I have moved to the small town of Chipiona. This is a relatively
undistinguished place but like so many of the places in the
province of Cadiz it does have a certain charm if you know where
The place is a few miles south of the mouth of the Guadalquivir
River, and lacks the prestige that accrued to Sanlucar, which is
barely half a dozen miles to the north, right at the mouth of
the river. This is where ships from the West Indies and South
America landed their precious cargoes back in the middle ages.
There used to be a saying that the silver had to be unloaded
here as you could trust a man from Sanlucar, but you couldn’t
trust those sons of bitches up in Sevilla.
Sanlucar has also been one of the great sherry towns,
specialising in a type of fino that is drier, and with a
slightly salty tinge due to the barrels being aged right on the
edge of the Atlantic ocean. That style of wine is now known as
Manzanilla, and is one of my favourite drinks.
The odd thing is that just those few miles to the south the
wines are totally different. Chipiona specialises in the sweeter
end of the sherry range, the passas wines. Here, the grapes are
harvested and then spread on rush mats in the sun so that some
of the juices evaporate, concentrating the remaining juices.
This gives the wines a much greater intensity of flavour.
Many years ago when I first came to this part of Spain, the
whole area had a silence and stillness that was slightly
different from the rest of Spain. On the headland to the south
of the town of Sanlucar were a few large mansions which, at the
time, were on the verge of crumbling. I stumbled my way across
the dunes, and under the pine trees, till I looked over the
mouth of the river, and there I discovered something rather
strange; the remnants of a pre-war American community. It was as
if a clutch of reclusive Hemmingways had travelled as far as
they could go, and then just stopped.
I came back briefly in the late eighties to try and re-discover
the old Spain that I first encountered as a kid in my mid teens.
I had travelled across most of Spain, unable to find anything
that I remembered from those old medieval days, but here in
Sanlucar I stumbled back into the early sixties. I walked into a
bar that was right out of the Spain I used to know way back
when. I recount that trip here. If you are of a romantic mind, have a read
. It is a
strange lurch back into a long lost past.
On that journey, or maybe it was on a journey at the turn of the
century, I drove into Chipiona, walked up to the lighthouse,
stared westwards across the ocean, looked around the silent
square and wandered past the small ruined castle built right on
the edge of the rocks, and discovered next door a wonderful
I’ve been in rather a lot of sherry dives, but this one was very
different. The room was cavernous as one would expect. There
were sherry barrels lined up across the middle of the room, with
boards across to form a rudimentary bar. Behind was a rather
energetic guy rushing to and fro trying to cope with the room
full of keen folks anxious to slurp the juices and chew the
I tried a few of the wines. There were the classic manzanillas,
and the manzanilla passas, the dry and sweet olorosos, and the
deep black, rich Pedro Jimenez wines which had been made from
the sun-dried grapes.
I bought a few bottles, which were filled from the barrels
behind the bar. The bottles were then hung with a small tag on
an elastic band, showing the name of the wine and its
Well, here I am, back again after another decade or two. The
bodega has changed its orientation, and the staff, and hordes of
tourists are currently being served lager. I am tempted to
scream “Sacrilege!” However, instead I order a selection of
drinks from the board above the new-style bar. The manzanilla
goes well with the oysters, fresh from the sea almost at our
feet. And I’m bringing home yet another selection of goodies in
the form of bottles, each strung with its small name tag. And
once again I get back into my car, illegally parked in the
square, and consider myself yet again to be greatly privileged.
Tomorrow I am going to head south of Cadiz down towards the
southernmost tip of Europe.
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