Horses for courses

05 August 2016

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AS FAR as I am aware, the Church Times has never had a racing correspondent, and in no way am I qualified to take on such a position; but, at the end of this month, there is one occasion when wine and horse-racing come close together.

The place for this is the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, in southern Spain. For the past 150 years, horse-racing has taken place there on a 1800-metre course along the beach. This year, the two meetings are on 12-14 and 26-28 August.

Each evening, the racing starts at 6 p.m., and there are all the trap­pings of a normal race-meeting with grandstands, bars, betting, and com­mentators. It is after the last race each evening, however, that the event livens up with music and dan­cing. Families each have their own pavilions, where they serve tapas, and the product that has spread the name of the town around the world: the dry sherry Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

There are two basic families of sherry: finos and olorosos. The first comprises finos, manzanillas, and amontillados. These wines are aged in casks, called butts, which are not filled to the bung. Flor — a combination of bacteria and spores of the Saccharomyces family — soon develops on the surface of the wine. This forms a protective film against oxidation. It also plays a part as a sugar-consuming yeast. The differ­ence between a fino and a manzan­illa is dependent on the nature of the flor.

The sherry vineyards lie around the seaside towns of Sanlúcar and El Puerto de Santa Maria, and the inland city of Jerez de la Frontera. It is an English corruption of the name of this last town that has led to the wine of the region to be called sherry. While the base wine for both fino and manzanilla can come from anywhere in the sherry region, for a wine to be called the latter, it has to be aged in a bodega, or warehouse, within the municipal boundaries of the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

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These warehouses are con­structed to take full advantage of the cool­­ing breezes that come off the Atlantic Ocean. This means that in Sanlúcar, the flor exists all the year round; in the hotter climate of Jerez, it dies off twice a year. As a result, while every manzanilla can be called a fino, it is only a limited proportion of finos that can be sold as manzanilla. The difference in taste is noticeable: the ideal manzanilla has a crisper, almost salty, tang.

Manzanillas are widely available on the high street; names to look out for are Barbadillo’s Solear, Hidalgo’s La Gitana, and Argueso’s San León. If you are looking for more complex flavours, Hidalgo has a single-vineyard Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana (Waitrose, £12.99), and Lustau has the very special aged Manzanilla Amontillado Almacen­ista (Wait­rose, £23.99).

Chilled manzanillas are ideal for summer drinking: they are, for sher­ries, low in alcohol, normally being no more than 15 per cent. I am told that they also make an ideal replace­ment for vodka in a Bloody Mary, but this one thing I have not tried.

If you cannot get to the races, celebrate at home with a bottle of manzanilla.

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