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26 September 2018updated 30 Jun 2021 11:50am

Drinking Amontillado sherry in Andalusia, my mind turns to Queen Isabella of Castile

Would a few sips have made her a more tolerant ruler?

By Nina Caplan

In Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Andalusia, high above the Atlantic coast, a pale stone castle shines in almost perpetual sunlight. En route from one cool, dark sherry bodega to another, my imagination was caught by a sign declaring it the place where Queen Isabella of Castile (1451–1504) first saw the sea.

It’s plausible. Her kingdom was landlocked, as was her husband Ferdinand’s Aragon. Isabella was good at sending others across the sea she understood so little: Columbus, funded by their Majesties; the Jews, expelled by royal decree, along with the last of the Moors, who had ruled Spain for 700 years. A great deal of sherry surely left Andalusian shores with all these travellers: the Jews required wine for their religious rituals and, judging by their poetry, many Moorish Muslims chose not to heed the prohibition of alcohol. As for Columbus, only a foolhardy captain would trap himself on a ship with a horde of thirsty sailors.

“Toast the wine of the most noble and loyal Jerez,” wrote Captain Fernando de Trejo in 1498, according to Julian Jeffs’s excellent 1961 book Sherry, “for it is a joy to the spirits, light to the eyes – a gift of God.” He was biased, being Jerezano, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong. Good sherry, the strange wine made within the triangle of Puerto de la Santa Maria, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Jerez de la Frontera (the frontier in question being between Christian and Moorish Spain), is all these things, while atheists may substitute gastronomy for God: few wines accompany food so well.

Of the lightest, driest sherries, Fino is from Jerez, Manzanilla from Sanlúcar, and perhaps it is that proximity to the coast that gives the latter its salty, appetising tang. Or perhaps the imagination of sea-lovers just makes it seem that way.

Did Isabella drink sherry? Surely a gift of God was the perfect beverage for this most Christian monarch, and if she did inhale Manzanilla, in those years before she visited its home, did the liquid smell salty to her? It would have been very different from ours, since sherry was not then aged in stacked barrels, each new vintage poured in at the top to mingle with its predecessors as it progresses towards the bottle. But it would surely have been recognisable, thanks to flor, the mysteriously occurring yeast that coats the maturing wine, forever altering its flavour. Flor thrives nowhere else, so once their stock ran out, Isabella’s erstwhile subjects would have been deprived of sherry, in addition to everything else.

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I sip Amontillado, Fino aged from delicacy into richness, nuttiness and a little bitter orange, and count my blessings. Isabella could never have tried a wine like my lovely Amontillado Tabanco, and so it comes to a 21st-century Jew to pity a crafty and intolerant Queen, for a harsh childhood deprived of waves and a harsher adulthood depriving others of land, without even this delirious drink to soften her towards tolerance. Does a childhood without sweeping seascapes predispose one to narrow-mindedness?

In the preface dedicated to her, Antonio de Nebrija, the author of the first Spanish grammar book, celebrated Isabella’s triumph and the old religions’ defeat. “The only thing left to cultivate is peace,” he crowed. But simplification rarely improves anything: ask a sherry maker. In the interests of pacifism, it surely makes more sense to cultivate vines. l

Nina Caplan is talking to Oz Clarke at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 25 November

This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis