Sanlúcar de Barrameda sits on the mouth of the great Guadalquivir river. Were you to take a boat from the rivers’ source in Jaén, you would snake your way across Andalucia passing through the glorious cities of Córdoba and Sevilla. At the river’s mouth, as it enters the Atlantic, you would find Sanlúcar on the port side, a bustling city full of activity, and to the starboard side one of the natural wonders of Western Europe - El Parque Nacional de Doñana – an oasis of wildlife left to its own devices and reachable only by boat or foot.
My first visit to Sanlúcar was around 20 years ago. Visiting Antonio in Jerez, he told me excitedly at breakfast “today we are going to eat langostinos in Sanlúcar!”. We drove the short road from Jerez - the route bordered with Palomino Fino vines - and parked outside the city to enjoy a walk through the centre to the famous El Bigote restaurant on the riverfront
After an hour or so we decided to stop at a bar and quench our thirst. In a forgotten neighbourhood - that we could never find again - we walked in to a lively bar full of fishermen. Reviving ourselves with a cool, saline, glass of Manzanilla, a scooter screeched to a halt at the entrance and threw the owner a net full of recently caught whitebait. Within minutes everyone in the bar was served a small plate of fried fish, as fresh as you like. The combination of battered fish and energetic white wine was astounding - we were smitten.
Manzanilla has been made in Sanlúcar for centeries and has its own denomination of origin in recognition of its distinct character - Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda DO. A biological white wine – that is to say, developed under the veil of flor (see flor article for details) – the wine-making methods are the same as those employed to make Fino.
In the main, you could say Fino and Manzanilla are identical twins, made up of the same genetic code. But like all twins, over time, they have grown into their own separate identities. There are a few key distinctions in the production of each style which makes all the difference.
The first of these is the land. The most famous vineyards – Miraflores, Carrascal, Pastrana, Hornillo, Mahina – sit around Sanlúcar in a fanned amphitheatre. Just above sea-level, rarely more than 80 metres above sea-level, and largely facing south west, they benefit from the cool winds that are drawn in from the Atlantic known as Poniente. As the temperatures spike in the summer months, the cool Atlantic breeze enables the fruit to reach their phenolic ripeness and retain essential acidity. The aspect being south westerly also ensures that the warm sun is not baking the vines from sunrise onwards. Heat stress, a real possibility in the summer, is avoided thanks to these two elements of orientation and the Poniente phenomena.
Coupled with a beneficial location, the soil itself is some of the finest in the region. Top-grade albariza with a very high diatom content, the conditions are perfect to encourage vine vigour (see article on Albariza). The most prevalent varietal is Lentejuelas – a limestone rich soil which is found mainly in Miraflores Baja and Carrascal. The soil produces fruit with relatively high acidity and wines that are noteworthy for their linear structure and grippy mouth-feel. In Pastrana and Mahina Barajuela is more common and Cerrado is predominant in Miraflores Alta and some parts of Pastrana.
Once the grapes have been pressed and fermented, they find themselves inhabitants of Sanlúcar itself. The proximity to the water makes this one of the most pleasant local cities to live in throughout the year as the temperature is moderated slightly by its proximity to water on both sides. Cool, coastal breezes not only benefit the vines, but also the botas in which the wine is maturing. The veil of flor thrives in humid and cooler conditions and there is an unmistakable saline lick to Manzanilla. They say this comes from the sea air passing through the barrel in the same way each barrel loses 4% per annum through evaporation. How technically accurate this is becomes irrelevant when you place your nose in a glass and are transported back to the streets of Sanlúcar with the very same sea breeze sensation.
Diatomists Manzanilla comes from grapes grown in Miraflores Baja, an area synonymous with classic Manzanilla. The parcel is around 10 hectares and raises from 33-45 meters above sea-level. The white wines are characterised by having a vertical structure and rounded finish with excellent length. Also noteworthy is that the botas in the solera are made from chestnut rather than the omnipresent American oak. The botas impart less character on the final wine and allows for the fruit and floral characters to shine through.
In many respects, it is easier to say what Manzanilla doesn’t pair with as it is remarkably versatile and can be enjoyed with any meal where you might reach for a bottle of white wine. Manzanilla can, for instance, hold up to umami rich foods like sushi and miso. But travelling so far gastronomically is not necessary, Britain’s very own classic – the humble fish and chips - is one of the best pairings we have come across and is a combination even the Sanluqueños themselves would feel completely at home with.