"What attracts me to wine is really the cultural aspect. I was born in Jerez de la Frontera and since I was little I’ve been surrounded by bodegas [cellars] and the smell of wine. We lived in a communal tenement – housing for humble people. Our building was attached to a vinegar bodega, and I would lie in bed and inhale the smell of vinegar. And all around us, in the adjacent streets, there were sherry bodegas such as Domecq and Francisco Carrasco, a small bodega that has long since disappeared.
Even though I was surrounded by it, I came to drinking wine late in life. I was writing about the presence of wine – and above all sherry – in literature. It was a very intellectual relationship; I didn’t know anything about wine, I didn’t have any intention of drinking it, I didn’t like it. It was a bit contradictory. Eventually, I got to know a historian who is now a very good friend, Carmen Borrego. She lives in Jerez and has a tiny bodega – a traditional, artisanal one. She is the one who showed me, who made me discover wine in a concrete way, who opened my eyes to wine.
She took me to a shady corner of the bodega called la sacristía, which has religious symbolism to it (in a Catholic church, it’s the place where they have the tabernacle with the body of Christ in it). Every bodega has a sacristía where they keep the best wines – the very old, very good ones – and the best casks. I got to try the unbottled wine directly from the cask of an extremely old amontillado from the 19th century. It was a Maestro Sierra Amontillado. They’ve had it since it was first made, because Carmen's father and her grandfather had owned that bodega. It was an añejo, a very old one, that had continued accumulating each vintage from many years. In that wine you could almost feel the century.
The building itself is beautiful; it’s a historic bodega and the barrel that the wine is in was made by Carmen's grandfather. So a lot of elements came together and the final result was my discovery. And drinking that amontillado is just marvellous. It goes into your throat and reaches down to your ankles.
For a good bodega, it is very important to have a very old solera [a tiered system of barrels]. You add wines from other centuries to add character to the young wines. That is what they do with other old wines, but this one was set aside; it was a special cask for personal consumption – and also for the privilege of sharing it with a friend like me, directly from the cask without it ever having been in a bottle. It hadn’t been filtered, nothing like that.
It was like looking back to the amontillado that the American writer Edgar Allan Poe mentions in "The Cask of Amontillado". That popped right into my mind. At the time, I was studying Edgar Allan Poe and I was tasting a wine that pretty much came from the same time period. There was a very strong cultural connection in that moment. It was something really special."
As told to Erica Berenstein
Fast Facts from Wine-Searcher's search engine:
Bodegas El Maestro Sierra Vinos Viejos Amontillado 1830 VORS Sherry
- Grape variety: Palomino
- Average price: $130
- Peak average price: $149 in July 2011
- Available from 14 merchants in six countries.