The screech of wood meeting an industrial planer blade pierces the air. One by one, rectangular boards a meter in length meet their fate, emerging from the machinery just a bit more trim and shapely. A few meters away around a corner, huge balls of fire burst to life and subside, leaving behind the evocative smell of charred wood. The background accompaniment to the theatrics is the constant, arrhythmic clanking of metal hitting metal, hammers striking bands of steel. The scene is worlds away from the calm serenity that wine and spirits markets strive to convey in promoting their products.
Outside, it’s a sunny, blue-sky February morning in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Federico Sanchez-Pece Salmerón, the director of Communications for Grupo Caballero, has brought us to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage, one of several that supply sherry producer Lustau with newly made casks for their sherry wines. The casks being constructed mere inches from us will soon hold sherry, but won’t reside in a place of honor within a sherry solera. Rather, their final destination is far away from Andalucia, where they were born here in the southwest of Spain. But we’ll come back to that later.
The streets of Jerez de la Frontera in the southwest of Spain are just coming to life as we emerge from the small train station on a late February morning. The weather is surprisingly temperate and families enjoy breakfast outside at the small cafes in the plazas. Train schedules being what they are, we’ve arrived a bit early for our appointment, so we have time to kill. All my previous experiences with vast quantities of wine have been in locations like California’s rural wine country, so it’s hard to imagine that vast quantities of sherry lie beyond the walls of these low-slung buildings in the heart of town.
The bell tower of the Jerez de la Frontera cathedral looms in the distance, rising above the two- and three-story buildings around it. Instinctively I walk that direction — gawking at cathedrals is a non-negotiable when traveling with me (as Mrs. Wonk knows too well). There’s only time for a quick few photos on the cathedral steps before our appointment. We only go a few steps, noses pressed to Google Maps, before Mrs. Wonk exclaims, “Look! Here it is!” Literally across the street from the cathedral is a white- and yellow-trimmed building with an unmissably large “González Byass” logo painted on the side. A statue of a man in 1800s garb standing next to a large wine cask labeled “Tio Pepe” confirms that we’re in the right spot.
Years ago, as an aspiring rum wonk, I began to branch out from the well-known brands and began seeking out gems from smaller producers. Dos Maderas PX (5+5) soon crossed my radar with its compelling story of aged Caribbean rums shipped to Spain’s sherry region for even more aging in sherry casks. When my first bottle arrived, I was enraptured and declared it my favorite rum, proudly pouring it to my friends. In time I purchased additional bottles to ensure I’d always have a ready supply of this sweet nectar.
The narrow, maze-like one-way streets of Sanlúcar de Barrameda are mere crevices between the mix of two story buildings. Are they houses? Shops? It’s hard to tell exactly what lies beyond the doorways. Most are stucco and painted white to reflect the intense, Spanish sun that bears down on this seaside town where the Guadalquivir River exits into the Atlantic. A GPS will hopelessly confuse things here – the streets are so close together, you are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Luckily, Federico Sánchez-Pece Salmeron, Director of Communications for Lustau, knows exactly where we’re heading.
The cool air is heavy with the smell of wine as our guide beckons us toward a wooden cask perched at eye level on a stand. We’re in an immense, high ceilinged stone warehouse in the southwest of Spain, beams of sunlight streaming in from windows high above us. Reaching behind the cask, he flips a switch and we realize the circular top and bottom barrel ends are made of clear plastic. The cask is mostly full of pale liquid, but floating on top is a quarter-inch thick layer of what appears to be mold.
Wait? Is this normal? Is it safe to drink? Odd as it may seem, the thick layer of yeast cells protect the wine from oxygen and creates an aging environment practically unique within the wine and spirits world. But this unusual yeast layer, known as “flor,” is just one of many dimensions that gives sherry it’s most unusual flavor–and makes it much more than just another wine.