Just one taste of Spanish brandy—and I was smitten. A few years ago I attended Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, an annual gathering that celebrates cocktails and spirits, and representatives from several Spanish brandy distributors were on hand, sharing their products with attendees. When I sampled the amber beverage, I couldn’t believe the depth of flavors contained in one sip: caramel, almonds, honey, figs, and dates, just to name a few. I’d never tasted anything so delicious.
At that moment, I vowed to visit the land of Spanish brandy and learn more about this smooth, mellow spirit. Last December my husband, Peter, and I took a trip to Jerez de la Frontera to follow the Spanish Brandy Route and learn about Brandy de Jerez and its unique transformation from grapes to spirits. We discovered a region brimming with culture and history. Its mild climate, beautiful beaches and mountains, charming towns, and friendly people—combined with delicious cuisine, wines, and of course brandy and sherry—add up to a vacation paradise. Come join us in the sunny region of Andalusia as we explore Spain’s unique brandy region.
After flying into Madrid, where we rented a car, we drove six hours through the picturesque plains of Spain to Jerez de la Frontera. Peter and I rented a second-story apartment in an old section of the city and loved its rustic ambiance, fully equipped kitchen, and spacious terrace overlooking the local church. Each evening as we sat enjoying tapas and red wine, we could hear someone practicing flamenco dancing on a wooden floor in a nearby building. Rat-a-tat, stomp, stomp, rat-a-tat, stomp, stomp—it’s a sound I’ll forever associate with Jerez.
In fact, flamenco is an essential part of Andalusian culture and nearly every native knows how to clap and stomp and dance to the sounds of strumming guitar—Olé! One night Peter and I discovered a flamenco show just steps away from our apartment. The doors of a nondescript building opened to reveal a courtyard filled with twinkling lights, exotic Moroccan decor, and happy locals gathered to watch a flamenco show on a makeshift stage. We were the only tourists there—and felt so fortunate to be part of this convivial evening. In fact, “pop-up” flamenco shows are common, so it pays to be on the lookout!
The town of Jerez de la Frontera is a lively city with lots of shops and restaurants. Plan to stop in the Jerez Cathedral, built in the 17th century, and the Fortress of Jerez de la Frontera, perched on a hill above the town. There’s also a lively market selling every kind of seafood imaginable. The only thing I didn’t like about Jerez was we kept getting lost on its winding streets! Peter and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where we were. Thank goodness for the GPS on our smart phone, which helped us find our way home each night.
Besides visiting brandy houses, we were also excited about seeing the white towns in the mountains to the west and visiting nearby Doñaña National Park, Europe’s largest nature reserve, which hugs the Atlantic coast and provides refuge to 300 different species of birds, many migrating between Europe and Africa. Jerez is also home to the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, and we couldn’t wait to see a performance of these amazing horses. But first, let’s sip some Spanish brandy!
A HAPPY ACCIDENT
What makes Spanish brandy unique? It all has to do with the terroir—a French term that means the conditions in which the grapes are grown. Here in Jerez Atlantic breezes sweep across the vineyards and add a delicate salty flavor to the grapes used to make sherry. While Spanish brandy is made from different grapes, the American oak barrels in which sherry ages are repurposed to age brandy, thus flavoring it with the earthy flavors of the sherry.
The magical transformation of grapes into brandy takes place in Jerez and the nearby towns of Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. Only these three places can produce Spanish brandy, and the process is fascinating. Not only does the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean factor into the brandy’s flavors, the region’s humidity is also needed to create the proper conditions for aging the brandy, which occurs in huge cathedral-like warehouses. Inside these buildings barrels upon barrels of the world’s finest spirits repose in quiet, peaceful darkness.
A happy accident produced the first Spanish brandy, according to legend. After learning the art of distillation from the Moors, Spanish winegrowers began shipping distilled wine to other countries, using the wooden barrels in which sherries were aged. One shipment, so the story goes, was delayed, and the distilled wine remained in the oak barrels longer than usual. The resulting spirit absorbed some of the flavors from the sherry barrels—and voila, Spanish brandy was born.
Now a unique solera system is used to age the brandy, the same system used to create sherry. Basically, barrels are stacked on top of each other—as high as eight barrels tall—and when the brandy is ready to be bottled, a portion is removed from the bottom row of barrels (called the solera). The solera is filled with brandy from the barrels above, and each barrel in turn contributes to the barrel beneath it. The newest barrels at the top are topped off with distilled wine. The system does not produce specific vintages, but instead brandy that averages 10, 20, or even 50 years old. Sounds complicated, but Spanish brandy fans agree the end result is a delicious amalgamation of flavors.
Williams & Humbert, the first brandy house we visited, is located by a highway and has an industrial feel. No wonder. It’s the largest wine cellar in Europe with eight warehouses housing 50,000 total barrels, of which 7,500 contain brandy. After touring one of the immense buildings, we ended up in a cheerful tasting room next to a small shop. W & H’s signature brandy—Gran Duque du Alba—ranges in age from 10 to 25 years and has notes of raisin and vanilla—delicious!
Lustau, another brandy producer in Jerez, presents itself as more of a boutique brand. After an informative tour, the tasting takes place in a cozy, wood-paneled room, where a wall displays the family of beverages produced by Lustau’s parent company, Caballero. Christina Bilbao Alonso, who helps market the brand in the U.S., led our tasting, which was accompanied by a delicious selection of tapas. We loved Lustau sherries and their range of flavorful brandies, including two top-of-the-line choices: Solera Gran Reserva Finest Selection, and Solera Gran Reserva Anada 1977, which is aged in special barrels dating to 1977.
