthplace of the Carthusian breed of horse, a cross between the flight Arab steed and the sturdy Spanish horse. It is also the undisputed capital of pure flamenco (see Spain Gourmetour No. 43), which can be experienced in the numerous peñas, or clubs, in its Santiago quarter. But above all, Jerez is known for its wine. Yet as we approach Jerez, the famous Osborne hull looms reassuringly on the horizon, but aside from that there is nothing to indicate that we are in one of Spain’s most famous wine-growing regions. You start to wonder: where are all the vineyards?

There are in fact more than 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of vineyards in the Jerez region, but to see them, we must turn off the main road and travel along the country lanes that connect the towns of Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. Here, on gently sloping land, grow the Palomino grapes that are the essence of sherry (See Spain GourmetourNo. 35). The soil is blindingly white: this is the chalky albariza which is part of the secret of sherry. It has the quality of soaking up and storing water from the torrential rainfalls of autumn and winter, providing nourishment to the vine throughout the long, hot summer.

Grown elsewhere, the Palomino is a rather undistinguished grape, but due to the happy combination of soil and the prevailing humidity thanks to Jerez’s proximity to the ocean, a miracle happens in the wine cellars of Jerez. A yeast present on the grape skins flourishes, producing a protective layer called the flor which prevents the wine from oxidizing, resulting in sherry’s exceptional dryness and aroma.

Each bodega has its legends and its special charm. Most cellars welcome visitors, and constitute the main tourist attraction in the town. The Gonzalez Byass winery alone welcomes 100,000 visitors each year.

A typical visit goes something like this: first, you watch a short film or audiovisual show. Next, a guide leads you through the rows upon rows of casks—many of them signed by illustrious visitors in the past—explaining the criadera and solera system (see Glossary on page 150) used to blend different vintages, and the difference between linos, amontillados and olorosos. The tour ends in the sacristía—the sacristy—with a tasting of the various wines. expertly drawn from the barrel by the venenciador, using a cup attached to a slender rod (see article on page 148). Visiting a wine cellar in Jerez is an education. Visit three, and you’re an expert. Visit six, and you come away with the feeling that there is an awful lot more to learn about sherry.

The Gonzalez Byass and Domecq complexes in Jerez resemble miniature cities. Their citizens are the tens of thousands of old oak sherry butts that repose in vast cellars, each cask containing 500 liters. Everything is designed to keep that vital flor happy. High vaulted ceilings keep summer temperatures down, the windows are oriented to the westerly winds to ensure good ventilation, the cellars are hosed down regularly. Even the lush gardens that surround the wineries owe more to a need to maintain the proper microclimate than to a bent for botany.

At Gonzalez Byass, you view such hallowed cellars as Los Apóstoles and La Constancia. You might even catch a glimpse of the famous sherry-sipping mice, which have returned after a few year’s absence following some repair work in the cellar (a glass and a miniature ladder are set out for their indulgence). You will learn how a cask from the private supply of dry sherry kept by José de la Peña, the founder’s uncle, was shipped to England, giving birth to another legend: Tío Pepe.

At Domecq—at 268 years the oldest winery in Jerez— they’ll also tell you about how an undelivered shipment of wine spirits originally destined for Holland was left to mellow in old sherry casks and metamorphosed into the first Brandy de Jerez in 1874: Fundador. You’ll also see the touching memorial to the late José Ignacio Domecq, who was armed with a formidable proboscis and an uncanny knack for using it: no one could sniff out the qualities of a good wine better than he.

Sadly, this could be your last chance to visit another classic winery, Williams and Hum-bert, home of Dry Sack. Sprawling over several blocks of prime real estate next to the Jerez bullring, the old cellars are being dismantled.

“If only the walls of the place could talk,” remarks Juan Manuel Espinosa, the Williams and Humbert PR officer, not without a hint of nostalgia, as he gestures at the Williams and Humbert sacristía. Fortunately, this part of the winery will remain: it is being ceded to the Jerez town hall, which plans to convert it into a much-needed wine museum.

Meanwhile, the Williams and Humbert operation will shift Lo a large plant just outside Jerez. Which brings us to another aspect of sherry, one the visitor rarely gets to see. For all the mysticism and romantic aura of Jerez, there is a modern, hi-tech side to winemaking here. The wineries in town are aging cellars. The pressing, fermenting, initial aging, and bottling usually take place in modern plants outside the city.

A good example of the modern face of sherry is the sprawling Rancho Croft. Although the story of the Croft port and sherry company goes back to 1678, there is nothing old fashioned about their Jerez operation. With pinpoint precision, the grape harvest undergoes a highly mechanized process to provide the raw material for the winery’s labels. The only aspect they haven’t improved on is the indispensable criadera and solera aging in vast cellars.

