Viva L’Arte: A Trip Through the Sherry Triangle

Gazing at the hand-decorated tiles hanging on the white-washed wall in front of me, I reached out. “Picasso painted those as a child,” came a voice from behind me.

I took a quick breath and pulled my hand back. “Grab your glass of sherry, there’s more to see inside our art gallery,” invited Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias Soto, director of boutique sherry producer Bodegas Tradición and my host for the afternoon.

Seldom do you find an art gallery inside a winery, but it was quickly becoming evident that this was no ordinary winery, nor was my glass holding any ordinary wine. I was in the city of Jerez de la Frontera and today was my last on a weeklong trip through the Sherry Triangle, a lilliputian wedge of land between the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the Andalusia region of southern Spain—an area famous for flamenco, bullfights and, of course, sherry.

A few minutes before, with my eyes adjusting to the dim light inside the bodega and my feet settling into the earthen floor, I had met second-generation cellar master Pepe Blandino who was topping off sherry barrels with his son. “Quiere una copita?” Blandino asked. “Yes, I would love to taste.” Holding my glass in one hand and a venencia—the long, bamboo stick used to draw sherry from the cask—in the other, Blandino delicately dipped into the barrel of palo cortado, raised the venencia above his head and filled my glass without losing a drop. “All of the sherries we produce are classified as being at least 20 years old, “ explained Soto, pointing to my glass, “but that one has been in barrel for at least 30 years, and probably more.”

And when I gazed at the colorful artifacts of Picasso’s youth, it was apparent that aged sherry wasn’t the only piece of history this family was interested in collecting. I turned toward the gallery and pushed through the heavy glass door. The studio, bright and modern, was a stark contrast to the cavernous feel of the adjoining barrel chambers. Masterpieces from the family’s personal collection hung at eye level next to placards bearing the names of greats—El Greco, Goya, Picasso. I looked at the art around me and then to my glass. I took a sip. Like the intricacies of a painting that until then I’d seen only in photographs, this sherry was textured and alluring.

The style itself—palo cortado—is a rare anomaly that continuously evolves throughout its aging process in the casks. It begins life as a typical fino sherry under a blanket of flor but begins to slowly oxidize as that yeasty covering inexplicably dissipates. Years pass, and it gradually takes on the nuances of both a sophisticated amontillado, and a richly complex oloroso. Each taste of this palo cortado offered another layer, another brushstroke of the winemaker’s hand. “It is beautiful, yes?” asked Soto, noticing my transfixion. “Beautiful, indeed,” I said, looking at the paintings around me and taking a final sip.