In search of: A glass of sherry in Jerez

Not the syrupy stuff that appears at Christmas, but the superior nectar that rolls out of Andalusia's bodegas.

Deep in the heart of Andalusia, in the south-west corner of Spain, is the home of one of Britain's favourite tipples: sherry. The precious grapes are grown on a small triangle of land between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria, bounded by the rivers Guadalquivir to the west and Guadalete to the east. These ancient vineyards were planted by the Phoenicians and expanded by the Romans. Even the teetotal Moors knew a good thing when they smelled it. And when Sir Francis Drake trashed the Armada in the harbour of nearby Cadiz, he counted among his booty nearly 3,000 casks of the stuff, sealing its fate as the barrel most enthusiastically rolled out by the British at times of celebration.

Deep in the heart of Andalusia, in the south-west corner of Spain, is the home of one of Britain's favourite tipples: sherry. The precious grapes are grown on a small triangle of land between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria, bounded by the rivers Guadalquivir to the west and Guadalete to the east. These ancient vineyards were planted by the Phoenicians and expanded by the Romans. Even the teetotal Moors knew a good thing when they smelled it. And when Sir Francis Drake trashed the Armada in the harbour of nearby Cadiz, he counted among his booty nearly 3,000 casks of the stuff, sealing its fate as the barrel most enthusiastically rolled out by the British at times of celebration.

Yuk. Not that brown stuff my Gran pulls out of the sideboard every Christmas?

You're probably thinking about blends that are sweetened with a syrup concentrate to please the saccharine palate of the British (and no drink is meant to languish half-opened in the back of a cupboard anyway). I'm talking about the superior wines produced only in these parts.

Jerez is the capital of sherry production and is renowned for its fino and oloroso sherries, made from the Palamino grape which thrives in the albariza pagos, the prized white chalky soil just outside town. The harvest is gathered in September and a party is thrown to mark the occasion, where the fruit is blessed and men dressed in traditional costume as pisadores press the grapes with nail-studded boots called zapatos de pisar. These days it's all a bit more hygienic with the fruit pressed mechanically and left to ferment in stainless steel tanks.

Under the skilful management of the capataz, or cellarmaster, the grape juice is eventually selected to become a fino or oloroso, put into oak barrels and stacked three high in bodegas, vast warehouses where the wines are left to mature. Here it is blended in the criaderas y soleras system, which distinguishes sherry from other wines. A third of the sherry is taken for bottling from the lowest cask, the solera. The cask is then refilled from the next one up, the first criadera, and that one from the cask above and so on. So never ask for a vintage sherry, if you want to appear to know what you're talking about.

Enough of the lecture. Can we go and see how it's made?

I escaped the ferocious rays of the sun, which bakes Jerez every afternoon, and went to look around the Gonzalez Byass sherry house. This is one of the biggest of the bodegas that dominate this town. (The word bodega refers to both the sherry house and the halls where the barrels are kept.) It was founded in the mid-19th century by Manuel Maria Gonzales Angel (who later went into partnership with his English agent, Robert Blake Byass, hence the name) and is the home of one of Spain's most famous brands, Tio Pepe.

I waited with a group of fellow Britons in a large cool hall (a blessed relief) for the English-speaking tour to begin. A young boy shifted from buttock to buttock on the hard wooden chair in front of me, no doubt anticipating the hour or so of boredom he was about to endure. But the tour got off to a good start as we boarded a miniature train of brightly coloured carriages, which rattled us away across the cobbles towards the first highlight, a bodega designed by Eiffel.

On and off the train we hopped, learning about the complex process of sherry-making and hearing about the miracle flora that grows on the surface of fino sherry and makes it so dry. We noted the black marks left by evaporating alcohol known as the "angels' share", marvelled at the giant barrels named after Jesus and his apostles, and went star-spotting among the rows of barrels signed by previous famous visitors. And all the time we drank in the wonderful fruity aroma of the wines.

When do they hand round the drinks?

In the spirit of all good booze tours, there's a short break to try the produce and whet your appetite for the shop (final resting place of any tour). We were treated to a snifter of both fino and oloroso and very well they went down, too. Yep, we were duly suckered and left with our arms full of bottles of sherry and brandy (and the bodega's top-quality vinegar).

Is it time for lunch yet?

The streets had emptied by the time I left the bodega. So working on the principle that if you can't beat them, join them, I headed for Bar Juanito, an award-winning tapas bar on Pescaderia Vieja, off the central Plaza del Arenal. Tapas bars are abundant in Jerez, but there are good restaurants, too, for lunch or dinner, the best of which are La Mesa Redonda and El Bosque. El Gallo Azul is the most recent entrant to the city's culinary scene. Set in a tower owned by the city's oldest sherry house, Domecq, it promises an interesting Andalusian menu heavy on fish and offal. The food was disappointing when I ate there, but the wine list was awesome, with a sherry to accompany any and every dish. (No, it's not meant to be just an aperitif.) Alternatively, resolute carnivores could try Tendido-6 behind the bull ring where they serve, you guessed it, bull meat.

You're not expecting me to digest lunch in the bull ring?

No. The bull ring is rarely used these days, except at festival time. A far better idea is to explore the ancient Alcazar with its octagonal tower, Arab baths and camera obscura. The city is also home to the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, which puts on displays for the public. Or you could just wander about the ever-narrowing streets of the gypsy quarters, San Miguel and Santiago, and visit the Andalusian Flamenco Centre, another major preoccupation of Jerez.

I'm boiling. Let's get out of town

It's just 40 minutes by car to the Costa de la Luz, the stretch of Atlantic coast that runs from Cadiz to Gibraltar. Far from the usual image of the Spanish seaside, you won't find acres of concrete blocks and beaches teeming with British holidaymakers, just clean beaches backed by rugged cliffs and sweeping dunes. The area is a traditional retreat for Spaniards and because the foreign package-holiday hordes tend to prefer the calmer waters of the Med, it's possible to find an empty cove here even at the height of summer.

I stayed just outside Conil de la Frontera, one of the famous pueblos blancos, or white towns. Here, too, I found few fellow tourists roaming around the quaint whitewashed streets in the middle of July (similarly at its historic neighbours Vejer and Medina Sidonia). A mile or two along the coast lies Playa de la Barrosa at Roche, a long sandy beach lined with pine forests. It soon became my favourite spot for some sun, sand and sea and there's also a remarkably good restaurant at one end, El Timon de Roche. This is a great spot for a romantic sunset dinner – with, of course, a glass of sherry.

So how do I get there?

I travelled to Jerez and the Costa de la Luz with Spain at Heart (01373 814222; www.spainatheart.co.uk). A week at the Chani Cottages near Conil de la Frontera on the Costa de la Luz costs £270 per person, based on two sharing, and £160 per person, based on four sharing, including car hire, self-catering accommodation and welcome hamper. Return flights with Buzz (0870 240 7070; www.buzz.co.uk), are available from £103 in October.

Gonzalez Byass, Calle Manuel Maria Gonzalez 12 (00 34 956 35 70 00; www.gonzalezbyass.es) holds English-speaking tours, €7 (£5) per person.

Alcazar, Alameda Vieja (00 34 956 31 97 98). Entrance €3 (£2), including the camera obscura.

Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, Avenida Duque de Abrantes (00 34 956 31 96 35; www.realescuela.org).

Andalusian Flamenco Centre, Plaza de San Juan (00 34 956 349 265; http://caf.cica.es).

For further information contact the Spanish Tourist Office in Britain (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk) or, in Jerez, the office at Calle Larga 39 (00 34 956 331 150).

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