If you are like many people, you might have an erroneous perception about sherry, believing that it is very sweet and a drink better suited for your grandparents. You need to comprehend the truth, that sherry is a worthy drink for all wine lovers, one of diversity, depth and deliciousness. You just need to understand it better, to correct your misconceptions.
The wine region, Denominación de Origen, of Jerez-Xérès-Sherry is the southern-most wine region in Europe and located in the Andalucia region of southern Spain in the province of Cadiz. The “Sherry Triangle” is formed by the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcarde Barrameda and contains about 10,500 hectares of vineyards. This region has a rich and complex wine history, extending back about 3000 years.
A good beginning to your comprehension of sherry might be to examine the intriguing history of its wine region. This is an area that has seen repeated devastation, yet has always rebounded. Wars, plagues, floods, and other perils have continuously inflicted tragic losses upon this region but the people have always persevered, rebuilding when necessary, until sherry once again attains a pinnacle. Few wine regions, if any, have undergone as many threats and calamities, as many high and lows, and still persevered. The region is a symbol of tenacity, a lesson to other wine regions, as well as a lesson to people in general.
In a series of articles this week, which will be posted one per day over the next five days, I will be exploring the history of the region of Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, from ancient times to the present. I’ll be describing many of the highlights, along with presenting some interesting anecdotes and trivia. My hope is that you will get drawn into the history of this region and be inspired to try some sherry.
Please note that some of this history is speculative, especially the more ancient history, and different sources may provide varied opinions on certain issues.
The first inhabitants of the Jerez region arrived between the Neolithic Age and the Copper Age (roughly 9500 B.C.-3000 B.C.), but almost nothing is known of them. The first major proto-historic settlement in the region is considered to be Tartessos, a port city at the mouth of the Baetis River (now known as the Guadalquivir River), which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Little factual is known about the Tartessians and in some legends their city is thought to be the source for the Atlantis myth. The legends also claim that the Tartessians possessed great wealth, acquired from rich silver mines.
Tradition claims that the Phoenicians arrived in southern Spain around 1100 B.C., though there is no historical evidence to prove they existed there before 800 B.C. They very well could have been there prior to this time, but we just don’t have sufficient supporting evidence. Their first settlement appears to be Gades (or Gadir), which is now known as Cádiz, and often considered the most ancient city still standing in Western Europe. “Gades” generally translates as “walled stronghold” and was supposed to be located close to Tartessos.
For at least a few hundred years, the Tartessians became trading partners with the Phoenicians. But, the Tartessians abruptly and very mysteriously vanished during the 6th century B.C. Though an explanation for their disappearance is unknown, there is strong speculation that the Phoenicians eventually grew tired of trade and decided instead to conquer them, claiming their vast fortune.
Sometime after founding Gades, the Phoenicians moved inland and established the town of Xera. Some people claim that the Viento de Levante, the harsh east winds which can be quite brutal, may have driven the Phoenicians inland. Xera could also be the precursor to the settlement we now know as Jerez, though that is in dispute and some authorities believe the Greeks or Carthaginians may have first established Jerez at a later date.
The Phoenicians allegedly brought the cultivation of vines to this region, including introducing the Palomino grape, the primary grape now used in making sherry. So when you drink sherry, you are getting a taste of the ancient past, of a grape that has been around for about 3000 years. The Phoenicians referred to wine as cherem, which is derived from a word referring to the fermentation of grapes.
They were quite skilled at producing wine, exporting them across the Mediterranean and their wines were highly prized. They were not selfish with their viticultural and wine making knowledge, sharing it with numerous countries, such as Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Italy, and Portugal. This enabled those regions to either start wine making, or hone their existing skills.
The Greeks eventually founded colonies in Spain and harassed the Phoenicians, who then sought military assistance from the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians willingly provided such support against the Greeks and they were ultimately successful in protecting the Phoenicians. But that support came at a significant cost, as the Carthaginians later chose to oust the Phoenicians from Spain and seize the land for their own.
While in the Jerez region, both the Greeks and Carthaginians seemed to do little more than continue the wine making tradition. They did not engage in any innovations or make any major changes. But, it is important to note that Mago, a Carthaginian writer, produced some important agricultural treatises which included information on everything from planting vines to how to make the best raisin wine. Mago though did not live in Spain.
It would be the Romans who would be the next to significantly impact wine making in the Jerez region. Around 138 BC, the Roman Scipio Emilianus defeated Carthage and conquered the Spanish region of Baetica, which is roughly equivalent to the area of modern Andalucia. The Romans also changed the name of Xera to Ceret. Though they would find many vineyards in Spain, surprisingly the favorite drink of the native Iberians was mead. Those native tribes would also offer armed resistance to the Romans for about two hundred years.
The Romans emulated the Phoenicians, continuing wine making and trading wine from this region, which soon became well known throughout the Empire as Ceretanum or “wine from Ceret.” Marcus Valerius Martialis (more commonly known as Martial) was a Roman poet from Spain who was well known for having authored twelve books of Epigrams, published in Rome between 86 AD and 103 AD. In his books, he praised Ceretanum, thus making him the first known writer to discuss sherry.
The region also became famous for its vast amount of olive trees, from which much olive oil was made. Many of the Roman coins in Andalucia were decorated with grape bunches, symbolizing the vinicultural wealth of the region. Roman innovations, such as roads and new agricultural techniques helped make the wine industry more commercially successful. These Roman successes were not limited to Spain, and involved many of the other Roman provinces as well.
In time, these foreign provinces, including Spain, were so successful that Italian wine producers had difficulty competing. In 62 AD, to protect the Italian wineries, Emperor Domitian enacted an order that half of the vineyards located outside of Italy, which would include the vineyards in Spain, were to be destroyed. Fortunately, the order was largely ignored and was very difficult to enforce so few vineyards were eliminated. But it remained a law on the books until 282 A.D., when Emperor Probus rescinded it.
With the decline of Rome, the Jerez region became over run by barbarians, first by the Vandals (around 409 BC), and then later by the Visigoths (about the middle of the 5th century). The Visigoths remained in control for approximately 250 years though little is known about their wine culture. But, it appears evident that some type of wine industry was maintained throughout that period, until the Moors arrived in Spain.
History of Sherry: Moors to the Reconquista (Part 2)
History of Sherry: 15th to 17th Century (Part 3)
History of Sherry: 18th to 19th Century (Part 4)
History of Sherry: 20th Century to Present (Part 5)