Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sherry Baby*

Last year - or rather 2006 - Madrid's talking heads passed an ordinance which sought to save energy, reduce light pollution, and present to tourists the world a more sophisticated cosmopolitan city by pulling the plug on its neon signs. Madrileños apparently are rather partial to neon lights and the overall effect was a very bright city out of control. Or so they say. I first came to Madrid after the dimmer switch was turned so, remarkably, I can offer no opinion. Although I could probably try.

Of Madrid's some 120,000 neon signs, one marquee - the city's oldest - was given a reprieve: the iconic Tío Pepe sherry sign which watches over the geographical centre and metaphorical heart of the city at the Puerta del Sol. I draw great comfort knowing that a humongous bolero-jacketed, guitar-wielding bottle with cocked rider hat - the mascot and namesake of the González-Byass winery's bestselling fino palomino sherry - is standing guard over the city.

It is, as the sign says, "the sun of Andalucía in a bottle".

So for this reason - and our love for the sun of Andalucía anything in a bottle - this year Señor Gato Gringo and I (with mi madre in tow) decided to spend part of our Christmas holidays in Jerez, one corner of Spain's so-called sherry producing triangle which it shares with Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. In Spain the fortified wine that we know as sherry is called vino de Jerez, or simply Jerez or Xérès.

Although Spaniards have been producing wine for over 3,000 years, it was ironically those Marauding Moors who introduced them to the art of distillation and, soon thereafter, a tipple of fortified wine blended with brandy was created
. Although the Qur'an prohibited the Muslim invaders, for whom present-day Jerez was Sherish (or شريش) from imbibing the eponymous wine (so again Sherish or شريش) that little dogmatic wrinkle didn't stop them from producing the wine even after the Caliph of Cordoba threw a holier-than-thou conniption and threatened to close them down.

Today, under EU law, any bottle sold as 'sherry' must come from Andalucía's sherry triangle, much like 'champagne' must come from the Champagne region in France.

I had my first glass of sherry - Harvey's Bristol Cream, if memory serves - as a rather green undergrad at a university reception which I attended with my father for no less than the Prime Minister of Ireland. A tray of amber-filled glasses and only amber-filled glasses was deftly tilted in my direction and I experienced a brief moment of panic. This clearly wasn't wine. Take one, my father whispered. I did.

We spent the rest of the evening flagging down the waiter with the amber-filled glasses. I don't remember much about the Prime Minister of Ireland.

So off to Jerez where the city's Mayor McCheese is none other than Tío Pepe. Tío Pepe is everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere and then some more. He appears on sidewalk umbrellas and in store windows, sits atop weather vanes and on display shelves and, of course, figures larger than life at the González-Byass bodega.

It was of course, de rigueur, that we go on a bodega tour. In fact, we went on more than one. One should never pass up the opportunity of going on a distillery/winery/brewery tour unless one knows for a fact that there is no sampling after the tour guide's spiel about 600-litre North American oak casks and the chalk content of soil and flor yeast. And although it is all well and good to know that when Magellan prepared to sail around the world, he spent more cash on sherry than weapons, if there is no free and preferably unlimited booze at the end of the educational rainbow, don't go. I can't be more plain than that.

Fortu
nately, at the end of the González-Byass tour - for which the highlight, notwithstanding the sloshed sherry-drinking cellar mice (click here to watch the sodden little rodents), was brushing my fingertips across Pablo Picasso's hand signed sherry cask - bottles of their bestsellers (and a basket of potato chips) were plonked on our table. What joy. With a nod toward the gift shop, our tour guide disappeared. Does it get more professional than that?

A tad sauced, a nonetheless incensed Señor G.G. (he was miffed because the people at table next to us left the sampling area with their bottles untouched and I wouldn't let him nick them) and a somewhat peeved Gatita (I was miffed because the people at the table next to us left the sampling area with their basket of potato chips untouched and he wouldn't let me nick them) weaved our way through the gift shop. There the Tío-palooza continues where there is nothing made by human hands doesn't have the jaunty little black bottle on it. And for the kids (you can never be too young to acquire a taste for fermented wine) there are even plush-toy sherry bottles which only a complete imbecile would waste good money on (that's mine on the left).

Such genius to coordinate the trip to the gift shop only after guests have consumed several bottles of 15% proof. I bet the people at the table next to us who left the sampling area with their bottles and chips untouched bought nothing. How shallow and empty and without purpose their lives must be.
________________________________________________

*
Apologies if you have the Frankie Valli tune looping through your head now. Annoying, isn't it?

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