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The air rose thickly from the sunbaked ground — a pungent mix of fried croquettes, dust and horse hay. Ladies in vibrant, body-hugging flamenco dresses, dolled up with flowers in their hair, strolled arm in arm with distinguished men in formfitting suits. Ponies pranced up and down the main thoroughfare, and, in every corner, the sounds of sherry filling glasses could be heard.
This is Feria de Jerez, Spain’s annual local festival.
Also known as Feria del Caballo, it’s the most important festival in the Cadiz region of Andalusia, held in the city of Jerez de la Frontera (Jerez). The weeklong festival dates back to medieval times, when farmers would buy and sell their animals and sherry was shared to seal the deal.
Today’s Feria de Jerez is traditionally held the first week in May at the Gonzalo Hontoria Fairgrounds, which spans nearly 560,000 square feet. The festival is split into two parts, the first being a small pop-up village lined with restaurants and bars, known as casetas. These casetas are outposts of popular restaurants in town, which usually close their storefronts during Feria de Jerez season so they can camp out at the festival.
Here, locals and visitors alike feast on jamon (cured Spanish ham), Spanish omelets, serranitos (warm Andalusian sandwiches) and other local tapas. The second part of the festival is a carnival, complete with flashing lights, rollercoasters and other games and rides. Visitors should expect nothing less than a parade of pageantry, with elaborately decorated horse carriages, enchanting light displays and lots of seductive flamenco — all best enjoyed while lingering for hours over a glass of fino sherry. For something refreshing, and decidedly local, consider a Tiojito cocktail, which is Tio Pepe sherry mixed with Sprite, ice and a touch of spearmint.
By night, Feria de Jerez erupts into a massive party, with DJs spinning, crowds dancing and the entire Jerez community out in full force to take in the twinkling light displays that shine on until nearly dawn. Stamina is of utmost importance in order to make the most out of the festival, especially on its final Saturday, when it seems as though the entire population of Andalusia has descended onto the fairgrounds.
Sherry is one of the defining factors of Feria de Jerez, and there is no festival caseta livelier than that of Gonzalez Byass, the winery that produces Tio Pepe sherry. Gonzalez Byass was founded in Jerez in 1835 and is committed to producing and commercializing sherry wine and spirits.
In 1844, the first barrels of Tio Pepe were exported to London. Since then, the name Tio Pepe is considered as the gold standard of sherry production; it’s the No. 1 seller of fino sherry in the world.
Tio Pepe’s fino is the beverage of choice at Feria. It’s best paired with tapas, olives, cured ham and cheese, as well as seafood, fish and Japanese food — though sushi and tempura are a bit difficult to find at Feria. You would be better off expecting to gorge yourself on nutty cheeses, fried nibbles and an endless amount of rich, creamy jamon.
To round out the feria experience, travelers would be remiss to pass on a sherry tasting at the Gonzalez Byass winery, which has recently opened a bright and airy tasting room. The wine cellars at the bodega date from the 19th century, and more than 85,000 American oak barrels carry out the aging process.
Feria de Jerez is open to the public at no charge. Tickets may be required for specific events. Unlike the Seville Feria, most of the casetas in Jerez are open to the public.