The ancient town of Jerez and its wines have existed for hundreds of years, but the region itself may be even older, with the first Phoenician outpost known as “Xera” dating back to around 1,000 BC. The Phoenicians also introduced the grapevine. Indeed, Western Andalusia is a territory that has historically served as a bridge linking two continents, the place where the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet. For ages, its individual climate conditions and remarkable natural resources have attracted different cultures to settle here, and they often came from very distant shores and left behind a rich legacy that ultimately morphed the taste and character of the wines. The identity of today’s Jerez cannot only be credited to its geographic place of origin, regardless of how exceptionally unique it is.
As a repeated trait across the millennia, the steady evolution of technology has continuously pushed societies onward, developing advanced methods and traditions, and potentially changing the fate of countless civilizations over time. In the Marco de Jerez, discoveries like the fortification method, the solera system, and biological aging, to name a few, are clear instances of how technology has impacted the profile of its wines. Some changes may have occurred very rapidly, and some are slow processes that may continue to progress for centuries on end; the gradual evolution of the role of the Almacenistas, from their key contributions during the first half of the XIX century to their rather modest position in the trade these days, is a good example of the latter.
The outstanding complexity of the local winemaking industry in Jerez makes it virtually impossible for the unfamiliar eye to spot all the constituents behind the unparalleled diversity of these wines. Something so apparently uninspiring as the rooms where endless wines age around the planet, in Jerez, this element takes on a tremendous relevance. Here, their long expertise and wisdom have encouraged jerezanos to claim that sherry wines do imply more than one concept of terroir. One that emerges from the vineyards and that involves the land, everything immediately surrounding it, and the cultivation practices. And another that is found inside the bodega buildings—the extraordinary aging facilities that are responsible for the broad spectrum of styles coming out of the region. Inside them, important factors like architecture, time, and human intervention further shape the ample display of flavors and personalities of sherry wines.
The Jerez bodegas are instrumental in the production process for two main reasons: 1) the thoughtful design of these centuries-old urban constructions is extremely functional and efficient in maintaining the conditions for the wines to finely develop—the aging process of sherry wines requires very precise environmental conditions, which do not always exist in the climate in and around the Sherry Triangle (which is where most producers are found). 2) Based on the actual design—orientation, size, height, amount of shade provided, etc.—and their specific location, there will be substantial variations in the effects that are printed on the wines sitting in them. Every detail in their configuration counts and cellarmasters must get to know these variables to comprehend their prospective impact and to be able to manage them—to play with them as needed. A fascinating toolbox supplying extra possibilities!
D.O De Jerez and Sherry bodegas
We just mentioned that the two basic functions of a sherry bodega; serve as an efficient warehouse to preserve the wines in the most favorable habitat during the lengthy aging regimes, as well as to provide the wines with a broad array of possible outcomes depending on the design of the room. In addition, we could discuss a third role that may come across first as less obvious, although it is manifestly perceptible; the buildings also had (still do) a social ambition: to show off the opulence of their proprietor.
During a period that goes from the second half of the XVIII century to the beginning of the XX c., we see the birth of the grand Sherry Houses that in many cases are still fully operational today. These magnificent companies were, on most occasions, owned and/or managed by powerful families with notable influence on the most prominent European wine markets, families that were gradually establishing themselves in the area, taking control over the entire business processes on the ground, and creating a cluster of contemporary brands that inevitably went after similar commercial interests. This triggered a need for distinction and social acknowledgment that resulted in a frenzy for grandeur, fully expressed in the drawings of these astonishing wineries, wine cellars that quickly started to grow in size, exhibiting vast spaces with high ceilings and a great capacity for storing epic amounts of casks, often built by prestigious artists using all sorts of luxurious materials and ornaments. Thanks to this particular manner of conveying their owners’ status, these days, we enjoy a collection of architectural wonders mainly spread over the section of the map that unites the three major towns (“Jerez”, ‘El Puerto”, and “Sanlúcar”). A striking exemplar is the superb Bodega La Emperatriz, owned by Lustau in the center of Jerez de la Frontera.
Types of Sherry bodegas by functionality and Types of Sherry bodegas by antiquity
As we were saying, not all the bodegas jerezanas were made following the exact same pattern—although, compared to the aging facilities from most quality wine designations worldwide, they certainly look different here—and those greater or smaller differences between them would offer a range of possibilities for crafting multiple styles of wines. These differences become more apparent if one travels farther back in time.
Cloister-style wineries: Are those built before the abovementioned industrial revolution (second half of the XVIII century). These are smaller constructions with lower ceilings and very thick walls with tiny openings. Naturally dark and isolated to keep a constantly damp and cool environment. Several contiguous quarters would form a square-like structure centered by a sunlit patio connecting all the surrounding premises.
Today, these types of bodegas are usually tucked away in the quietest parts of the old districts, especially common in Sanlúcar, but also found in Jerez.
Cathedral-style wineries: Soon after the arrival of outsiders in the late 1800s (both Spanish and international), and in collaboration with the existent producers, a more vigorous and organized winemaking activity started to flourish. A new urge for space optimization, higher productivity, and general streamlining promptly took over the entire region. This encouraging atmosphere shortly stimulated a group of global workers, engineers, and architects to join the cause. The boom became a reality in the decades to follow with the emergence of breathtaking religious-looking wine cellars. These “Catedrales del Vino” not only have stubbornly stood to our days, but they are also still considered the best places to age the best wines. Their sophistication has proved timeless—Lustau continues aging all their products in facilities built throughout the XIX century.
