In Burgundy and the Loire Valley, it can be difficult to find the producers you are trying to visit. The houses look like any other houses and often the placards at the entrance are quite small. When you eventually find your way, you visit dark and cold underground caves with beautiful mold covered walls. There is enough room for wine barrels and not much else - visiting is an intimate experience. You taste through the lineup of new wines in barrel, and then perhaps a few bottles from recent vintages, maybe an older bottle if you are lucky and the wine maker feels like sharing a special experience.
Honestly, the larger Bodegas seemed like walled cities with their own private streets, and what I think may have been medical clinics, schools, and libraries. Okay, maybe not, but it seemed that way to me.
Oloroso barrels at Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo.
Inside the Valdespino Bodega. It felt as though I had been swallowed by a whale.
Walking into an actual Bodega, a barrel room, can be startling. You step through a door (they are not underground) and into a vast dark room filled with barrels. Light pokes past the edges of frayed wooden screens that don't really cover the windows. The ceilings are very high. The air smells delicious, kind of like yeasty bread dough and toffee. These are old, quiet, beautiful places that inspire great reverence.
You do not taste finished wines in Sherry Bodegas. In Burgundy, for example, when you taste from a barrel you get a pretty good sense of what the wine will be. Sure, the wine you taste will be blended with other barrels of the same wine and it is unfinished in barrel, so you must interpolate a bit to understand what you are tasting. But in a Sherry Bodega you are tasting merely one ingredient of a wine, and at one moment in that ingredient's never-ending life.
You begin by tasting from a barrel in a younger criadera, and get a sense of the wine as it begins. Tasting older criaderas, you get a sense of the wine as it matures, and so on. Even when you taste from the solera barrels you are experiencing but one version of the wine, the version that the cellar master wants you to see on that day, not the finished wine. None of these wines that you taste will ever be experienced in a bottle. They are, as Peter says, "photographs of a moment in time." When you emerge from visiting a Bodega, you leave with an understanding (hopefully) of the Bodega and what the wines can be, not so much of the wines as you might purchase them in bottle.
There are amazing, these old Bodegas, and they are an endangered species. I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to see them and to be with them for those few days.