Wednesday, 2 June 2010

All quiet on the southern front

It was almost like being in time warp. A parallel universe, existing outside of space and time. Every bar, cafe, shop and apartment had shut out the world, hiding any signs of life behind steel shutters. I crept through Plaza De Las Angustias, caught in a daydream where the world was inhabited by me, and me alone.

With my shirt damp against my back, I limped to a table outside the first cafe I came across that hadn't shut it's doors for the afternoon. Shadows softened as the sun's rays were filtered through the thick, sticky clouds that shrouded the city. The atmosphere was hot and damp, carrying the unmistakable musty scent of slowly fermenting grapes...

Clinging to the fringes of the sprawling conurbation that rims the Bay of Cadiz lies Jerez de la Frontera, a city of great historical significance; A bustling trading settlement in the reign of Al Andalus, a strategic outpost during the years of the Reconquista, and an important industrial hub in more modern times.

Influences from it's history both recent and ancient are proudly displayed throughout the city. Grand edifices of bygone colonial times share real estate with raff-and-tangle concrete palaces of the post-industrial age. Old and new sit side by side, decorated with dusty yellows and glistening azure blues that are so typically Andalusian. And amongst it all, in the courtyards, store houses and side streets from the old town to the outskirts are bodegas. For whilst Jerez may seem like little more than a sleepy, if handsome, industrial city, it is of course, the centre of the world when it comes to sherry.

Strolling from street to deserted street, not a single sole crossed my path. The huge wooden doors of the bodega I'd been meandering towards were bolted shut, as if the staff had left town, planning never to return. Still, I knocked.

After a humid few minutes wait, I was just about to turn on my heals when the doors creaked and slowly swung open, to reveal a beautiful vine covered courtyard. At the entrance stood a weary looking employee, Ignacio, who seemed so surprised to see anyone, he invited me for a look around. Ignacio turned out to be El Heffe, and whilst he was well over due for his siesta, he said he had just enough time to show me round.

As we walked amongst the barrels, he explained the cyclical fermentation process and how the conditions created by the humid micro-climate in the area, and their superior oak barrels allowed them to mature their wines for upwards of 20 or 30 years before bottling. This particular bodega, after all, exclusively produces V.O.S (vinum optimum signatum) and V.O.R.S (vinum optimum rare signatum) sherries and brandies. Basically, the best.

After a brief look at the owner of the bodega, Joaquin Rivero's private collection Renaissance art – which included two royal portraits by Goya – we reached a private room which is normally used to hold tastings for clients far more esteemed than I. But my luck was obviously in that day, or Ignacio just fancied a night cap, as he began pouring glasses for the both of us, first of their 25 year old V.O.S. Fino, then the V.O.R.S, then an Oloroso, then a 45 year old Gran Reserva brandy. Four glasses of fine vintage liquor at that hour of the day is enough to make anyone sleepy...

Back in the centre of town, as the long afternoon nudged it's way towards the evening, the city finally began to wake up. Old ladies sat huddled around the tables in the cafeterias, gossiping to one another as they snaffled deep-fried churros and dunked them into their mugs of steaming hot chocolate. Young folk gestured wildly to one another as they discussed their plans for the evening over quick cups of cafe con leche. Parents drinking beers on the terraces, as their kids played football in the square in front of them.

I sat outside a bar, sipping an Oloroso - ice cold, full bodied, carrying the taste of the barrel, and very slightly sweet - and watched the life flood back into the streets. Maybe Jerez de Fronter isn't so quite after all... They just take their afternoon napping seriously.

No comments:

Post a Comment