Lunch at 3. Dinner at 10:30 or 11. It took me just a day to slide into the rhythms of Andalusia in southern Spain and become the night owl I'd always wanted to be, ending the evening past midnight with a glass of amontillado at a bar on the square.
I had planned this trip to the Sherry Triangle for months, drawn to this corner of southwestern Spain to learn more about the sherry made in one of the world's top wine regions.
The Marco de Jerez, a.k.a. the Sherry Triangle, is bounded by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, about 90 minutes south of Seville and just 20 or so minutes apart.
The unique fortified wine has a history that dates to the 17th century. Many of the historic bodegas and shippers were founded in the 18th century before the United States was even a country.
In the late 19th century, sherry was having a long moment in the U.S. as an element in then-popular cocktails, the very ones, such as the sherry cobbler, that are making a comeback today. By the 1930s and '40s, however, sherry had fallen out of favor. Decades later, it had been relegated to the brown, sticky dregs in that decanter in your grandmother's cupboard.
That is not the glorious wine I came to experience. In fact, only a small proportion of sherry is sweet. Most is dry, some of the driest wine in the world, and that includes not only fino and manzanilla (a fino made only in Sanlúcar de Barrameda), but also amontillado, palo cortado and oloroso, which are richer and more complex, amber in color, but still dry.
Walking through sun-drenched streets lined with hulking white and ocher bodegas, you can smell the flor, the blanket of ivory yeast cells that forms on top of fino or manzanilla and protects these wines from oxidation. (Other styles of sherry, such as amontillado or oloroso, age only partly or not at all under flor.)
Bodegas with such names as Emilio Lustau, Gonzalez Byass, Pedro Domecq, Barbadillo or Hidalgo La Gitana house thousands of old casks of sherry in soaring, cathedral-like buildings with thick walls, tall pillars and high windows shaded with hand-plaited straw mats. You can visit many of them by appointment, and tours (in English) provide a quick education in the intricacies of sherry.
But there's much more to this region than just wine.
I ate the best seafood of my life here along the Costa de la Luz. I still find myself daydreaming about the briny, sweet, raw clams I had at lunch at El Bichero in Jerez or the sublime prawns at Casa Bigote along Bajo de Guía in Sanlúcar, where the Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic.
At the tiny Michelin two-star Aponiente in El Puerto de Santa María, the sommelier paired Angel Léon's spectacular tasting menu with sumptuous old sherries.
If visiting cellars isn't high on your agenda, Jerez offers restaurants and gin bars, flamenco clubs and the chance to see the amazing horses from the royal equestrian school. Some prefer the tonier parts of El Puerto de Santa María, but it took me only a couple of hours to decide that Sanlúcar was my town, within walking distance of the sea and across from the huge Doñana National Park and its wetlands.
I couldn't cross the river to the Doñana this time because of the Roció pilgrimage, and I never got to hear any flamenco or visit Cádiz, the oldest continually inhabited city in Spain.
Never mind: It's always good to leave a trip with something undone. That way you know you'll come back.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO SEVILLE, SPAIN
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Seville is offered on Iberia, KLM, British, Air France, Norwegian and Lufthansa. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,595, including all taxes and fees.
WHERE TO STAY
Asta Regia Jerez, 9 San Agustín, Jerez de la Frontera, 011-34-956-327-91, en.hotelastaregiajerez.com. . Moderately priced 31-room hotel in good location. Modern décor, pool. Doubles from $66, $90 with breakfast.
Hotel Sherry Park, 11 Avenida Alcalde Álvaro Domecq, Jerez de la Frontera, 011-34-956-31-76-14, www.hotelsherrypark.com/en/. Large, 174-room hotel with easy parking yet within walking distance of the city center. Modern, with pool and poolside bar. Doubles from $111, $133 with breakfast.
Palacio Garvey, 24 Calle Tornería, Jerez de la Frontera, 011-34-956-32-67-00, www.hotelpalaciogarvey.com/en. Boutique hotel in 19th century building in the city's center with 16 rooms. All the luxe conveniences, including parking. Doubles from $89, including breakfast.
TRYP Jerez Hotel, 13 Calle Marqués de Casa Domecq, Jerez de la Frontera, 011-34-956-327030, www.lat.ms/1KvH0mh . Well-priced 97-room hotel with excellent location in the center of Jerez just across from Santo Domingo convent. More business hotel than charming boutique. Parking around the corner in an underground public lot. Doubles from $71, $82 with breakfast.
Hotel Barrameda, 10 Calle Ancha, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, 011-34-956-38-58-78, www.hotelbarrameda.com. Stylish bargain boutique hotel just off the main square. Very comfortable, with some rooms on a quiet courtyard. Doubles from $89, $100 with breakfast.
Posada de Palacio, 9 Caballeros, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, 011-34-956-36-48-40, www.posadadepalacio.com. This hotel, set in an 18th century palace, has a series of terraces and inner courtyards. Very atmospheric and charming, but with minimal services. A bit of a hike, but a good one, up the hill from the center of town. Doubles from $75, $89 with breakfast.