IT WAS fascinating, sitting out in the sun in late November having lunch in the square opposite the cathedral in Seville. At that time of the year, it is not surprising to see the wooden booths of a Christmas fair — but this was no ordinary fair: it was the Feria del Belén, or Crib Fair. On sale was everything that you might want to include in your nativity crib, no matter what size it might be: at the more fantasist end, there was a model of Joseph and Mary on a motorbike, off to Egypt with the baby Jesus in the sidecar.
I had something interesting in my glass: a most agreeable red wine, García de La Jara. For me, the interesting thing about it was that it came from a beachside vineyard in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the town renowned for the production of manzanilla sherry.
Manzanilla is a fino sherry, which has been aged in this seaside town rather than in the bodegas of one to the other two centres of sherry production: Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa María. Here, the warehouses are constructed so that they gain the maximum of influence from the breezes coming in from the Atlantic. This ensures that the flor — the film of microscopic fungus which lies on top of the wine in the cask and protects it from oxidation — remains there throughout the year. With normal fino wines, this protection is not constant throughout the year. Thus, if you take the same base wine and age some of it in Sanlucar, it becomes a manzanilla, while, if aged in Jerez, it becomes a fino. Generally speaking, manzanilla tends to be rather crisper on the palate.
What are the wines to look out for? As well as the lighter style of wine, there is also the more traditional older manzanilla pasada. I would suggest the Aurora of Pedro Romero; San Leon, from Argueso; and the single-vineyard Pastrana, from Hidalgo. The representatives of the more modern style include Solear, from the largest producer, Barbadillo; and La Gitana, from Hidalgo. (Interestingly, Barbadillo also produces what is said to be the top-selling light white wine in Spain, Castillo de San Diego, as well as a specialist en rama manzanilla, bottled unfiltered straight from the cask.)
For me, a fascinating question about manzanilla is: from where does it get its name? There are three schools of thought. André Simon suggested that it was a diminutive of the Spanish word for apple, manzana, and that it had the flavour of a crab apple. No one appears to accept this nowadays. Second, and my personal favourite, is that it originally came from the wine-producing town of Huelva, in the province of Huelva, which used to export its wines to the Americas through Sanlúcar. (I was intrigued to see in Seville a bar offering Vinos de Manzanilla — Huelva.)
The Sanluqueños themselves, however, favour the theory that the name comes from the Spanish word for chamomile: manzanilla, which, they say, has a similar flavour. (One must be careful; for, in most of Spain, unless you specify what you want, you are more likely to get a herb tea than a glass of sherry.) How could they accept, even in the distant past, that the wine might have come from somewhere else?