Culture / Curious Facts

Wineries in Sanlúcar are known as bodegas and they have always had their own idiosyncrasy and peculiar way of doing things, unlike anywhere else in the world.

These curious facts are hidden deep in a culture all its own, defining the true signs of identity of Sanlúcar, the home of Manzanilla.

The Bajetes

If you look closely at the rows of wine casks stacked in Sanlúcar’s bodegas, you’ll notice that things aren’t done in quite the same way as other places in the Sherry Region.
The andanas are the rows of wine casks stacked on top of one another In long aisles. The row nearest the floor is called the solera and each row above that is a criadera, more commonly known in Sanlúcar as a clase.

Well, in Jerez and El Puerto, the solera rests upon a base made of long wooden planks and spurs that support the wine casks stacked several rows high, the andana.

But in Sanlúcar, things are done differently. The wine casks rest upon a sheet of cork laid on top of a slab of stone that has been carved into an oval shape, known as the bajete. The most common stone used is ostionera, a sedimentary rock formed by ancient seashells and sand.

These stones were custom-carved for each type of wine barrel and its capacity. For instance, a bota is a very large vessel of grand capacity, some 50 arobas, roughly the equivalent of 600 litres, requiring a thicker than normal slab of stone.

If you take a stroll through some of Sanlúcar’s bodegas, you’ll also see bajetes placed on long rails or beams, but the oldest tradition was to place the lowest row of casks on stone slabs. The idea was that the cask would never be moved again, unlike Jerez de la Frontera where the profession of arrumbador (barrel mover) existed. These winery workers moved the barrels from one place to another, as needed.
Today, many bodegas have chosen to use cement for their bajetes instead of the traditional sedimentary rock, roca ostionera.

Sanlúcar’s Signature Wine-Pouring Utensil

You may have heard of the venencia, a utensil used in the Sherry Region to sconce wine from the barrel to a glass, performed by a venenciador.

As long as wine has been traded, which means since time immemorial, there has always been a need to establish its quality and price by taking a sample of the wine and tasting it.

The name of this utensil actually comes from this traditional function; that is, related to the sale (venta in Spanish). Before any sales transaction could take place, it was first necessary to sample the product in order to agree upon a price (avenencia in Spanish).

Although its origins are not entirely clear, some authors believe that the venencia can be traced back to Antiquity. Vienna’s Art History Museum exhibits a piece of Greek ceramic pottery on which a handsome youth is shown using a utensil astonishingly similar to the present-day venencia. According to historians, this is a krater dating from 490 BC depicting a youth serving wine to Achilles, holding a sieve in his left hand (to filter out any impurities) and a venencia in his right.

Contemporary venencias are made of stainless steel, with a small metal cup connected to the end of a flexible rod.
However, Sanlúcar also has its own version of the venencia. Somewhat more rudimentary, it is a made from a single stalk of cane, leaving a section between two knots intact, forming a sort of small cup at the end. Roughly a metre long, it’s longer than the venencia and the flexible cane rod is about 5mm in width.

This is where the expression caña de vino, came from, referring to the amount of wine poured from the caña into a small stemless glass. This is a typical way of serving Manzanilla in Sanlúcar, instead of the Sherry wine glass or catavino,

Cañas, Gorriones and Castores

Far from referring to the flora and fauna of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the fact is that one of the key elements related to our dearly loved Manzanilla is the caña (cane stalk in English). Although no longer as popular as in times of yore, Manzanilla used to be served in small, slender glasses with no stem or base like today’s wine glasses. These cañas were the typical glass our grandparents drank from at bars and taverns. Sometimes, patrons arrived by the dozens and that’s when the cañas were placed in a tray called a cañero, specially designed for carrying and serving multiple cañas at a time.

The caña is a poignant reference to the way Manzanilla was originally served, pure history, and therefore its use should not fall into oblivion. The amount of wine poured into a caña is exactly the same as that served into a Sherry wine glass. But there are other types of glasses used for serving Sanlúcar’s most treasured wine.

The gorrión (sparrow, in English) is larger and taller than the caña, so the serving portion of a gorrión is practically double that of the caña. Lastly, there’s the castora, a larger and wider glass than the gorrión and customarily filled to the brim with Manzanilla. Its peculiar name comes from the word used in Sanlúcar for a top hat: gorrión.

It is true that the traditional Sherry wine glass, the catavino, has its moment of glory. For instance, when we are actually taking part in a tasting session (from the Spanish cata = taste, vino = wine). But in traditional bars and taverns, the caña should definitely find its way back into use. Just as there’s a time for every drink, the same is true for the glasses we use!

Bodegas Towering 12 Metres High

The late 19th century was the age of the magnificent wineries built in Sanlúcar, virtually changing the spatial features and the town’s skyline.

The size and grandiosity of these bodegas was due to the surge in sales and the subsequent need to store and move greater numbers of wine casks. But there were also architectural needs to consider. For example, wines that are biologically aged require more height because the rows of casks are stacked higher than wines that are aged oxidatively. Furthermore, the yeast activity in the velo de flor is more vigorous in Sanlúcar than elsewhere. Due to its proximity to the sea, the yeast lives longer and there is a need for more scales. These scales, in turn, will ultimately determine the final result, either Manzanilla Fina or Manzanilla Pasada.

The tallest of these “wine cathedrals” was built in 1876 by a renowned master builder named Conejo. After completing his work, he came to be known as El Esmerao (meaning careful, painstaking worker) and he named his bodega of record proportions La Arboledilla.

The building, now owned by the Barbadillo winery, is 7 metres high on its lateral walls, towering to 12.5 metres in the centre. Its record height was only surpassed 100 years later by Pedro Domecq’s bodega in Jerez de la Frontera, La Mezquita, measuring 13.5 metres high in the centre.