The architecture of these astonishing buildings shapes the character not only of the wines maturing in them, but of the Sherry towns themselves. Professor Jesus Barquin explores the impact of recent upheavals

A writer always hopes to raise some unexplored issue, expose some false belief or reveal some new truth. Unhappily, on the present subject there is little room for such self-deception, since the common perception is true: architecture in the Sherry region (Marco de Jerez or del Jerez) is best represented by its bodegas, the great shrines to wine that combine function, greatness and character in a balanced and efficient manner.

Some Sherry producers would agree with Hugh Pearman that their bodegas can be 'a form of labelling', especially when business is going well. Among its facilities in Jerez (which almost constitute a small town in themselves, with narrow streets and cosy squares), Gonzalez Byass owns a couple of emblematic buildings representative of the architectural avant-garde of their times: Bodega La Concha, or the so-called Eiffel Bodega (designed by Joseph Coogan, 1870),1 and Bodega Tio Pepe (JA Torroja and F de la Cuadra, 1963). In both buildings functionality plays a secondary role at best, one heavily overshadowed by brand-building and, ironically, cost-cutting. As Maria Jose Yravedra explains (2003, p.170), the original plans for the Bodega Tio Pepe included a roof-cover made of bright, reflective metal that was later replaced by a cheaper, plastic material; this eventually rendered the third floor totally unsuitable for the ageing of Fino, its ostensible purpose.

Currently, the Sherry region is still struggling to emerge from a prolonged period of crisis that has hardly lent itself to the hiring of famous architects for the design of fancy new bodegas. Flirting with the studios of Calatrava, Gehry or Moneo is a privilege reserved for those other Spanish wine-producing areas currently much more in fashion. For Sherry, these are times of punctilious accounting, even penny-pinching, in which some companies have had to sell beautiful old bodegas, located in the much sought-after historical centres of cities, in order to balance their books. Under this scenario, we should be grateful that the new owners have not yet succumbed to the temptation to build apartment blocks where the bodegas still stand.

When we consider the lack of rationality found in some of the 'designer' bodegas mentioned above, however, the effects of this financial crisis on the architecture of the bodegas seem much less regrettable. The traditional bodega buildings still play an even more important commercial role - shaping both the quality and the style of the Sherries themselves.

Function: space and time

Admirers often remark on the magical character of Sherry, the miracle by which the juice of a grape so devoid of primary aromatic qualities as Palomino gives rise to wines ranging from the delicate and fine to the overwhelmingly powerful. A certain obscurantism is sometimes used to explain why a bodega grows excellent Fino or Manzanilla, whereas the products of another one nearby are barely decent. Even within the same building, certain butts on a given corner yield wines noticeably more aromatic, rounder and more complex than those from the opposite corner.

Yet there is nothing supernatural in this. Sherry wines are the result of know-how, perfected over the centuries. In this process, several elements play a crucial role, among them the unique conditions in the three towns where Sherry is aged - Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda.

The environmental conditions of the bodega and the vineyards, the varieties and the vinification process, all establish the broad parameters. Certainly there is still considerable latitude regarding the blend, the number of saccas (withdrawals from the soleras) and the quantity of each. Such decisions are not only market-oriented but style-oriented, too, and the capataz (cellar master) is most responsible for the consistency of the house style. But that style may itself have been influenced initially by environmental factors, and these still spin the threads that the capataz weaves together.

For at least the last 200 years, the ageing process of Sherry has depended on the veil of flor that flourishes - more or less vigorously - during the entire life of Finos and Manzanillas and in the early stages of most other Sherry styles. Flor is made of living micro-organisms, yeasts of the variety Saccharomyces, that are sensitive to certain ecological conditions. Of these, three are of particular relevance from an architectural perspective: an abundance of air (because the biological ageing Sherry undergoes is aerobic and consumes copious amounts of oxygen); moderate temperature (a few degrees above or below 64°F [17.8°C] ); and relatively high humidity (itself desirable to prevent the loss of wine through evaporation). The bodegas, the 'wine cathedrals', are the best possible architectural solution from the bioclimatic point of view.

Bodega shapes and sizes

The architectural typology is not limited to the magnificent monuments that spring most readily to mind. It also includes other models that are the result of the fine balance struck over the centuries between the ideal and the practical.

