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Awesome Andalusia:

Sipping sherry in a triangle and watching the horses dance

Say sherry and some think, "That's your British granny's drink." Think again.

One of the world's oldest wines, its evolution has been influenced by many of the world's greatest empires and civilizations: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Spanish and Britain.

The latter's love affair with the drink began at the beginning of the 16th century; foreign relations between England and France had become strained and Spain took advantage of this to make sherry the leading wine import to Britain. The Spanish abolished export tax for wine in SanlĂștszancar and gave English merchants preferential treatment.

But the thick, sweet stuff that Granny might sip is only one version of this historic fortified wine—and you can learn all about it on a visit to the "sherry triangle": three charming towns in the southernmost part of Andalusia. This is the driest and warmest section of Spain, where the sun shines for more than 300 days a year and, in summer, temperatures can top 40°C.

Perplexingly, the most famous sherry designation doesn't allow any kind of irrigation—but the grapes survive due to the lime-rich, chalk-white soil that soaks up winter rain and delivers it to the vines in summer. More on that later.

We base ourselves in Jerez de la Frontera, the wine region's capital, in an apartment overlooking Plaza del Arenal, a pleasant square with a classic carousel. Jerez is a quiet cousin to the more touristed Seville, and we easily settle into the locals' routine: late breakfast of strong coffee served in a glass and toast rubbed with tomato and topped with jamon (I confess, I tire of ham after several weeks in Spain), a large lunch followed by siesta and dinner at outdoor cafés long past midnight. Spaniards are night owls.

The plazas are lively, but not crowded. The patrons range from senior señoras chatting over cerveza (think Golden Girls, Spanish-style) to children clamouring for cones at ice cream counters. We are delighted that there are not many tourists about.

Since we are here to suss out sherry, Jerez, which derives from the Arabic sherish and has become synonymous with the English word sherry, is the obvious place to start.

As we sip at a few bodegas, my sommelier sister, Melanie, shares her knowledge of this "neglected wine treasure." To be labelled Jerez-Xérès-Sherry (Jerez for the Spanish, Xérès for what it is called in France and, of course, Sherry for the Brits), the wine has to be produced according to specific rules.

Palomino grapes, which grow well in the chalky soil, are fermented and then fortified with a grape spirit to increase alcohol content. As they age in barrels, a layer of flor (a yeast-like growth that protects the wine from excessive oxidation) forms. Then, wines from various years are blended together before being bottled. The result is crisp, pale Fino. At the other end of the sherry spectrum are the dark dessert varieties, made by fermenting dried  Moscatel grapes.

From Jerez, we head south west to the second point on the sherry triangle: El Puerto de Santa Maria, where we visit Osborne Bodegas, one of the oldest firms of wine and spirits in Spain. The tasting room is glamourous, with Cathedral ceilings and pale flooring—which allows the walls of bottles and the famous Toro Negro branding to stand out.

These black bulls are more than a brand. Born in a 1956 ad campaign to represent Osborne brandy, the 14-metre-tall, 4,000-kilogram bulls were set up along Spanish roadways. In 1994, Spain started a crackdown of roadside advertising and planned to tear down the bulls. There was a public outcry! The bulls were allowed to stay, but with adverts blacked out. Today, 91 of the 500 bulls remain. In 1994, Osborne sued other companies for using the bull image. But a judge threw out the case, declaring the bulls a national symbol that belongs to the people.

Melanie does a vintage tasting and is delighted that one of the sherries has wine from 1792. My husband opts for a flight of brandy. Given it is early afternoon, I merely sniff the spirits. Though I do succumb to a sip of "cream" sherry Mel concocts by mixing a Fino and a dessert sherry.

SanlĂștszancar de Barrameda, a windswept town on the Atlantic, is the third point of the sherry triangle. This is home to a special sherry, Manzanilla, known for its extra saltiness and lighter body. But you can't drink sherry all day! And, Andalusia has 800 kilometres of coastline. So, we head to the beach, a wide expense of pale sand sloping to the clear sea, empty save for a few fishermen.

Beaches and wines are only part of what makes this part of Spain famous. There are also dancing horses! The Andalusian horse has a history more complex than sherry. Cave paintings show horses present here as early as 20,000 BCE. Despite their ancient history, all living Andalusians trace to a small number of horses bred by religious orders in the 18th and 19th centuries.

You can see these horses in an equestrian ballet set to Spanish music at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art.

Jerez is also known as the birthplace of flamenco, best seen in small sherry bars where you can sit inches from the mournful singers and foot-stomping dancers. Dramatic as they are, it's the horses that linger in my mind.

For the others in Virginia's series go to: and