SANLUCAR DE BARRAMEDA, Spain — The official colour of the seaside city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which stands at the mouth of Andalucía’s longest river, is albero, the distinctive khaki-yellow of the town’s beaches.
Houses are often painted in this shade, and the sand itself appears between rows of palms on the lower town’s boulevards and on the floor beneath rows of stacked barrels in the old town, up on a hilltop.
Here it helps with climate control, being regularly sprayed with water to keep the humidity high, aiding the production of Spain’s signature drink — sherry.
Bodegas La Cigarrera, one of the city’s oldest sherry-making houses, founded in 1758, has a pretty courtyard also painted in the traditional sandy hue, and its almost entirely machine-free operation has been run by the same family for nine generations in what was once part of a monastery.
Around the courtyard, thick-walled storehouses with high ceilings and windows that face the Atlantic, shuttered with woven screens rather than glass, hold vast black barrels that are occasionally repaired, but never replaced.
Each bodega cherishes its own particular strains of yeast that make up the “wine mother,” a thick, creamy layer of life on top of the wines which is essential to fermentation and which affects the individual flavour of each sherry. The giant oak barrels contain a mixture of old and new wines: “Once a year we add new wine to the old ‘wine mother’,” explains a guide. “And this helps keep the flavour of our bodega’s wines consistent.”
La Cigarrea is not a big producer, making only about 40,000 litres — 4,400 cases — a year. It has a small shop that offers bottles of sherry in pretty presentation boxes, but much of its trade is with locals bringing plastic jugs and bottles for refills, and which are then sealed with sticky tape.
In the grid of the “new” town below, still centuries old, signs on high walls indicate the presence of other, larger, bodegas, such as Hidalgo, founded in 1792, and giant barrels are piled at street corners, painted to advertise their bodegas of origin.
In the bars sherry is served from vats, with olives, cheese and more than a hundred varieties of tapas. These are taken at shaded tables in the town’s many small squares, brilliant with gaudy bougainvillea.
The dimly lit bar interiors are lined with locally produced, fragrant hams suspended by their trotters, sliced on the spot for sandwiches and other dishes, followed by pastries made with nuts and honey, a remnant of Moorish cuisine.
Sherry has long been central to Sanlúcar’s economy. Early exports played their part in expanding Spain’s empire.
Magellan, who set out from Sanlúcar in 1519 to be the first to circumnavigate the world, spent more money on sherry than on ammunition. Drinking it on the long voyages helped prevent scurvy and the casks acted as ballast, being refilled with seawater when their contents had been drunk.
These days it’s visitors from the New World who take home luggage clinking with bottles of Spain’s most famous export.
For more information on Bodegas La Cigarrera visit its website at www.bodegaslacigarrera.com.
For information on travel in Spain visit the Tourist Office of Spain website at www.spain.info.