I arrived in Jerez de la Frontera not just to sample some of and learn about the city’s legendary fortified wines, but to also meet with members of El Kolectivo Sur; the only ultra group to have represented their city in all levels of Spanish professional and semi-professional Football. What surprised me however is the way in which the city’s great drinking tradition is so readily visible in the Football culture in this fine Andalusian city.
There exists an enduring myth that the word “Sherry” derives from the inability of the British to pronounce the word Jerez. What many leading etymologists now believe is that both words derive from the Moorish name for the settlement situated on the chalk-heavy lands north of Cádiz; “Sherish”. Whatever the name’s origins, “Sherry” has become a shorthand across the world for high quality fortified wine, be it sweet or dry.
The relevance of the global fortified wine market to local Football culture in Jerez is thanks to the denomination of origin laws that protect the sherry brand and that have allowed local industry to flourish. Only grapes grown within what is known as the “Sherry Triangle” can be pressed and fortified into what can later carry the title “Sherry”. The high concentration of chalk in the region’s soils make it easy to define what is and what isn’t a sherry, as the three grape varieties used in its production grow far more readily in the dry earth that bakes during the summer months compared to other popular grape species.
Because of this, the region produces little in the way of orthodox wine. And while fortified wines can be produced in other areas of notably the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula (such as Madeira, Málaga and Porto), the distinct dryness and aromas associated with the name “Sherry” cannot be replicated outside this region. A quirk of geography has protected the local industry from outsourcing, and the outcome is a vital economy and a distinctly proud local culture that thoroughly embraces its role in the global demand for its superlative drink.
As the bare earth muffles the sound of your footsteps, the powerful smell of yeast slaps you in the face. Barrels and barrels of American Oak line the walls, refusing to rush the process that made this city so famous, and a high roof keeps humidity in and el calor out. Sherry Bodegas are designed to control the environment in which the wine develops as much as possible, and Gonzalez Byass’ manufacturing plant-cum-storehouse is as much a testimony to the millennia-old tradition of wine fortification as it is an effective facility for the contemporary production of these delicacies. The single largest sherry producer has identified the marketing potential of its operations and now allows visiting enthusiasts to this Mecca of Wine to understand the history of the drink, to appreciate its cultural and economic relevance to the southeastern corner of Spain and, quite naturally, to try a glass or two. Eventually our group makes its way to The Bar for four generous glasses, yet I would’ve been happy to spend a little longer in one of the Bodegas where individual barrels have been dedicated to notable figures of history.
The names of dignitaries, monarchs, scientists and Nobel Prize winners, musicians, sportsmen, actors and cultural icons adorn the tops of dark barrels, complete with a scribbled signature in contrasting white ink. Her Royal Highness has one, as does her son Charlie. Donald Trump does not. I can’t really imagine him to be an Oloroso kinda guy. Steven Spielberg appears to have a handwriting style that is suitably appealing to the eye. But the names that interest me the most include Ayrton Senna, Marc Marquez, Carlos Checa and Fernando Alonso.
To the north of the city centre lies the Circuito de Jerez, the autodrome that used to host the Formula 1 Gran Premio de España and continues to host the Moto GP Gran Premio de España. This flowing circuit constructed in the mid-80’s has been the scene of many dramatic moments in motorsports, particularly in 1997 when title-contenders Michael Schuhmacher and Jacques Villeneuve controversially collided on the final race of the season where the championship was to be decided. The track continues to be one of the most popular in Spain for racers and fans alike, and its existence is surely a reminder of sport’s importance to Jerez.
Never keen to miss an opportunity, Gonzalez Byass took advantage of the presence of the world press by making Tio Pepe (its leading sherry brand) the title sponsor of each Grand Prix held at the Circuito de Jerez. This was a masterstroke of marketing; while the costs of doing so were surely high, the company was effectively able to position itself as the leading sherry manufacturer, the organisation most synonymous with Jerez and promote its products directly to the world all on one single weekend. Yet the presence of Tio Pepe in sport does not begin and end with motorsports. Another famous sportsman’s name can be found on the barrels inside Gonzalez Byass’ showcase Bodega. Sir Bobby Robson’s signature serves as a reminder of the amount of support the sherry giant has contributed to Football.
Tio Pepe has sponsored various Jerez Football clubs for decades, not because sherry sales will increase by doing so, but because of the joy it brings to the local population. The name of the world’s most famous fino continues to be featured on the jerseys of the city’s youngest but most exciting club, Xerez Deportivo FC, which just happens to be the one I have come to watch play. My chance to interview members of El Kolectivo Sur will come after the game. For now, I am invited onto the terrace to join in the fun as the supporters of this fan-founded club continue to enjoy their first foray into La Tercera. The dream is to firmly re-establish the presence of Jerez de la Frontera in La Segunda, as was the case with historic Xerez CD before financial concerns soured the bottle. However, these guys are not willing to get ahead of themselves and expect too much too soon; the time now is about enjoying the chance to celebrate the culture of their city in the face of new opponents. Steps further up the ladder will come eventually.
As rows of young men and women clap and chant in front of me, a gentle nudge on my right shoulder makes me turn. “Guiri, have you ever tried this?” The young lad, probably no more than 21, has smuggled a bottle of Tio Pepe into the ground.
In the UK, sherry is synonymous with a sickly-sweet clear liquid that Nan drinks at Christmas. But in Jerez, it is the drink that continues to give employment to many of your neighbours and relatives, as it has done for generations. Drinking wine at a Football match could be considered odd in many places, but in Jerez de la Frontera, it is a fundamental part of the local fan culture. It manifests your connection to a tradition that has helped differentiate your city during the Age of Industry and into the modern era. Enjoying a glass of Tio Pepe on the terrace is a suitable way to pay respects to the support that leading sherry manufacturers have given to the local population and, of course, to sport in Jerez de la Frontera.
I held out my plastic cup, allowed this lad to top me up, and made a toast to what has honestly been one of my favourite cities I have ever visited on an FBTG Away Weekend.