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Sherry, finos, passas puros, and other alcoholic delights in the town of Chipiona

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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 to look.

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.

Chipiona, Square by the lighthouse

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 bodega.
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 manchego cheese.

The Bodega El Castillito

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.

          Castillito menu

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 provenance.

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.

El Castillito wine press

Tomorrow I am going to head south of Cadiz down towards the southernmost tip of Europe.

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