Apart from the ageing bodegas proper, there used to abound casas de la viña (pressing houses), in whose lagares, next to the vineyards, the grapes were trodden so that the vinification could take place close by. In the dazzling, undulating landscape of albariza soil, where Sherry is born, many of these buildings reminiscent of the cortijo andaluz still survive. Vina Los Arcos, near Jerez, or the half-ruined Miraflores Alta, near Sanlucar, are good examples, though many others can be spotted from any of the roads that link the Sherry towns.

In the long history of wines from the Sherry region, those produced through the biological ageing and fractional blending that characterise the solera system are a relative novelty. This accounts for the characteristics of the oldest buildings:

a) Small bodegas in the Moorish style (from the 16th and 17th centuries). One example would be parts of Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla, on Calle Jardinillo in Jerez. Bodegas of this structure resemble cellars in other parts of the world and therefore present an oxygenation problem. In these cellars, Finos occupy the ground level only, if they are present at all.

b) Ground floors of granaries, whether annexed to the homes of the owners (former shippers of wheat and wine to the Indies) or in separate buildings (from the 17th and 18th centuries). Delgado Zuleta used to own a number of small bodegas of this sort in the old quarters of Sanlucar, but the majority of these have not survived the building of a new cellar complex in the outskirts.

c) Middle-sized and small bodegas, many of considerable height, devoted mostly to the ageing of wines (18th and first half of the 19th century). Some of these pre-date, while others are contemporary with, the great bodegas of the golden age of Sherry. Though not exhaustive, we can offer subclassifications within this group that are still operative:

c1) Bodegas located in privileged spots in the centre of towns, humid due to the proximity of the water table and protected from excessive sunlight by nearby buildings. Examples would be the excellent Fino and Manzanilla bodegas of Grant in El Puerto and La Cigarrera in Sanlucar.

c2) Bodegas where the humidity and temperature regulation comes not from insulation but rather from exposition, be it on a high spot exposed to the west winds - as is the case with El Maestro Sierra in Jerez - or at the mouth of the River Guadalete, next to the Bay of Cadiz - like Gutierrez Colosia in El Puerto.

In all of these, there are differences on a smaller scale that the producer uses, through the careful distribution of butts around the bodega. The cooler, more stable areas will be reserved for the butts holding Fino and Manzanilla.

Greatness: the Sherry temples

As early as the 19th century, the image of the great bodegas impressed knowledgeable visitors to Jerez, such as Boutelou (1807, p.148)2 and Richard Ford (1846, p. 156).3 After seeing them for the first time in 1833, Ford called them 'temples of Bacchus', since they 'resemble cathedrals in size and loftiness'. Many of the buildings were erected during the Sherry boom in the first half of the 19th century, especially in Jerez and El Puerto. In the latter town, the building industry developed the Campo de Guia area (see Cirici, 1996). Several of those buildings are still bodegas today, controlled by houses such as Caballero, Colosia and Osborne.

The summit of the style was reached in the 1870s, on the eve of an important crisis for the trade. Doubtless the high demand, and the corresponding need to maintain higher stocks than ever before, dictated the increasing size of these new premises, while there will also have been the wish to make a lasting impression on visitors. But what interests us in this context is that most of these bodegas were still designed, first and foremost, to hold thousands of butts of Sherry in suitable conditions.

Of all the architectural features relevant to the ageing of wine, by far the most eye-catching, at least for the casual visitor, is the astonishing height and resulting volume. The highest of these bodegas was built in 1876 - Barbadillo's Bodega La Arboledilla in Sanlucar, which soars to 12.5m (41ft), a height surpassed only 100 years later by Domecq's colossal Bodega La Mezquita in Jerez. The side walls of La Arboledilla are 7m (23ft) high, and it is 33m (108ft) wide (the standard width of bodegas in those days, in pious reference to the age at which Christ died). Since each 500-litre butt of wine occupied 1 sq m (103/4 sq ft), Garcia del Barrio has been able to estimate that for every butt of wine, the bodega has 18-19 cubic metres (635-670 cu ft) of air. This is a prodigious volume by comparison with a cellar from any other wine-producing region, and double what is considered necessary for the development of the velo de flor (Yravedra, 2003, p.144). The same volume could be obtained by enlarging the area and reducing the height of the building, but the effect on the humidity and temperature would be harmful.

