In exotically named Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Sevilla Atlético arrived at the Estadio el Palmar confident of three easy points. The outfit that forms part of the Sevilla FC organisation did not assume that local outfit Atlético Sanluqueño CF, embroiled in the relegation battle from their group in La Segunda B, would put up much of a fight. Somewhat surprisingly, a sprightly squad of semi-professional soccer stars from Sanlúcar struck the staggered Sevillistas with a single shot to support their struggle for survival on a sunny Saturday. The victory was welcome news to the Verdiblancos, now clear of the relegation pack.
I dare say that Sanlúcar de Barrameda is unfamiliar to you. Unlike such oversubscribed Andalusian sea-side resorts as Torremolinos, Estepona and Marbella, the soft sand and white-wash buildings of this charming town are not frequented by the package-holiday-makers who dream of retiring to the Costa del Sol after having voted to Leave. The “Lineker” bars and Essex accents so common in East Andalusia are conspicuously absent in this corner of Spain’s Southwest. Sanlúcar is close to Jerez and to Rota (famous for its huge US naval base), while the closest major city is Sevilla, some 75km away. Yet, given its small population size of just 68,000 inhabitants, it often gets overlooked by passing tourists. This beautiful yet small piece of Spain would have been entirely forgotten about, were it not for its role in a very specific industry.
In 2019, many of the food & drink bloggers are waxing lyrical about the renaissance of sherry. As gin’s ubiquity is causing it to lose some of its fashion credibility, the trend setters are looking for a new drink to obsess about for a brief few years. Sherry, a drink of remarkable variety and sophistication, appears to be the answer. Bartenders in Soho, Brooklyn and Neukölln are thus whipping up exotic cocktails using racy-sounding olorosos, pale creams and amontillados to tease the wallets of thirsty punters.
The drink of course hails from Jerez. Leading etymologists believe that the two words have a common origin in the Moorish name for the region; “Sherish”. In the same way that denomination of origin laws dictate what can and cannot be sold as Champagne or Parma ham, a fortified wine may not be labelled as a sherry if it has not been manufactured within what is known as the “Sherry Triangle”. And one of the cities that defines the Sherry Triangle is Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
One simply cannot avoid the sherry industry here. My first point of call after arriving in Sanlúcar on the Friday before the match was the tourist information office, whose information stand is dominated by pamphlets advertising bodega tours. These Willy-Wonka warehouses of wonderful wine are in absolute abundance here. Many open their doors to the eager public, offering informative tours that explore the centuries-old process of sherry manufacture with a generous glass as a reward towards the end. The white walls that surround the cobbled plazas and narrow backstreets are decorated with art-deco advertisements of locally produced sherry made of typical Andalusian tile. And, as you look back towards the centre from the beach, a Hollywood-esque sign reads “SOLEAR”; the single biggest brand of dry sherry that Sanlúcar has to offer. Remember that name.
While the grapes used to produce the drink are grown in the chalk-rich soils further inland, the actual production of much of the wine takes place in Sanlúcar thanks to its favourable micro-climate. Compared to the equally nominally endowed towns Jerez de la Frontera and El Puerto de Santa María that make up the other two corners of the Sherry Triangle, Sanlúcar experiences greater humidity and cooler temperatures due to its location on the Atlantic coast. These temperate conditions are conducive to the development of the naturally growing yeast that coats the sherry as it ages; the agent that gifts fino style sherries their dry, light and fresh qualities. The increased expression of this yeast during the aging process thanks to the more humid climate of Sanlúcar translates into a flavour that is far smoother, fresher and more abundant in notes of green apple of all things that one will struggle to identify to the same degree in fino produced elsewhere. Sanlúcar’s ideal micro-climate has warranted the establishment of a sherry sub-genre; “manzanilla”, a protected term that can only be applied to fino sherry produced on the coast. The polyglots among you will pick up on the fact that “manzanilla” appropriately translates as “little apple”, though it is actually the Spanish name for chamomile.
When austere gentlemen in checkered shirts with names like “Jose Antonio” and “Adolfo” judge the timing to be right, the manzanilla is bottled and distributed elsewhere to be enjoyed. This is where this tiny town wears the crown; around 70% of all sherry consumed in Spain is manzanilla, aged and bottled only in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. So great is its demand that only the finest, smoothest grape juice is used to manufacture it. Anything that doesn’t make the grade is sent to Jerez and used to produce olorosos and creams, the sherry styles more suitable for fashionable cocktail husbandry. Tainting a manzanilla with foreign flavours in pursuit of a quirky cocktail that will appeal to the well-meaning yet uneducated sherry drinker in London, New York or Berlin is nothing short of a crime in the eyes of the Sanluqueños; there really is nothing you can do to improve a manzanilla.
As kick-off approaches on the following Saturday, I look for a bar close to the ground that will pour me a glass of Sanlúcar de Barrameda’s finest. If I’m gonna have the true Atlético Sanluqueño experience, a small glass of manzanilla is a must. A tavern nearby serves me a glass of Solear, the leading manzanilla brand and the same name that looms across the Sanlúcar skyline. Inside the Estadio El Palmar, the teams walk out to a round of applause and the club hymn blurted out over a crackling tannoy system. Atlético Sanluqueño CF, a club celebrating its 70th birthday this season, certainly knows how to design a beautiful Football kit. The customary green and white stripes are considerately and consistently sewn together in striking designs, if the replica shirts worn by fellow attendees are anything to go by.
On the front however is splashed the bright name of the club’s perennial sponsor; Solear, the name that also adorns the back of my ticket and the ground’s score board. Even in the Football world, Sanlúcar is synonymous with the manzanilla industry.
The gift shop of the Bodegas Barbadillo facility, the sherry giant behind the Solear brand, repay the compliment. Along with assorted nick-nacks and bottles for sale are this season’s Atlético Sanluqueño jerseys and scarves. The smartly dressed young lady behind the counter refused to believe that I was familiar with the club, let alone that I had seen them play.
Tiny Sanlúcar’s relevance and position in a modern, globalised and competitive world are secure thanks to its ability to produce premium fortified wines that are in great demand. The importance of the bodegas to the culture and economy of the small town is self-evident in any direction you look. It is therefore entirely appropriate that the leading name in manzanilla remains a long-term sponsor of the local Football club, as without this fine tradition, Sanlúcar de Barrameda wouldn’t really be on the map. A company such as Bodegas Barbadillo is able to contribute to the town’s strong association with manzanilla by tastefully placing its leading brand on the stylish shirts of Atlético Sanluqueño CF. Fans therefore wear replica shirts with pride, both in their club, and in their home’s ability to produce some of the best wines you’ll ever taste.