Growing up in Australia, my idea of sherry was a cheap, sweet bottle of alcohol consumed solely by grandmas and budget boozers. However upon tasting the world’s most famous brand at the source – Tío Pepe sherry in Spain’s Jerez de la Frontera – I discovered sherry is a vastly underrated and often misunderstood drop.
After spending a week in Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucía, I realised I hadn’t yet experienced the region’s finest activity – visit a sherry bodega (winery). We were booked to leave for Ronda and so luckily my partner and I found the only sherry tour available before our Sunday departure, at Tío Pepe, which is also the world’s most famous producer of sherry.
Hauling our packs into a cab, we arrived at the bodega and waited for about 30 minutes until we were herded inside. A hint of must swept beneath my nose, the light dimmed, spraying in shafts beneath aged wine barrels and we began our walk down the concrete path to sherry salvation.
A short 15 minute film on the history of Tío Pepe sherry got us greenhorns up to speed and our group exited the cinema with newfound appreciation. Or at least I did.
A bit of Tío Pepe history
One day, in 1835, a guy named Manuel González Angel put every penny he had into a winery. He soon began producing and exporting a wine he named after his uncle José, whose nickname was Pepe. Tío means uncle in Spanish. Teaming up with his British agent Robert Blake Byass, Manuel and his friend formed the company Gonzalez Byass, which today produces the famous Tío Pepe wines.
In order to erase the misconception of sherry being sipped solely by grannies in thick thimbles, Gonzalez Byass launched an aggressive marketing campaign showing young people drinking sherry in elegant glasses. The campaign, one of Spain’s most creative, was a huge success.
A bit about the wines
Jerez’s Tío Pepe bodega is a classic in the sherry triangle – the sherry centre of the world located within the Spanish towns of Jerez de la Frontera, San Lúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. Sherry here comes from two types of grapes, the Palomino grape – used to make a wide range of sherry, and Pedro Ximénez grapes – which are used to make dessert wines.
Popular sherry produced at Tío Pepe are finos (fine in Spanish) manzanillas, which are kept fresh, pale in colour and have a distinct sea saltiness. Fino is a non-oxidized wine, ageing under a layer of flor (yeast) to avoid exposure to air, while containing roughly 13-15% alcohol content.
Other types of Tío Pepe sherry include amontillado, a slightly heavier wine about 16-18% in alcohol that’s aged beneath a layer of flor, then refortified, which dissolves the flor and exposes it to oxygen. Stronger still, at around 18-20% is oloroso (odorous in Spanish), a darker, heavier bodied wine that’s aged even longer and doesn’t form a layer of flor due to its high alcohol content. Tío Pepe also makes brandies, however it’s mostly known for its finos, which are my favourite.
During the fermentation process, the wines are stored in American oak barrels and room is left at the top so the flor can form. Barrels of wine are then stacked, with the newest sitting on top. As the sherry on the bottom is bottled, the barrels from the top move down a layer. This system of ageing, known as the solera system, ensures that a consistent quality of sherry is maintained.
Leaving the cinema, our group boarded the Tío Pepe train which putts around various parts of the bodega. Our guide, a dutch lady whose name I forget, was loud, expressive and kept us entertained. Exploring other parts of the bodega, we passed barrels signed by the rich and famous. Evidently the bodega has been visited by a lot of people.
Interestingly, Gonzalez Byass was part founded by a British agent and one of Tío Pepe’s barrels was signed by Roger Moore, which made me feel momentarily like I was in an intriguing Bond lair.
The old brandy rooms – where this liquid was made 150 years ago – proved atmospheric, as did other parts of the bodega, which looked enchanting beneath the dappled light created by verdurous vines. In one room, there’s a glass of sherry and a small ladder leading to it that’s left out everyday. Legend has it that a mouse once brazenly supped from a worker’s cup and now the mice are lovingly appeased. Another story suggests the smell stops the mice from nibbling at the barrels.
I like to think the first story is true.
Our tour concluded with wine tasting and eating. Food is extra and glasses after the two free provided can be bought on site. Of the Tío Pepe wines, I enjoyed the finos best. They tasted brilliant when washed down with some tapas. And while I enjoyed the manzanilla finos in San Lucar de Barrameda even better (where they’re renown), the Tío Pepe sherry bodega is well worth a visit.
It’s easily the best thing I did in Jerez de la Frontera, one of my favourite towns in Andalucía. I left there with a whole new appreciation for sherry – a drink which I now know is not just for grandmas and cheap drunks. It’s loved by the toffs of Jerez.