As in the great cathedrals, the combination of height and volume reduces the temperature at ground level, where the butts are stored, which is especially important in the summer. Equally, the high location of the ventilation windows manages to regulate humidity by evacuating rising air and sucking in the moist winds from the west. This is specially welcome when there is a strong wind from the east, which causes a steep rise in temperature and a sudden fall in humidity.

Also helpful in this hydro- and thermoregulation process are other decisions related to the building of the bodegas: Location: Especially in Jerez (for example, Domecq, Gonzalez Byass) and El Puerto (for example, Colosia, Osborne), bodegas tend to be located in the urban areas closer to the sea. In Sanlucar we find the same phenomenon (for example, Hidalgo-La Gitana), as well as several bodegas located in the Barrio Alto on the cliff (for example, Barbadillo).

Orientation: Wherever the site allows it (which is often, but not always), bodegas are built on a northeast/southwest axis, in order to minimise exposure to the sun and maximise exposure to the refreshing west wind on the short southwest and the long northeast facades. Bodega La Arboledilla features one of the most conspicuous examples of this element, but there are many more.

Other common features include a coat of white paint on the deliberately thick external walls, the use of hygrophilous materials that transfer humidity from the ground, the periodical sprinkling of the bodega floors with water, and roofs of Arabic tile that reflect the sunlight. To cite only a couple of examples among dozens, Emilio Hidalgo in Jerez and Pedro Romero in Sanlucar.

Character: architecture and urbanism

The different types of bodega building have created an urban identity over the years but one that is now under serious threat. In the last decade or two, many urban bodegas have ceased to be used as such, due to the smaller number of wine companies, plummeting sales and the spectacular rise in the value of urban real estate.

As a consequence, a new architectural model has arisen: large building complexes, in which administrative offices, winemaking facilities and warehouses are rolled together. These complexes are normally on the outskirts of towns, near the major road networks. Examples include Bodegas Las Copas (Gonzalez Byass), Garvey, Jose Estevez (Marques del Real Tesoro and Valdespino) and Williams & Humbert in Jerez, Gaspar Florido and Delgado Zuleta in Sanlucar.

The architecture of the great new bodegas is governed by more industrial criteria, such as humidification and refrigeration systems, even if there are still spectacular elements like the long central aisle of the Williams & Humbert bodega.

All this is a disquieting process, giving rise to some central concerns. Have important old soleras been affected by the move to modern, new structures? Is there a sense that an important part of the terroir has been removed? Even if quality is maintained or even improved, what about authenticity, character and identity? Regarding the soleras moved from old bodegas to the new complexes, such as Valdespino's, we can be fairly sure that the wine suffers considerably from the move and takes time to recover. The issue, then, is whether the balance is finally restored, and the response will depend on whether the new environment is suitable. In the case of Valdespino's Fino Inocente or its matching Amontillado Tio Diego, the architectural environment is now less charming than it used to be, but the quality of the wines seems to be as high as ever. This, surely, has something to do with the new location in the western outskirts of Jerez, which can be considered even more conducive than the old one in the town centre.

Nevertheless, there is more reason to worry in Sanlucar. Sanlucar's Manzanilla claims to be the product of unique terroir but more with reference to the climate and environment of the wineries than the vineyards. So moving bodegas from privileged spots in the Barrio Alto or humid areas of Sanlucar to new sites on the outskirts of the town, where bodegas have never existed, must cause aficionados to suspect that a precious part of the terroir has been sacrificed.

But since the general quality of Sherry has never been higher, perhaps the most regrettable aspect of this new development is that the Sherry towns have had their physiognomy radically and suddenly transformed. Many old bodegas have disappeared, renovated for new purposes or replaced with apartment blocks. The towns are becoming unrecognisable for both locals and visitors.

The winds of change cannot - should not - be resisted, not even in architecture. But that does not authorise us to erase an important part of the Sherry towns' past in the course of a couple of generations, destroying the unique character conferred on them by the great bodegas and erecting in their place dull and spiritless buildings. The great battle of the Sherry bodegas no longer surrounds form, function and labelling - it is now one of survival.