The world of Spanish wines

Sherry History (Part. I)

Sherry is actually one of the world's oldest wines and has a long history in the area known as the sherry triangle in the South of Spain which is marked by Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María in the region of Cádiz. Over the centuries, the drink has been influenced and helped by a number of different civilizations and cultures from the Phoenicians to the British.

Early History and Roman Spain

The Canaanite tribe of the Phoenician civilization founded the city of Cádiz sometime during the 10th and 9th centuries B.C. At the time the city was used as a handy trading post. It is believed that these people brought grape vines to the area as well as the knowledge of how to produce wine from the grapes from the Middle East.

The Phoenicians were followed by the Ancient Greeks who brought knowledge of how to make another product from the grapes: arrope. Arrope is a dark coloured syrup that is made from grape juice and is often used to sweeten wine.

This meant that by the time the Romans conquered the area in around 200 B.C., the region of Cádiz already had a long history in the cultivation of vines as well as strong winemaking industry. Under 3 centuries of Roman rule, the wine industry developed and soon the wines from the Spanish region were being consumed across the Roman Empire. At this time it was known 'Ceretanum' which means 'wine from Ceret', the early name for the drink which we now know as Sherry. The drink was first recorded by the Roman poet, Martial, who said that the drink was popular amongst the upper circles of Romans. It was also during Roman times that the process of boiling grape must to produce a sweet syrup and then using it to sweeten wines became very popular in the region of Cádiz.

Moorish Occupation of Spain

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the South of Spain (as well as much of the rest of the country) came under the rule of the Moors who were from the North of Africa who had decided to travel to Cádiz and the rest of the country in the 8th century. Although the consumption of alcohol was prohibited under Moorish rule, the production of wine was not. Wine was therefore a useful trading commodity which was sold to nearby non-Muslim countries.

The Moors brought a lot of technology to the country; however they also introduced the distillation process which helped the creation and development of a number of Spanish drinks, including a crude grape liquor which was the ancestor of the technique of adding Brandy to Sherry.

The Romans had called the town 'Ceret' but the Moors changed this to 'Sherish'. This would later evolve into the name we know today, Jerez de la Frontera, so named because it became the frontier town between the Spain ruled by Christians and the remnants of the Kingdom of the Moors in the 13th century. The Moors were eventually expelled from Jerez in 1231 and Cádiz in 1262 during the reclamation process known as the Reconquista.

Age of Exploration

During the 'Age of Exploration' for the Spanish, many voyages to the New World and the Americas set out from the ports of Cádiz and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. This meant that many ships were stocked up with supplies from the region, including a lot of the local wine. It is believed that Christopher Columbus took sherry with him on his various trips to the Americas. This would therefore mean that Sherry would have been the first wine to reach the New World. Another Spanish explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, spent more on the wine for his ocean voyage than the weapons for both the ship and its crew.

At the beginning of the 15th century, the world wine market suffered several changes which had a beneficial effect for Spanish wine. Firstly, traders lost their supply of sweet wine from places like Cyprus, Romania, Greece and Hungary due to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. After the war with France, England no longer had access to wines from the region of Bordeaux. The wine market was ready for the taking, and the Spanish Duke of Medina Sidonia ensured that he pushed Sherry into the spotlight. Export tax on wine travelling on Spanish and foreign ships was abolished and then merchants from England were given preferential status, also allowing them to bear weapons when they came to visit Spain for trade.

Spanish sherry became extremely popular in Spain up until the point when the relations between England and Spain began to worsen. Henry VIII divorced from his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon which led to the Reformation in England. English merchants were therefore kept under scrutiny by the Spanish Inquisition, and many who had been living in Spain, fled the country.

At the end of the 15th century, King Philip of Spain ordered the invasion of England and then began to build a collection of ships which would become the Spanish Armada. However, many of these ships were set on fire by Sir Francis Drake in 1587 when he captured the port of Cádiz. He also stole a large quantity of Spanish sherry and took it back to England. Sherry, which was often called 'sherry sack' or just 'sack', remained very popular in England, and was even immortalised by the famous playwright, William Shakespeare, in his play Henry IV, part 2.

Read more about the history of Jerez Sherry...

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