History of Sherry: Moors to the Reconquista
- The Moors, Muslims from North Africa, invaded southern Spain and in 711 A.D., defeated theVisigoths at the great battle of Guadalete, fought close to Jerez. The Moors then spread all across Spain, defeating one army after another. The Moors would refer to much of their territory in southern Spain as Al-Andalus, which is now known as Andalucia, though the Moorish area was far larger than the current size of Andalucia. The Moors also renamed Jerez as Seris (which was pronounced “Sherish”). They found the region of Jerez to be very fertile, the home of many vineyards, olive trees and fig trees..
Despite the Koran’s prohibition against alcohol, the Moors continued to grow grapes and make wine in Al-Andalus. Though wine sales were technically illegal, it was still subject to an excise tax. Some wine was produced to distill alcohol for medicinal purposes but other wine was either sold or traded to Christians and Jews. It is also evident, especially through their poetry, that some Muslims enjoyed drinking wine, despite the religious proscription. Numerous Muslims found creative ways to interpret the Koran’s words on wine, providing some justification for their wine drinking.
Arabic wine poetry, called khamriyyah, originated in the 6th century but started to become more prominent in the 9th century. In Al-Andalus, from the 9th through 11th centuries, wine parties became an honored tradition, very popular especially for the elite, the courtiers close to the Caliph. These parties were the origin and subject of many wine poems. It seems logical to conclude that the rulers were fully aware of these wine parties, yet apparently did nothing to impede them.
But, that almost changed in 966 A.D., when Caliph Al-Haken II decided that all of the vineyards in Jerez needed to be eliminated to conform to the strictures of the Koran. It is not clear what brought on this sudden demand for strict adherence. But Al-Mansur, his vizier, and some of the populace made a case for the necessity of the vineyards. They were persuasive enough that only one-third of the vineyards were eventually destroyed. It appears Al-Mansur may have been a wine lover, as some of his poetry exists, and it praised wine. So it appears he had a personal incentive to convince the Caliph to preserve the grapes.
Though two-thirds of the vineyards were saved, many of them would be destroyed almost two hundred years later, but not directly by the Moors. In 1153, Jerez, and its vineyards, were nearly annihilated by a rampaging Christian army led by Alfonso VII, the “Emperor of All the Spains.” Fortunately, he was ultimately repelled, though not until much damage had already occurred, and the region had to be rebuilt. During much of the rest of the 12th and 13th centuries, the city of Jerez, still under Moorish control, underwent plenty of new development, including replanting vineyards and a fortification of the city defenses.
- The ReconquistaThe power of the Moors in the Jerez region eventually came to an end when King Alphonse X, also known as El Sabio, the “Wise,” successfully conquered Jerez on October 9, 1264. It is said that Alfonso took the city by surprise, avoiding a lengthy siege, and that the date of his conquest was the Feast of St. Dionysius the Areopagite. It is merely a coincidence, albeit interesting, that the saint shares a name with the Greek god of wine.
- Alfonso chose to protect the Jerez region by demarcating the Kingdom of Castile around its borders. This was partially out of self-interest as the King owned vineyards in the area and wanted to ensure their safety. He also encouraged the planting of new vineyards and promoted increased wine making. As the Reconquista continued, Christian soldiers would sometimes feed wine from Jerez to their horses so they would charge the enemy without fear.
King Alfonso figures into a legend about the origin of tapas, which also involves sherry. It is said that Alfonso once stopped in the town of Ventorillo del Chato, in the province of Cádiz, and sought a drink to quench his thirst. He ordered a glass of sherry from the inn keeper. Because of the strong winds that day, the inn keeper placed a slice of ham atop the sherry glass, to prevent dirt from getting into it. Alfonso enjoyed the ham so much that he requested another tapa or “cover” for his second glass of sherry.
Though the Moors were ousted from Jerez, they certainly yearned to regain the territory. About twenty one years later, in 1285, a Moorish army, led by Abu Yusuf and containing about 20,000 cavalrymen, laid siege to Jerez. Yusuf chose to have his army make their camp in the middle of the vineyards and much combat took place there, destroying many of the vines. Though Yusuf was eventually defeated, the vineyards suffered significant destruction and required much replanting. It should also be noted that most of the vineyards were located east of Jerez, which is different than where they are located today.
In 1380, King Juan I granted to Jerez the privilege of adding to its name “de la Frontera,” which means “on the Frontier.” Jerez shared this privilege with other frontier towns such as Arcos, Castellar, Chiclana, Cortes, Jimena, Moron and Vejer. They received this honor for a couple reasons, such as their good service as well as the fact that these towns marked the border between the Kingdom of Castile and the Moorish territories. The Moors had not yet been fully ousted from Spain, and battles were still a constant factor.