Bodegas Tradición: Fine Sherry, Fine Art

The entrance to the museum.

The entrance to the museum.

Last May, one of the most beautiful days in Jerez was also one of the driest, hottest days indexed since spring began.  I—a girl from the tropics, no less!—was ready to faint, and worse, was lost. I had left the car with my husband to go on foot to find the entrance to a sherry winery after having taken one wrong turn after another; the streets seemed to narrow after every corner, and taking the rental deeper into the maze seemed precarious. The white walls of the flat, tiny-windowed buildings mercilessly reflected the sun’s heat, scorching and furious, as I surveyed the cobblestone streets and realized the hopeless lack of anyone to get directions from—even if my terrible Spanish, had I had the opportunity to exercise it, would probably instruct them to point me to the nearest library.

Ah. Wait. No wonder there is nobody and it is quiet, the only sound being my hesitant footsteps bouncing around the empty esquinitas. It is time for siesta, and every sensible person was probably indoors, sleeping, resting, or doing whatever they do apart from daringly walking the streets so close to midday. Even on one of its busiest, most glamorous weeks—the week of Feria del Caballo—Jerez felt like a ghost town, making me feel as though everyone was at a party I had meant to go to but I had forgotten about entirely.  Instead, I was trying to find my way to the winery–earlier, the wretched GPS announced YOU HAVE ARRIVED AT YOUR DESTINATION!!! about a hundred million timesdrawing out this adventure to which there seemed to be no conclusion.

Or so I thought.  Finding an unmarked green door, I knocked, miserable, expecting nobody would respond (as was the case with other doors previously).  Startling me a bit, a smiling, blonde lady appeared, the open door betraying the quiet of the street with the laughter and conversation of a pack of tourists behind it, merry with sherry.  I found the party.

A Taste of Sherry

I’m not much of a sherry drinker, but Jerez de la Frontera is historically world-famous for it, forming one of the corners of the Sherry Triangle–the other two being Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. (The name sherry is actually the Anglicization of Xerez, as Jerez was formerly spelled, resulting from its popularity in Britain especially after Sir Francis Drake occupied Cadiz a year before the whole Spanish Armada episode.  He took over the harbors and destroyed 37 naval and merchant ships; a part of his spoils were 2,900 casks of this Spanish fortified wine.) I had tried it at a local tapas bar several years back and didn’t like it; it was simply too sweet.  But as I planned a visit to Jerez, I knew I needed to give it another try, hoping that learning about the process of sherry-making in its actual birthplace would deepen my appreciation of it.

The learning in particular wasn’t a difficult prospect as Jerez is rife with bodegas and even more so with tours, but it proved paralyzing to choose which one bodega to visit in my limited time there.  There are massive wineries like Tio Pepe and Sandeman; older ones, the oldest and most famous of which is Pedro Domenq; tours with tastings; tours without; tours with a meal; tours without; and many, many more in between.

The courtyard.

The courtyard, with a canopy of grape vines.

Bodegas Tradición

Imagine my delight in finding Bodegas Tradición, a relatively small bodega, but the only one also known for its collection of prized art, with treasures by El Greco, Velazquez, and Goya. One of its owners, Joaquin Rivero, owns one of the most significant private art collections in Spain, with works spanning from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, a good fraction of which is housed in a gallery in Bodegas Tradición. Rivera is a descendant of the original owners of this sherry winery (ownership changed hands a few times).  Making his fortune in the real estate business, Rivera expanded his business to include winemaking and art collecting, purchasing the bodega back in 1998 and producing sherry for a niche market, exclusive and limited. I booked a tour online, and Ulrike, who received me at the aforementioned entrance, quickly sent a confirmation.

“Where is the GPS in your car—and your sunglasses, don’t leave it on the dashboard,” Ulrike warned. “It is going to melt!”  It didn’t take much to convince me; I found the car and my sidekick and got our things secure and out of the sun.

Detail of "La Costurera" by Diego Garcia Diaz.

Detail of “La Costurera” by Diego Garcia Diaz.

Taking the Tour

We were first ushered into a small courtyard. Even al fresco, the smell of the sherry was fragrant and intense, and, thankfully, perked me up in no time. (Even the humidity, probably emanating from the cellar, was more than welcome.) Ulrike then took us into a salon where we waited for the rest of the tour group to arrive. Already there were large, imposing canvases in their sumptuous gold-leaf frames, the most beautiful of which was “La Costurera” by Domingo Garcia-Diaz, which was a portrait of a seated woman embroidering.  It is typical of the romantic-realist movement of the nineteenth century, when it was painted; the delicate details, especially of the embroidery of the costurera herself, are magnificent and refined. This painting was also used for the label of an oloroso (more on that, later), one of their wines, back in 2012.

The salon was stately, though the blackened-from-tarnish silver candelabras and threadbare sofas give the room a cozy, old-world feel. Paintings in gilt frames hang on every wall, and several antique wine accoutrements are displayed behind glass cases, already giving a sense of history to this storied bodega.  It’s a new winery, but it holds the distinction of being the successor to the oldest winery in the Jerez production area.  The winery dates as far back as 1650, and by official appointment supplied wines to the royal houses of Spain and Portugal, garnering awards through the centuries.  Today, it prides itself on adhering to traditional styles and processes in winemaking. An added touch is that each bottle is hand-labeled and sealed.

Rows of oak casks.

Rows of oak casks.  The lowest row is the solera row, and the row above it is the first criadera, followed up top by the second criadera.

Our tour began with a short lecture by Ulrike on how the sherry is made.  We entered their cellar that had rows on end of casks of sherry, and, as per tradition, all of American oak, which, Ulrike explains, flavors the sherry with an aroma that only gets deeper and better with age. The bodega uses the muscatel, Palomino, and the Pedro Ximenez grape varieties, and ages the sherry using a solera y criadera system, where wines are “refreshed” with younger wine: the solera row, which is the oldest and the row nearest the ground, holds the wine ready for bottling; when a fraction of the wine is extracted from the solera casks, they are replenished with “younger” wines from the casks in the row above it (the first criadera); in turn, these are replenished with even younger wine from the second criadera, and so on. Because of this system, the wines’ flavors stay consistent, and while they can’t label their wines with their ages because of the combination of the different vintages, on average the wines are at least 20 years old, with some even reaching 45 years old or more.  Bodegas Tradición prides itself on its commitment to the traditional, natural aging and flavoring process of the wine: it is never filtered, blended, or caramelized.  They further explain in their website:

Focusing on very old sherry, non chill filtered, not blended, not stabilized, not clarified, unsweetened, and with no addition of sulfites is our strategy in search of the purest styles of traditional sherry. Added to these characteristics, Bodegas Tradición aims exclusively to largely aged wines. The Regulating Authority launched in 2002 a new qualification for the oldest Sherries with two main categories: Very Old Rare Sherries with more than 30 years of average age (V.O.R.S.) and Very Old Sherry with more than 20 years of average age (V.O.S.). At that time all four wines were in the market and all of them laid in the categories launched: three of them were qualified as V.O.R.S. with more than 30 years and the Pedro Ximénez was qualified as V.O.S. with more than 20 years. 

In the cellar, displayed next to the casks, was an exhibition of photographs by the celebrated Diego Gonzalez Ragel. Presented by the Madrid City Council and the Ragel Archive, the collection featured his hunting series: portraits of hunters, their prey, the landscape—fascinating and shocking, but surprisingly imbued with grace by Ragel’s deft composition.  A photograph of the carcasses of rabbits, for example, becomes less macabre in black and white; the subtle lighting highlights the textures instead: soft hide, rough wood, hard stone.

Ceramics tiles painted by an 8-year-old Pablo Picasso.

Ceramics tiles painted by an 8-year-old Pablo Picasso.