From the outside, they are clearly identified by their spectacular silhouettes involving tall, pointy two-sided symmetrical roofs and monumental facades. Indoors, the vaulted ceilings are supported by bold pillars, and the expansive sidewalls are typically crowned by large windows on their upper part, some of them made of beautiful stained glass in the utmost ‘cathedral’ flair. A network of corridors and passageways interconnects the different chambers creating a natural flow of air that cools down the interiors while facilitating the movement of casks and heavy equipment.
Architectural factors of a Sherry Bodega
Again, many of these buildings show contrasting sizes and profiles, but, despite these potential divergences all of them share some interchangeable aspects that form a unified architectural hallmark.
- Above-ground constructions: No one here ever decided to dig a hole in the ground to age their finest wines. The main reason behind this otherwise controversial decision is simply to promote constant airflow inside the bodegas—something absolutely crucial to maintain a healthy flor yeast, and the more air circulation the better. Even the most recently built aging facilities are all set above ground and share the overall same layout as the classic mid-XIX century ones.
- The bodegas’ rectangular floor plan usually follows a northwest-southeast orientation. This enables the cool and humid Poniente to enter the building unhindered while blocking the negative repercussions of the dry, hot, northeast Levante winds. Moreover, the orientation of the bodegas also means that the buildings receive a minimum number of sunlight hours. The orientation, and the architectural characteristics of the facade and roof of the bodega, turn it into a giant filter that either captures or rejects the exterior climatic conditions in the interior to facilitate the aging process.
- High ceilings: In order to let the hot air climb above the barrel line (especially during the extreme heat of the summer), the wineries were endowed with exceptionally tall ceilings. This enables heat to rise and accumulate at the top of the room. Openings at the upper ends of the east and west walls create a dynamic, vertical, and horizontal current that expels the warm air out of the building. The height of some bodegas in the Marco de Jerez can get up to 15 meters (50 feet) at their central point!
- Windows: As part of the calculated design, the windows are generally located in the upper part of the walls and are of various sizes and shapes normally arranged symmetrically. This, along with the purposeful orientation of the floor plan, seeks natural exposure to the beneficial Poniente winds and allows their free access. On the other hand, windows on the eastern side of the cellar may be kept shut. Sometimes, the windows are covered with esparto (coarse grass) shades, providing diffused diagonal light. The shades, in addition to minimizing light, also filter the air which prevents dust or undesirable insects from entering the cellar.
- The windows may turn out to be remarkably impactful elements in the wines. Larger windows will boost greater air circulation providing fresher wines with a subtle character. Contrarily, fewer, or smaller windows will generally result in more robust, concentrated wines. Therefore, it is the cellarmaster who decides where and how to place the different wine styles within a bodega to best adapt them to the individual indoor conditions.
- Thick walls: The management of the prevailing winds isn’t the only key element to achieving appropriate results for quality wine aging in Jerez. Correct temperature regulation is perhaps even more important, and in particular during summertime. The ever-increasing temperatures in the region are a relentless challenge for capatazes looking to counterbalance eventual harmful situations as the high temperatures may compromise the veil of flor yeast or shoot up the rate of evaporation in oxidatively aged wines. Temperature fluctuations are avoided via thermal inertia and the high permeability of the walls, which regulate and stabilize temperatures. The lateral walls of bodegas are over 60 cm (24”) wide in order to bear the weight while also providing excellent thermal insulation.
- Albero soils: Humidity is the third factor to consider for successful consequences in prolonged sherry wine aging. Insufficient humidity will be fatal to the flor yeast, the wines, and the overall condition of the wooden casks. At the same time, sustained high levels of humidity may foster undesired development of fungus and bacteria that may also jeopardize the local yeast and barrels. The ground in between rows is topped with Albero, a type of sandstone clay that is dampened, depending on the time of year, to regulate levels of both temperature and humidity. Albero is very porous and instead of becoming saturated, it gradually releases the water back into the atmosphere.
The architects and winemakers of the XIX century not only focused their attention on the inside of the bodegas but also on the exteriors, assembling all-around features for the buildings to perform at their best.
- Two-sided roofs: Architects determined that the most ideal roof design for these giant wine cellars would be a symmetrical pitched roof with two sides coming off a long central ridge. This avoids long exposure to the sun at any given time of the day, and the oven-baked clay tiles provide a great deal of insolation.
- Trees and green canopies: The facade and walls are protected with trees or pergolas in the adjoining streets which absorb solar radiation and act as natural filters that preserve coolness. In winter, when the trees shed their leaves, walls are left uncovered, allowing them to better capture the impact of the warm sun rays, store heat, and transmit it into the interior of the cellar at night.
- Almizcates: The spaces in between bordering walls were conditioned to create a maze of alleys and corridors keeping the entire winery complex aerated while facilitating perpendicular labors and duties, such as the hauling of casks and working materials from one chamber to another.
A Sherry Bodega can also be a sherry bodega
At present, most of the bodegas all over the Marco de Jerez are utilized to age the hefty number of botas that the region permanently holds in its annual stocks. As explained before, based on the variable details of their architecture, some cellars may be more fitted for aging one style over others. At the time they were built though, not all the constructions were used for the same tasks, serving a wide variety of purposes. Some were used for the fermentation process of the musts “bodegas de fermentación”, some were assigned to store only ‘finished’ wines ready to be exported “bodegas de expedición”, and others served for specific aging, vinegar production, intermediate tasks, etc. Many building complexes, like the one that Lustau owns in the center of Jerez de la Frontera, were actually put together piece by piece and developed on the expansion of the businesses and their requirements.
In conclusion, like in ‘the butterfly effect’ by Edward Lorenz; even at the exact time of formation, and with the exact path taken, minor perturbations in the initial conditions of any ecosystem can lead to vastly different outcomes. That is why the winemakers in Jerez proudly say they don’t produce wines for themselves, but for the next generations, and that small decisions today may have an enormous and unpredictable effect in the future. Long live wine complexity!
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