A Sherry with Sea Legs

Paul Blow

It was a hot summer evening, and some friends and I were sitting on the deck as the sun descended, munching on olives and salted almonds, the classic food pairings for dry sherry. The flavor of the salty olives mingled with the brusque, briny, and sweet aftertaste of cold La Gitana, the archetypal manzanilla sherry made by Bodegas Hidalgo. I recalled my vacation in southern Spain several years ago, when I first fell for La Gitana, which translates as “the gypsy girl.”

The most highly prized wines are said to have a “sense of place.” Almost always that place is a vineyard. But in some wines there’s another sense of place that relies not on a specific plot of dirt, but rather on climate and tradition.

When you visit the sherry region of southern Spain, you hardly ever see the vineyards, which are located in the desolate countryside outside the main villages. While the white, chalky albariza soil of sherry is famous, the main grape grown in it is not. Unlike the grapes in most wines, the sole purpose of Palomino Fino is to not impart too much character. Instead, the character of manzanilla comes from the unique climate of the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the wines are aged.

Sitting at the point where the Guadalquivir River meets the Mediterranean Sea, Sanlúcar is cooler and more humid than the famous villages at the other points of the “sherry triangle,” Jerez de la Frontera and El Puerto de Santa Maria. All three villages are known for making sherry of the crisp, refreshing fino style (manzanilla is the style of fino from Sanlúcar).

All fino styles involve the cultivation of what’s called the flor, a layer of yeast exclusive to this area that forms naturally on top of the wine as it ages in barrel. Over years of aging, the flor does two things: It protects the fino sherry from oxygen, keeping it fresh; and it meticulously scours the wine, consuming most of the residual and unfermented sugars that typically remain in red or white table wine.

As a result, fino sherries are ultradry wines, and manzanilla is the driest of all finos. The delicate flor stays alive year-round in Sanlúcar’s marine-moderated and consistent climate, making a wine that is lighter and less oxidized. Even if they wanted to make a fino like this in Jerez or Puerto de Santa Maria, they couldn’t.

Like all sherry bodegas—the cellars where the wines are aged—Hidalgo’s is a vast warehouselike building with dirt floors and giant wooden doors. The bodega’s natural air conditioning was demonstrated for me: Its giant doors are opened in the evenings to capture the cool, briny sea air, and then closed in the mornings to keep the cellars dark, cool, and moist as the outdoor temperature heats up. As the wine develops and breathes, it takes on the flavors of salt, brine, and minerals.

Sampling La Gitana directly from the barrel was a delicious experience (in that unfiltered state, the wine tastes even more vivid and crisp than it does from a bottle). But it wasn’t until afterward—when my friends and I pulled up to a dockside table at a local seafood joint, cracked a half bottle of La Gitana, and ordered a platter of prawns, langoustines, and sardines—that I truly appreciated its sea legs. It was a wine of these docks, these breezes, and this sea, and it conveyed that sense of place more insistently and poignantly than many wines from famous vineyards.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.