Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado... For many, Jerez wine is a mystery that is often daunting at first. Sometimes its great complexity and wide variety makes it a bit tricky to understand, leaving people thinking it is reserved for experts. There have likely been times when we have kept quiet in a conversation so as not to put our foot in it when talking about Jerez wines? Who hasn’t got confused about the differences between a Fino and a Manzanilla? What makes Palo Cortado so special? Why don't Marco de Jerez wines have a vintage? What is the criaderas and soleras system?
However, far from being frightening, it is precisely this richness and mystery that make it one of the best wines in the world, so it is well worth getting to know. To do this there is a unique and unrivalled opportunity every year during the Harvest Festivals in the city of Jerez de la Frontera (in southern Andalusia). This hundred-year-old event, which is always planned for September, celebrates the arrival of the first grape musts, the source of wealth for a region that has always dedicated its life to wine.
To find out more about these celebrations, and to get to know the Jerez wines, here are some of the events. And we insist: you really do need to experience these.
GRAPE TREADING AND BLESSING THE NEW MUST
A group of grape pickers and treaders, local band, queens of the Harvest Festival...and even the Dean of the Cathedral. An insight into local customs if ever there was one.
However, everything has a reason in the treading of the grapes, the initial act that kicks off the festivities. Traditionally this custom, which is currently celebrated in the Alameda Vieja, took place right at the door of the Jerez Cathedral, since in the 18th century wine was taxed to pay for the construction of the cathedral. Nowadays, although a little less public, the people of Jerez continue to take part in a custom where they remember everything that wine has meant for this area.
After the local band have performed, the grape harvesting team places the Palomino grape baskets (esparto basket with two small handles) in the wine press, where the treading team will be ready to tread the grapes. Once the must has emerged, the Dean of the Cathedral blesses it, using this act to hope for a good year in the wineries.
Very moving and interesting, where you can feel tradition and passion for the land in the air.
TIP: get to the venue well in advance. By definition, the citizens of Jerez are always involved in everything to do with their city and they take part in everything that is organised. Free seats at the event are a very valuable commodity.
WINERY SKILLS FOR CHILDREN: PASSING ON THE TRADITION
Aside from the wines, the world of Jerez is surrounded by a magical atmosphere and a tradition that is reflected in its venenciadores, coopers and grape treaders.
While the venenciadores poured a small amount of wine into the glass from a height, the coopers moulded the staves of the butts with fire and a hammer. There was no one job better than another, all these trades have been very important; and they have all provided most of the people in the Marco de Jerez with a living. Unfortunately they are being lost nowadays (especially the cooper). As diplomat and journalist Alberto Lleras said, “a people without tradition is a people without a future.” And in Jerez they are working to make sure that doesn’t happen. The solution: to organise events aimed directly at children, like the children’s venenciador competition.
TIP: there is no feeling more satisfying than a good glass of self-serve jerez. It is fascinating to see how the wine slowly falls into the glass. At the end of the day, this job will have you hooked, especially adults, so beware.
FROM GLASS TO GLASS: THE LITMUS TEST
We already know where everything comes from. Working with the environment is a fact. Now comes the moment of truth, to try a glass of sherry wine. The best place for it, without a doubt, is “De copa en copa.”
This is an event that brings together a handful of the region’s wineries, giving people the chance to try the best wines paired with a small snack. From the best Finos, to the Olorosos with more character, through to the Amontillados and sweet wines (without forgetting the local whites and reds that are not part of the fortified wine family).
ADVICE: the event takes place in the cloisters of Santo Domingo, a 13th century building. Of Muslim origin, it became part of a convent of the Dominicans (Alfonso X the Wise ceded the building after the Reconquest). Its ribbed arches and Gothic relics make it a real gem where time will pass you by. And the glass of wine in your hand won’t help either. You will know when you arrived, but not when you left.
RIDE THROUGH THE VINEYARDS IN A 4X4
Finally, we cannot leave Jerez without knowing where everything started, the place where the wines of Jerez are born: the vineyard
Rather than a long and boring walk through the vineyards, there are more interesting options, like 4x4 rides or photography walks. This will give you first-hand experience of Palomino, the area’s reigning variety, where the miracle begins.
TIP: many of these areas have been featured on the big screen in El verano que vivimos and The Vineyard. You might end up feeling like you’re living one of these stories when you take a walk in the middle of the afternoon, through the vineyards with the sun going down and an aperitif in your hand. Be careful though, it might look like a movie, but it isn’t. Unfortunately, it will soon be time to get back to reality.