From Jerez. our route takes us to the bay of Cádiz and Puerto de Santa Maria, the port from which sherry was traditionally shipped, and home to more legendary names. Laid out in a businesslike grid pattern, El Puerto is known for its 13th-century castle and its attractive bullring, but most visitors head straight for the famous Ribera del Marisco— Shellfish Row. Here, in a dozen establishments, crustaceans of every shape and size are cooked to perfection to be eaten at tables on the sidewalk outside.

The proper accompaniment is, needless to say, fino del Puerto—the dry local sherry. The two largest bodegas are Terry—a visit to their wine cellars includes a colorful display of Andalusian horse-drawn carriages—and Osborne, whose elegant reception center has the air of an Edwardian gentlemen’s club. Being closer to the ocean, Puerto de Santa María is that much more humid. The flor, which tends to diminish or even die out in the hot summer and cold winter months further inland, lasts longer here, and so the wines are a touch drier and paler. But to sample the driest of the dry, we must head for the third town in the Sherry trio: Sanlúcar de Barrameda, standing across from the Doñana Park at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river.

Sanlúcar is known above all for two things: its giant shrimps, the langostinos de Sanlúcar, and its manzanilla, a type of sherry made here alone.

Connoisseurs claim that there’s a hint of sea in manzanilla, and no better place to check this out than in the town’s oldest winery, the family-owned Bodegas Delgado Zuleta, whose origins go back to 1719. They have 14 different cellars scattered around the upper part of town—where they are ex-posed to sea breezes unhindered by surrounding buildings—including the original cellar, known simply as La Casa because it once doubled as the family home. Here we learn that the crystal clear, dry manzanilla sold elsewhere is different to that which they enjoy drinking themselves: they prefer manzanilla pasada, which ages longer and is subtly darker than the other kind, with a perceptible marine tang to it. Zuleta’s La Goya is the town’s best-selling wine. For a real treat, try their very old amontillado, Quo Vadis, which is all the rage among knowledgeable wine lovers. Housed in a dozen large

buildings clustered around Sanlúcar’s Santiago castle, the biggest of the town’s cellars is Barbadillo, which has been in business since 1821 and was the first company to ship its products under the generic name manzanilla (in 1827). Yet for most of its history it served mainly as a supplier and aging cellar for other wineries. Thus, when it decided to market wine under its own label a decade ago, it found that its competitors had a head start.

The winery started to toy with the idea of making a young white wine with the Palomino grape. This would have been inconceivable a few generations ago, but with the new technology available, Barbadillo decided it was worth a try. The result was one of the success stories of Spanish winemaking: today, their fresh, light Castillo de San Diego is the bestselling white wine in Spain. The best place to down a well-chilled bottle of Castillo de San Diego is the Bajo de Guía, a district of Sanlúcar on the banks of the Guadalquivir. Every other house here is a restaurant, serv¡ng shrimp, lobsters, oysters, and every sort of fish imaginable.

For Dessert, Málaga

For the final leg of our journey, Málaga, we have several options, all of them scenic. We could take the coastal route, rounding the tip of Europe at Tarifa, with Africa looming across the Strait of Gibraltar. We could take the shorter route through bull ranch country, passing Medina-Sidonia and Alcalá de los Gazules.

A third option is the mountain route, which will take us to some of the picturesque white villages of Andalusia. Leaving Jerez behind, our first stop is Arcos de la Frontera, perched spectacularly on a cliff. For one of the best views in Spain, head for the main square, at the highest part of the village. Soak in the scenery as you sip a glass of chilled sherry on the terrace of the palatial parador hotel.

On the road to Ronda, before entering the province of Málaga, it is worth making a short detour to Grazalema, another classic white pueblo. Little known to most visitors, Grazalema and its adjoining natural park is the rainiest spot in Spain. These towering peaks trap the clouds rolling in from the Atlantic. creating a unique microclimate for the rare fir tree, abies pinsapo, which can only thrive in humid conditions at high altitudes. Thanks to these sheltering mountains, the coast of Málaga to the east enjoys the fair year-round climate which has turned it into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. A half-hour journey brings us to Ronda, overlooking its dizzying gorge, the Tajo de Ronda. This town of elegant palaces and churches is known as the cradle of bullfighting and its plaza de toros is one of the oldest in Spain. To reach the coast, we follow the old smugglers route through forests of cork oaks. More postcard villages await along the way: Gaucín,Jimena de la Frontera, the old town of Castellar rising impossibly atop a rocky outcrop... Finally we reach the Mediterranean coast and, heading eastward, we take the two-kilometer road inland to Manilva, the capital of one of the three separate zones that constitute the Málaga wine region—the others are the Axarquía, a mountainous region east of the city of Málaga, and the plains around Antequera, in the north of the province where the predominant grape is the Pedro Ximénez. Each of the three has totally different growing conditions. Manilva, being closest to the Atlantic, has more humid weather and its soil is richer. As a result, the Muscatel grapes grown here swell to an enormous size. Although a small quantity is destined for wine, most of the crop is sold as eating grapes. Andalusians will pay any amount of money for a bunch of juicy, sweet Muscatels, and many flock here for the harvest festival on the first weekend in September, when local farmers bring their biggest bunches of grapes to be áuctioned off to the crowd.