Pairing and Picassos

The next part of the tour was the wine tasting and pairing (easily a highlight). We first tried the fino, light and fruity, quite similar to the flavor profile of pinot grigio but a tad sweeter and heavier.  It was paired with salted potato chips and olives–the point being that it would be perfect to cut through a good range of tapas and pintxos, which brings out the sweetness, acidity, and depth of an otherwise dry wine. Next, we tried the Palo Cortado, which was not my favorite but by far a crowd-pleaser and seemed the easiest to pair. I must admit that the tasting was the very thing that began in me a proper appreciation of sherry, its layers and gradations of flavor finally coming alive and showing off its complexity to a sherry novice like me.

Next, heady and spicy, the amontillado took the flavor level up a few notches: more complex, it still had the taste of fruit but was less citrusy, hinting more at wild cherries and figs. Next was the oloroso—my favorite—treading steadily sweet, with a flavor of cherry, vanilla, and caramel. The last one we tried was the Pedro Ximenez V.O.S., thick and unapologetic, which was a revelation paired with chocolate truffles. I speak for myself when I say that it may be too rich to take on its own, but I imagine this would be excellent with mango crepe a la mode or drizzled over tarte tatin back home, as suggested by Ulrike. (Or, perhaps, over suman and mangoes!)

Before the rapture from the sherry allowed us to forget about the art segment of this tour, Ulrike diverted our attention to a series of unassuming, painted ceramic tiles framed on the wall.  This would have been the perfect time to say that a kid could have painted that, because a kid actually did: an eight-year-old Picasso!  At eight, however, he already painted better than most adults do with their best efforts.

"St. Francis Kneeling in Meditation," El Greco.

“St. Francis Kneeling in Meditation,” El Greco.

The Museum

To conclude the tour, we were then led to the museum. It started as the bodega‘s private gallery, but due to the extraordinary collection, it was reinstated as a museum in 2008.

Arranged left to right are the oldest works to the more recent ones (and by recent, I mean paintings from the 1800s).  The gallery is a comfortable size, its progression chronological and focused; Ulrike suggested that we view the older paintings on the left side first, which featured religious themes as is expected of that period and quite a number of saints haloed in glowing gold-leaf. At the corner of that section leading to the main wing, an El Greco painting of St. Francis hangs prominently. It is astonishing to find paintings by the master in a private collection, but here it was: imposing, haunting, and meditative as his canvases always are.

Maria Luisa de Parma, as painted by Goya.

Maria Luisa de Parma, as painted by Goya.

At the end of the room were several portraits by Goya including those of Maria Luisa de Parma, wife of King Carlos IV of Spain, and of Carlos IV himself.  Not surprisingly, the details and the three-dimensionality of the portraits were astounding. Another painting that stands out–I say this loosely, as it is difficult to “stand out,” so to speak, in a room full of exceptional paintings–depicts the surrender of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold, painted in heavy detail by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz.

The wing with the oldest artworks featuring religious themes.

The wing with the oldest artworks, featuring religious themes.

At twenty euros, the tour ticket is several euros more expensive than others, but well worth it. Due to the size of the bodega, they keep the groups small, relaxed, and intimate, and the sherry is the best I’d tried on the trip (and I did try a few more at other restaurants, having formed a liking to this bold wine). The bonus of the museum only heightens the experience, and the size and collection at the bodega, while limited, are thoughtfully considered and elegantly curated; all in all a  glorious showcase of four centuries of Spanish art, an extraordinary period in Spanish art history. It is only the tip of the iceberg of Joaquin Rivera’s collection, but the bodega’s collection is spectacular, and surely a must-see.

Consider ourselves lucky because Wine Story carries the fino, amontillado, oloroso, and Pedro Ximenez wines from Bodegas Tradición.  I highly recommend you try them.  Wine Story has branches in One Rockwell (+632 8690932), Serendra (+632 8466310), and Shangri-La Plaza (+632 6333556).

Bodegas Tradición is open everyday except Sundays. Bookings can be made online. 3 Plaza Cordobeses, Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz, Spain.


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