I am old enough to remember when the border with Spain closed. I had just got my first passport and used to pop over to see my grandmother every other day. It didn’t last long as the border soon closed and that was the end of that. I do recall that my passport was stamped with a huge red, rectangular stamp both on entry and exit to Spain. Had the border not closed I would have needed a new passport within weeks as the guards refused to let you through without a clear space for their stamp. Sometimes the guard would be kind enough to carefully place the stamp on the page sometimes they would open the first clean page and place the stamp in the middle at any old angle which meant limited stamps on that page!
Spain was quite different then. It was a poor country and with car ownership virtually unknown, the roads were very quiet. Of course, the roads were narrow and everything moved at snail’s pace, especially stuck behind a fish lorry on its way to Madrid. Heavily loaded with fish and ice, they lurched precariously from side to side, leaving a tell-tale trail of smelly water on the road. There was virtually no development all the way to Malaga. A wild coastline broken up by Estepona, a small fishing town and further on by Torremolinos, with its traditional pitched-roof houses and a railway line which went right through its main street. Tourists, who would return to Blighty red as lobsters complaining about oily food and garlic, were still years away. The old Spain in the Costa del Sol may be a faraway memory, but if you want a flavour of old Spain all is not lost.
Sanlúcar de Barrameda, twenty minutes from Jerez, has all the old-world charm you could wish for. Prices are ridiculously low, no tourism to speak of, and its fish and produce perhaps unrivalled in Spain. Best of all it is home to Manzanilla.
I have encountered few things as magical as sipping a glass of Manzanilla overlooking the Guadalquivir estuary in Bajo de Guia, Sanlúcar. Sitting just yards from the golden sands of the beach, as the sun sets, one can gaze at the deserted coastline of the Doñana Park on the other side. A thin golden thread of beach framed with dense green foliage where the Lynx still roam and humans are barred. Look up river and the fishing town of Bonanza is clearly visible, the destination of a never-ending line of smart looking fishing boats taking their catch into Bonanza’s harbour to be distributed all over Spain. The thought that we are sitting at the best tapas bar in the world, Bigote, is never far from my mind, and soon my thoughts turn to deciding which delicacies will accompany our chilled Manzanilla. Will it be Bigote’s famous prawns, or perhaps their grilled Corvina with slices of tomato, gherkins and mayonnaise capable of making three Michelin star chefs green with envy? Or perhaps their grilled zamburiñas (baby scallops) with olive oil and lemon juice? Whatever our food choice, it seems sacrilege to drink anything other than Manzanilla, Sanlúcar’s wine par excellence. So, what exactly is Manzanilla?
Manzanilla is a dry white wine made from the Palomino grape, grown anywhere in the Jerez region, but which must, by law, be aged within the town of Sanlúcar itself. The same base wine aged in Jerez would be called Fino and whilst sharing some similarities would, to Manzanilla devotees, be quite different. The relationship between Fino and Manzanilla is complex. Both owe their character to having been matured under a veil of Flor or yeast which spontaneously grow covering the wine with a thick layer of froth not unlike beer froth or a thick layer of cream. Only after the base wine fermented in giant stainless steel tanks and transferred to the bodegas is it fortified with alcohol and placed in oak butts. It is then that Flor start to grow and flourish, eating up alcohol and giving the wine its amazing taste and structure as individual yeasts die and sink to the bottom. After three years or so, the wine will be ready for bottling to be consumed locally or exported all over the world.
Manzanilla at its best is watery in colour with fine bitter notes, salty in the mouth and very elegant. Because of its micro-climate, Sanlucar’s wines mature under Flor the whole year. It’s a climate heavily influenced by its proximity to the sea, the estuary and the Poniente winds from the Atlantic or the Levantes from the Mediterranean. Fino’s flor, matured in inland Jerez, dies away for part of the year exposing the underlying wines to oxygen and giving Fino a stronger, more oxidised flavour and a distinctive nutty nose. Both Fino and Manzanilla are matured in American oak barrels, though the barrels should be old enough not to impart any flavours of vanilla, which ironically is essential to the character of red wines like Rioja!
Why Flor was first used for the production of wines in Jerez and Sanlucar is not known. It is generally accepted it must have been first used by accident. Visiting Bodegas La Gitana, Javier Hidalgo, co-author of La Manzanilla and good friend of mine, points to the floor in the bodega where there are small damp patches as the earth floor is regularly sprayed with water to keep moisture levels up. He tells me to look carefully and sure enough, even after only an hour, milky white Flor can already be seen growing on the water surface!
Why Manzanilla is called Manzanilla nobody really knows. Some attribute the name to wild apples or manzanas as they say there are nuances in the wine of wild apples. Other say its Manzanilla because its tastes like camomile (manzanilla), others because wines were made in the town of Manzanilla in the province of Huelva.
Manzanilla, for those lucky enough to have acquired a taste for this wine born from an accident of nature, remains one of the world’s finest wines. Its bitter notes and complex flavours at odds with the jammy, fruity and tedious wines we are bombarded with nowadays. Its remains perhaps the least expensive fine wine in the world. I recall at a tasting I was hosting for beginners, a gentleman asking me what complexity in a wine is. I told him to drink Manzanilla or Fino and eventually it would become crystal clear.
Manzanilla and Fino are widely available in Gibraltar.