Four Sips of Jerez: There’s More to this Spanish Town than Sherry

Getting a taste for the Spanish town that gave its name to sherry

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Markel Redondo

Heavenly stuff Jerez's exquisite 17th century cathedral

If New Year’s fireworks and lunar New Year’s firecrackers weren’t noisy enough, Spain offers one more grand opportunity to kick up a fuss and kick out old demons. Stomping away from Feb. 22 to March 9, the 2013 edition of the annual Festival de Jerez (festivaldejerez.es) offers a nonstop celebration of flamenco in all its rhythmically ritualized forms. More than a mere chance to see some incredible singers, dancers and guitarists perform, the core of the festival is its 44 courses (many filled early) that give global aficionados a chance to enter into the deafening action.

And while Jerez de la Frontera is known first and foremost for giving its originally Arabic name to the fortified wine anglicized as sherry, this town ever at the frontier between naughty and nice, piety and passion lies at the very center of Andalucia’s Gypsy culture. Flamenco infuses the local squares and many events all year round. The town also stages some of Spain’s most intensely medieval processionals during Semana Santa (Holy Easter Week) and shows off its world-renowned equestrian training and breeding during May’s colorful Horse Fair. It’s hard to think of another city of 200,000 that could produce such a cultural wallop or pack the calendar with so much frolic.

(PHOTOS: Semana Santa)

Never mind that Spain is mired in economic crisis or Jerez itself rejoices in the distinction of being the country’s most indebted city. There’s enough in the coffers to mount a dozen major performances in theaters around town, along with many less formal flamenco jam sessions, during the two-week run of the festival. And the best show of all may be the dance devotees drawn from Japan, Sweden or Argentina, who crowd the charming old city center and its many venues for night strolling and trolling.

Somehow, Jerez remains an ocher-colored oasis of the good life, where landed aristocrats as well as itinerant scroungers seem to fit comfortably within walled confines readily circumnavigated by horse-drawn carriages. Here are a few ways to while away those empty moments between smoky sips of the vintage locals refer to — according to gradations of color and aging — as manzanilla, oloroso or amontillado.

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FIRST SIP
Rise early for a trip to the Mercado Central, where barracudas and tunas sit on display beneath a high ceiling held up by cast-iron pillars beside cheeses and olive barrels. If you have to sip anything except sherry while in Jerez, then it has to be the market plaza’s Aztec-thick hot chocolate used for dunking tubular churros fresh out of the deep fryer. Such a breakfast provides more than enough buzz for chugging the short distance downhill past the city’s imposingly somber cathedral to an alcazar that is hardly spectacular but offers lovely remains of Arabic fountains and baths. On the top floor of the enclosed Palacio Villavicencio, a pioneering “camera obscura” provides an overview of the town through the mystifying magic of mirrors.

SECOND SIP
By now, it’s definitely time for initiation into the local, gently alcoholic rites, best begun at the historic Tabanco El Pasaje (tabancoelpasaje.com)—a passage between two downtown side streets, where, amid lime green walls laden with bullfighting posters, each variant sherry shade can be sampled and sipped straight from the barrel. This only whets the appetite for tours of the many bodegas, or sherry warehouses, set all over town. Plenty of free tastes accompany peeks at the winemaking process, but it’s best to avoid the large crowds and larger sales pitches of the big-name producers like Harvey’s and González Byass in favor of the more personal attention and ancestral pride on offer at such houses as Bodegas Almocadén (bodegasalmocaden.com).

(MORE: Catalonia Bans Bullfighting, but the Fight Isn’t Over)

THIRD SIP
A visit to the Horse Carriage Museum makes for a good excuse to wander the well-groomed confines of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, where beautifully choreographed shows of “dancing” horses wow kids daily (realescuela.org). A more fitting preamble for the night ahead may be the Andalusian Flamenco Center (centroandaluzdeflamenco.es), a rather tame evocation but for videos of famed performers, set in a painstakingly restored palace. Afterward, it’s surely time to take a seat at one of the outdoor cafés on the Plaza Plateros, an oddly sloped, oval civic ground zero. More sherry and snacks are always on offer.

FOURTH SIP
Now Jerez overflows into overtime with an excess of charm and mirth. From Plateros, it’s a simple stroll to the open-air bandstand of the leading nightspot of Damajuana (damajuanacafebar.com) or El Arriate, a hangout of old-time flamenco folk. From there, word of mouth will lead to the community centers or more obscure bars where authentic Gypsy jam sessions are waiting to break out.

MORE: Who Will Have a Sherry?

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