The regulations stipulate that Málaga wine must be aged in the city of Málaga, and it is there we are headed next. On its leafy Alameda is one of Málagas oldest institutions: the Antigua Casa de Guardia, a small wine tavern not far from the colorful main market of Málaga. Wines are sold directly from the barrel at the Antigua Casa, which has been a popular watering hole for the last 150 years.

Málagas wine trade goes back to Roman times. Its winemaker’s guild, the oldest in Spain, was established in 1487, and for centuries Málaga wines made with Muscatel and Pedro Ximénez were among Spain’s most successful exports, but the phylloxera plague of last century and the increasing popularity of drier wines sent the region into a slow decline. The closure a few years ago of the city’s most classic winery, Scholtz, saddened both friends and competitors.

Fortunately for wine lovers, a handful of wineries carry on with the tradition. One typical example is Hijos de José Suárez, better known by its picturesque nickname: Quitapenas, meaning something that removes sorrow, a fairly accurate description of the effect of an 18% proof Málaga wine.

Some 30,000 annual visitors to their bodega in the crusty fishermen’s quarter of El Palo could well feel they’ve stepped back in time at this winery in which grapes were still tread by foot as recently as 1989 (and it only stopped then due to E.U. regulations). They produce the full classic range of Málaga, from the basic Málaga sweet wine, aged for at least two years using the crianza and solera blending system, to longer-aged sweet wines— velvety and elegant—including one to be released this year, Viejo Abuelo 1940, which has been doing the rounds in the barrels for the last six decades.

The winery was founded in 1880 by Francisco Suárez, who had until then been a farmer in the Axarquía district east of the city. The Axarquía is a breathtaking country, with gleaming white villages clinging to hillsides. Grape growing here is a laborious business—the Muscatel vines grow on narrow terraces hacked out of the mountainside, a terrain that defies mechanization. The area is famous for its sweet Muscatel raisins. Following harvest, the grapes are spread out in rectangular beds to dry in the hot Andalusian sun. There is even a raisin museum—the Museo de la Pasa— in the village of Almáchar.

The best-selling Málaga wine—indeed, the best-selling sweet wine in Spain—is Málaga Virgen, made by the López Hermanos winery. If Quitapenas offers a vision of the past, this bodega is the best place to see where the future of Málaga wine lies. Five years ago they started producing what they believe will be the next generation of Málagas: it is a Muscatel varietal, Cartojal, a pale cream which unlike most other wines of this type has no added grape concentrate and contains only the sugar from the original grapes. Surprisingly complex and intriguing, it makes for an interesting chilled aperitif, and goes well with dishes such as foie gras.

López Hermanos are supplied by wine growers in all three of Málaga’s subzones, and a few years ago acquired their own vineyard near Antequera, 60 kilometers (40 miles) north of Málaga. Aside from being a town with an outstanding number of monuments, Antequera is known for its dolmens—megalithic constructions fashioned out of immense stone slabs—and two nearby natural wonders, the weird rock formations of El Torcal, and the salt lagoon of Fuentepiedra, the major breeding ground for the greater flamingo. A scant kilometer from the lagoon is the López Hermanos vineyard. Here, on a flat terrain that is chilly in winter, baking hot in summer, flourishes the Pedro Ximénez grape (named after one Pero Xi-men, a Spanish soldier said to have brought the original vines back from the Rhine in Germany in the 17th century). Following harvest, the grapes are laid out in paseros to gently toast in the sun, inducing the partial raisining that results in the elegant sweetness of a good, dark Málaga, the perfect way to end a meal, and our tour as well.

If we headed north from Antequera, we would arrive at the forth denominación de origen area in Andalusia, Montilla-Moriles in the province of Cordoba, but that is another story we’ll save for a future issue. For now, let’s head back to Seville. We still have all those tapa bars to visit, remember?


Mark Little is an American-born journalist based in southern Spain. He was editor of the English-language Lookout Magazine for many years, and is now a freelance writer contributing to publications and guide books about Spain.


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