‘If it does not come from the sherry triangle, it is not sherry!‘ Fact. On the first stop of our food and wine tour, we found ourselves in Jerez, the capital of this triangle that churns out tonnes of this amber coloured liquid to the whole world.
We were extremely lucky to be privately shown around the bodega (winery) that is home to the famous Tio Pepe brand, Gonzalez Byass. We turned up at the huge iron gates on which elaborate golden letters read ‘Gonzalez Byass’. Feeling very small and insignificant, I got a momentary glimpse of how Charlie Bucket, Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt and the rest of the golden ticket winning crew must have felt in joyful anticipation of entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Our host turned up in the form not of a purple-jacket wearing eccentric, but of a smartly-dressed friend with a fountain of wine knowledge, Christopher.
And the inside did not disappoint. Stepping into this preserved part of Jerez was like stepping back in time to the foundation of the bodega in 1835. The cobbled streets, vine covered patios and even road signs were unscathed by modern construction. In fact, the whole bodega appeared to be a museum just for show with little practical use. If I had been on a standard tour with the usual tourist guide I would most certainly have believed it to be a facade. However, we were informed by this insider, who regularly opened the barrels to allow us to smell as evidence, that there really was sherry inside and that the extremely lengthy ageing process of up to thirty years meant that the winery needed to give the barrels other purposes rather than just sitting, literally gathering cobwebs.
The ancient winery is full of quirky little stories including a resident mouse, for whom the staff have constructed a ladder climbing up to a glass of sherry so he can have the occasional nightcap. Many of the wine barrels are signed by Spanish and English royals and other characters of note, one of my favourites being Picasso, each signature providing another story to add to the Gonzalez Byass archives.
The bodega not only produces sherry, but another exciting product… We were taken into a warehouse and faced with a weird and wonderful looking machine made of a series of huge brass containers connected by pipes. Chris asked us “so, what do you think we make here?” and my instinct (due to previous Willy Wonka moments) told me to say “chocolate?!” The response was a hearty laugh and, “great guess but no, it’s brandy!” As a by-product of sherry making, Gonzalez Byass produces Lepanto brandy. We were astonished to be told that again this time warp machine was not a museum artefact, but was fully up and running with a purpose of providing this sweet, golden liquid to the world. However, due to regulations and a prestigious reputation to live up to, the brandy is only produced a couple of times a year.
We did not have time to do a tasting on site, but we did a lot of smelling which forms a significant part of the tasting process, so we got the idea. Also our host gave us with private mini tastings and his wealth of knowledge at every meal time during our stay, providing a much more personal learning curve. We learnt so much due to Chris’s passionate ramblings about ‘everything wine’, which was fascinating. Having previously had the privileged experience of seeing what goes on within the wine-buying team at Sainsburys, this opportunity allowed me to see what goes on before the bottles arrive to their Head Office in Holborn and added that bit more of a desire to pursue a career within this world (as if I needed it!).
Thank you Chris for a wonderful time, we are extremely grateful!