I have to get right down to the ground to take a picture of the ladder because it’s only four inches tall. My elbows get a bit mucky on the floor and people are staring, but I want the shot.
“Wait a minute”, I hear you ask yourself. “That doesn’t sound like a terribly effective ladder.”
“Normally, people need to bend down to reach things at the four inch level and when it comes to bending down, ladders are generally considered unfit for purpose.”
“Such a ladder”, I hear you continue “would appear to have been built to address a problem that does not exist.”
But you’d be wrong.
It isn’t all about you, you know. It isn’t even, I’m told, all about me.
And it isn’t a toy ladder either. Nor is it a model; it’s a real ladder and it’s used on a daily basis.
Nightly, in fact.
We’re back in Jerez and we’re taking a tour of one of its numerous sherry bodegas. It’s June and the bodegas are gorgeously cool with their high ceilings and sandy floors. Barrels are stacked all around us in solera formation.
We’re roughly two thirds through the tour and the little ladder seems to be one of those nice touches you’ll often get on this kind of visit – something to entertain the guests. We’re told the story of a former employee who discovered that the resident mice enjoyed a drop of sherry as much as the next…eh, man, and who set about the task of accommodating them by propping the little ladder he built up against a filled copita of oloroso.
Yes, a nice touch. Nonsense, of course. A yarn. A silly story to delight and lightly tease us.
No. They have photos. Three of them hung on a column just above the ladder. There they are, the little mice on their little ladder, getting big time messed up on sherry. The copita is refilled each day.
As diverting as the story is, it doesn’t address an urgent need of mine.
Not the bathroom, although I could do with that too. No, I want a drink.
I want someone to give me a fucking drink.
I’ve been in a bodega for an hour now. A bodega. An hour. I have no idea how many litres of the stuff are contained, just inches from me, in the rows up row of barrels, but it’s a lot. The air itself is perfumed with the heavenly scent of this city’s famous wine and I would like to drink some of it.
Now, if at all possible. Failing that, soon.
The tasting comes at the end of the tour but my focus on it was apparent right from the start, at the ticket booth.
“And will you be wanting to taste two wines today,” asked the rather curt young lady behind the glass, “or four?”
I simply raised my eyebrows and we were on our way.
If I paint a picture of a craven alcoholic my thirst, to be fair, is (slightly) more discerning than that. I am here for a favourite of mine. A beautiful wine whose rarity makes my toes curl and fingers flap.
Many of you will come from countries where the word sherry conjures thoughts of sweet sherry and little old ladies. In Spain it isn’t like that. Vino de Jerez, as it’s known here, is a grand old wine, popular with princes and the poor. And the sweet stuff plays second fiddle. It is produced in a spectrum from bone dry downwards: Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso, Dry, Pale Cream, Medium, Cream, Pedro Ximénez, Moscatel and Dulce.
But the best of them all isn’t even on the list. It isn’t there because they don’t make it.
They find it.
Toes curling yet?
Palo Cortado (meaning ‘cut stick’, after the chalked symbol which identifies its barrels) is an accident. Resulting from the loss of its veil of flor (we don’t have time here – look it up. Or don’t. It isn’t that interesting) a wine that starts out as an Amontillado begins to age Oloroso-style, creating a beautiful hybrid that shares the best characteristics of both – the nose and body of an Oloroso with the crisp, dry lightness of an Amontillado.
The producers mark the barrel when they discover the process underway, and of all sherry production, the very special Palo Cortado accounts for less than 2%.
When we’re ushered through to the next barrel room I think I’ve hit the motherload. A gigantic cask built for the visit of Queen Somebody-Or-Other the Fourth is flanked by twelve others, only slightly less massive. And, we’re told, they’re all full of Palo Cortado.
I say we’re told but the truth is that the rest of them are, and then K tells me. I should probably mention that I’m on the German language tour, and that I don’t speak German.
We’re showing K’s parents around and although she is good with me, translating key points, for an awful lot of the time I haven’t a clue what is going on. The situation isn’t doing my patience any favours, and may explain my tunnel-vision for the tasting. I’m soothed when K informs me, though, that apparently the Palo Cortado can be tried in the shop at the end of the tour. They’ve called it Apostoles, after the twelve barrels.
And now, finally, the tasting. Our guide lists the four wines that will be poured into the four glasses each lined up on our table. It’s excruciating because I have to wait an additional second for K’s translations.
First up, a Fino. Fair enough.
Next, Oloroso. Ok…
Third. Croft Original. Christ.
And the last, a Pedro Ximénez.
Not Palo Cortado then. Never mind. I’ll have to catch up with it in the shop.
I’ll admit to being in a considerably more positive frame of mind following the tasting as I make my jaunty way towards the shop, and a beautiful shop it is too – spacious and air-conditioned and filled with sherry.
There are no samplings going on – an immediate kick in the teeth.
Never mind, I’ll find a bottle and check the price. God help me, I may be a part-time English teacher but if that mother is selling for less than twenty, I’m having it. There it is, in a wooden box. Wooden boxes are rarely a good sign, price-wise.
It isn’t selling for less than twenty. It’s selling for twice twenty.
Never mind. There’s one more option. It can’t all have been for nothing!
This is a gift shop, so each wine rack has a little shelf of miniatures below it – single measures that sell for just a few euros. It’s requires some expectation management and a robust sense of self-esteem, but I start rifling through them.
To no avail. At less then 2% of production, they don’t put this stuff in miniatures. Everything else, yes. This, no.
Sheesh. How to put a positive spin on this? I suppose it should be hard to come by – the pleasure of eventually getting my hands on some will be enhanced. Or something.
I’m back in Tarifa now and K is at work. It’s lunchtime and I could go into the old town or down to the water for some fried fish and a beer or two, but I won’t. I don’t want to spend the money. I’m saving.Follow @RobinJGraham