Most bodegas welcome visitors for tours, which are usually available in English, although calling in advance is always recommended. Because of the symbiotic relationship between sherry and brandy, plan to sample the sherry as well. This will enable you to appreciate how sherry flavors contribute to the fine taste of Spanish brandy. Bodegas charge a small fee for a tour and tasting, and some tours include a selection of tapas.
I’d read about Andalusia’s white villages (pueblos blancos) and wanted to see them for myself, so one day Peter and I packed a picnic and headed east, where the land rises sharply toward craggy mountains. We visited the white village of Arcos de la Frontera, where we climbed steep hills, peeked in ancient convents and mansions, and enjoyed magnificent views from the town square as we sipped sherry.
Another day we headed west to the coast to the town of El Puerto de Santa Maria, which nestles by the Atlantic Ocean and boasts beautiful beaches. The December weather was decidedly not beach-friendly, however, so we took refuge in the Castle of San Marcos, a medieval castle built on the site of a mosque, where we enjoyed an informative tour. El Puerto is also home to one of the region’s oldest taverns called Bodega Obregon. Peter and I sipped sherry in the cozy bar, where the interior walls are lined with barrels, bullfight posters, and paraphernalia. While we were there, locals brought in their empty sherry bottles to be refilled and enjoyed later.
The other sherry- and brandy-producing city, Sanlucar de Barrameda, is just to the north and is also the gateway to Doñaña National Park. We journeyed about eight miles up the Guadalquivir River on a boat tour one morning, stopping twice to look for deer, birds, and other wildlife. Seeing a flock of pink flamingo was the highlight of the tour. Back on land we walked around Sanlucar, stopping in a convent where a cafe served coffee and cake amid inviting gardens. We also peeked in the Orleans-Borbon Palace, currently the town hall. From a balcony of the palace, Peter and I heard festive music and went looking for the party.
Turns out we discovered another flamenco show—Olé!—at a historic bodega called La Cigarrera, where sherry has been produced by the same family for nine generations. In a cozy courtyard filled with Spanish families, Peter and I managed to find a table and ordered delicious tapas, including a bowl of flavorful paella and some local shrimp, which we enjoyed with—what else?—some lovely sherry.
In fact, even though I was drawn to this region to learn about Spanish brandy, both Peter and I were discovering the nuances of sherry on this visit—an unexpected bonus! Sherry is often thought of as a sweet dessert wine, but the fino and olorosso and amontillado sherries are dry, flavorful, and spectacular with food. (You’ll find three affordable varieties of sherry at Trader Joe’s if you’d like to expand your palate. Match them with some yummy tapas.)
Back in Jerez de la Frontera, it was showtime at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Here some of the world’s most beautiful horses perform an equestrian ballet unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Before the performance began, Peter and I toured the campus, which features a carriage collection; a state-of-the art, interactive museum dedicated to the equestrian arts; training rings where students learn the art of horsemanship; stables and tack room, which has a cathedral-like ambiance; and the saddlery, where you can watch craftsmen making saddles. In fact, we wished we’d allowed more time for our visit because there’s so much to see and learn, especially if you’re a little horse crazy like me!
But the show is the main reason people come to this attraction, and what a show it was. Our guide, Javier, explained that the purpose of the foundation is to preserve the culture of the Andalusian horse. “It’s a part of the heart of the Spanish culture,” he said. “It’s in the blood.”
The performance features a number of riders and trainers. Sometimes the horses do their movements while being ridden and other times the trainers are on the ground next to the horses guiding them as they dance. It’s thrilling to watch, especially since dramatic Spanish music plays as the horses perform their intricate choreographed moves like skipping, prancing, kicking, strutting, and jumping. The communication between the horse and his trainer is astonishing. It’s as if the two become one. Years of incredible discipline and hard work take place before these animals reach this level of art. It’s truly poetry in motion.
All too soon we found ourselves heading to Madrid for our flight home. It was colder in Madrid, which made us miss Spain’s sunny southern coast even more. Nevertheless, Spain’s capital is a fascinating city, and after dropping our bags at the Pullman Madrid Hotel, an upscale hotel near the airport, we took the metro do the city center, where the streets were ablaze with Christmas lights and the sidewalks full of shoppers out buying gifts.
We discovered a lovely restaurant called Viva Madrid and found a table in the bar area by a window, where we enjoyed olives, smoky ham, and foie gras along with tasty red wine. A Spanish family came in and sat near us, and we had fun watching three generations enjoy themselves. The grandfather sat at a small table with his grandson and ordered a huge pile of delicious ham—thinly sliced by the bartender from a jamón right on the bar —and a plate of fries for the boy. They were a boisterous family, and we smiled at one other as they milled about the small bar area, enjoying themselves and adding to our pleasure as well.
This happy family personified the festive spirit that seems ubiquitous in Spain. The Spanish people know how to live life well. Whether it’s enjoying fine brandy, sitting down to a tasty plate of ham, or elevating horsemanship to an art form, you’ll find a sense of passion for the art of living in Spain. Whenever Peter and I visit this amazing country, we come home feeling a renewed zest for life and a commitment to the art of living well. Olé!
For information, visit www.brandydejerez.es.
For tourist info., visit www.cadizturismo.com.
For lodgings in Jerez, check out www.airbnb.com/rooms/1623777.
For accommodations in Madrid, visit www.pullmanhotels.com/gb/hotel-1606-pullman-madrid-airport-feria/index.shtml.
For a great meal in Madrid, check out www.restaurantevivamadrid.com (Spanish only).