The über-short version of an article I wrote for Wine Enthusiast can be accessed in the link above. For images and the full story on visiting Feria de Jerez, Spain, keep reading.
Soaring, twisted-iron gates welcome you to the entrance of Feria de Jerez, a festival thrown the second week of May in southwestern Spain. From its humble start in the medieval ages as a horse and livestock show, Feria has morphed into a peerless spectacle to celebrate both its cultural and equine heritage.
For an outsider, participating in Feria evokes traveling back through centuries—gentleman and ladies don vintage finery, and the soundscape is dominated not by pop music but flamenco guitar. Locals quaff thousands of sherry casks and the city virtually shuts down to rejoice with fervor akin to religiosity.
Despite the scale of the event, Feria de Jerez remains a party attended largely by Spaniards. You’ll still compete for a room (book early), but hotels are filled with Madrileños not Americanos—the international travel-set remains, for now, preoccupied with the Feria de Abril in Seville.
Why else go? Jerez is the nerve-center of sherry production and the region’s elemental wine is enjoying a rekindled romance with beverage directors and restaurateurs. London, for example, has seen a proliferation of dedicated sherry bars, and worldwide, it’s de riguer for any respectable cocktail den to offer sherry by the glass or in a drink.
The gastronomy of Jerez has also seen an international revival, infiltrating foreign kitchens via chefs borrowing ideas from its superlative cuisine. To sample regional fare, grab an umbrella-shaded table at La Cruz Blanca. This local favorite illustrates the brilliance of “simple and fresh” cooking. Dig into a revelatory bowl of salmorejo (gazpacho’s heartier cousin), the sort of dish you wake up for the next day – and the day after. Follow that with platters of tender, paprika-spiked octopus; plump, grilled langoustines dressed in flakes of sea salt and olive oil; and washed down with buckets of fino while wandering guitarists serenade with soulful flamenco melodies.
After lunch, stroll the atmospheric downtown, a jumble of architectural eras and crumbling bodegas painted gray by time. Once splendid monuments to the city’s wealth during the mid-19th century sherry boom, abandoned bodegas now shelter nesting birds and memories of that bygone era. Alternatively, take in “death in the afternoon” (as Hemingway would). The remaining sherry aristocracy still arrives by horse-and-carriage to daily bouts.
The Feria itself lives inside an elaborate, pop-up town comprised of casetas. Casetas are the soul of the party; they are tents, generally open to the public, that offer drinks and music, and are sponsored by families, groups of friends and members of the sherry aristocracy. Step inside feria and undulating waves of twinkling colored lights descend from the sky as a heavenly shawl to greet you. Sunlit hours are the domain of elegantly dressed cowboys, parading horseback along the ersatz boulevard. At dusk, ladies born of every decade arrive dressed in candy-hued, polka-dotted gowns. They flirt coyly behind painted fans, while men strut in search of a nighttime dalliance. Packed with revelers, this mini-city can feel vast and unnavigable in the evening darkness.
Spend the deepest hours of night flitting in-and-out of casetas crammed along the streets. Each tent hawks tapas and pitchers of rebujitos (fino and lemon-soda cocktail), the unofficial party fuel. If not for glowing cell-phones and electric lights, you just might believe you’re carousing back in time in the age of sherry shipping magnates.
Travel and Lodging
Flights: Madrid and Barcelona both offer regional flights into Jerez; alternatively, fly into Sevilla and rent a car for the hour-drive south or take the train. The RENFE train system in Spain is excellent and fairly inexpensive.
Hotels: For relaxing by the pool in the afternoon and close proximity to the festival, book the Hotel Jerez & Spa. Ask for a room facing the pool rather than the parking lot. Book several months in advance and expect three times the normal rate, about 250 Euros during the festival. If you prefer small and authentic, try the 8-room La Fonda Barranco. The owner David, originally from Ireland, spent a decade carefully restoring the circa 1865 merchant’s house, furnishing rooms with a nod to the town’s Islamic heritage. Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis checked-in here. For the most inexpensive and unique lodging, check the listings on AirBnB. Last year, multiple apartments and homes were available as late as one week before the event; many appeared spacious with outdoor terraces, often located in charming 18th and 19th century buildings.
While in the Region
Can’t take feria all day, every day for a week? Spend a night or two in these charming towns:
Take the 40-minute train to Cadiz, the oldest continuously inhabited town in Spain. Once an important coastal city, particularly to the Phoenicians, the well-preserved barrios (neighborhoods) and narrow alleys are now filled with shops, small bars and cafes. Pop into a local seafood restaurant; choose one that looks packed—in Cadiz, if it’s crowded, it’s good. Order a plate of pescado de Cadiz to taste the big and small creatures pulled from the bay that morning, deep-fried, salty and addictive.
Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Sanlúcar doesn’t have a direct train, so rent a car to visit this seaside town, the only place in the world that produces Manzanilla, a type of fino sherry. The humidity and salty-sea air create a unique atmosphere for the growth of flor contributing to the wine’s delicate, briny and floral flavor profile. Hit the beach and spend the afternoon at one of the oceanfront cafes, toes in the sand.
Tasting at Sherry Bodegas:
Visiting the sherry bodegas in Jerez during feria can be a challenge. Book appointments well in-advance for the few available morning slots which generally start at 10 AM. One drawback of visiting the region during the festival is that locals treat the week like a religious holiday—very few of them work. However, the bodegas in the other two towns that complete the “sherry triangle,” Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, remain open—feria isn’t their party, so you can track down tastings in their local bodegas with ease. Try: Bodegas Barbadillo in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Gutierrez Colosía in El Puerto de Santa Maria.