The town of Jerez
‘To be a master of sherry you must be able to make a great Amontillado’ – Jan Pettersen, Fernando de Castilla
These words sum up a busy couple of days I recently spent in Jerez, the home of sherry. The abiding memory I took away from every Bodega I visited – Bodega is literally translated as wine cellar – was of the character and lingering flavour of Amontillado. When I put this to Jan at Fernando de Castilla, our final appointment of the trip, he responded with the above quote, and I think he’s absolutely right.
The process through which sherry is produced must rate as one of the most fascinating in the whole of the wine-making world. Indeed the way in which sherry is stored and matured is also highly intriguing and over the course of two days my previous views and thoughts on sherry were shaken up and turned upside down. The French rightly claim ‘terroir’ to be at the fore of the great wine-producing areas of France, but in Jerez the same can be said for tiny areas of micro-climate in the Bodega. Terroir exists alright – but it is in the Bodega rather than in the vineyards. Many of the producers own no vineyards and buy in grapes or base wine from Almacenistas (loose translation is ‘warehouse keeper’ or ‘wholesaler’). There are businesses that make and then sell on wines for maturing. My vision of deep, dark cellars filled with barrels was put into startling clarity at every producer I visited – they were dark for sure, but almost of all of them were at ground level, and at Antonio Barbadillo an enormous pile of sherry-filled barrels was actually outside. Summers in this part of Spain often exceed 40°C so the idea of storing barrels outside seemed ambitious to say the least.
Oloroso barrels stored outside at Bodegas Antonio Barbadillo
The principal of sherry-making lies in the Solera System. The basis of this generally involves a three tier set up – the solera itself from which bottles of sherry are drawn and bottled, and two Criaderas made up of younger wines, which in turn feed the solera and top it up at regular intervals.
La Ina Solera system at Emilio Lustau
This means the solera itself is evolving all the time as younger wines are added to it to replace the sherry which is bottled. At some producers the solera is comprised of more than three stages – Hidalgo’s famous La Gitana Manzanilla is made up of 14 criaderas! The other important factor here is that some of the wines in the solera can be very old as inevitably traces of the very first wines used when the solera was set up will be present. Some of the soleras date back over 150 years and if carefully maintained there is no reason why they cannot continue to evolve for many more decades – maybe centuries – to come. As previously mentioned most sherry producers buy in grapes or wines to use in their soleras, and it’s comparatively unusual to find a Bodega that owns their own vines. Instead they purchase young wines from the Almacenistas and then blend them into their own soleras.
Our visit began in the smart tasting room at Consejo Regulador where Carmen Aumesquet, the remarkably knowledgeable promotional director, gave us a potted history of sherry and the area it comes from, which is the southern-most wine region of Europe. The historical nature of sherry is something many of us overlook, but when you learn that there is close to 3000 years of wine-making history with vines being planted as early as 700 BC the extraordinary heritage there is becomes clear. One crucial event took place in the 16th century when a pirate fleet, seeing a marketing opportunity, stole over 3,000 butts of sherry and gave the contents out – free of charge – to the English. This delicious new drink was very palatable to those who tasted it and they wanted a lot more, and the market was set nicely for future – this time chargeable – imports. Today the UK is an important consumer of sherry although exports are down on what they once were. On these shores we tend to drink the sweeter styles of sherry in the form of Cream and Pale Cream although neither of those styles is consumed much in Spain. It is the dry styles of Fino and Manzanilla that are most popular although there is a strong market for the 3 darker styles of Amontillado, Oloroso and Palo Cortado and also a good appreciation for the intensely sweet Pedro Ximenez, or PX.
Lecture and tasting room at Consejo Regulador
The key to sherry is in the blanket of yeast called flor which covers the surface of the wine in the barrel. Large 600 litre casks are filled to a 500 litre level, leaving a large pocket of air at the top where the flor develops and thrives. Not only does flor develop the wine’s character it also eats up lots of oxygen, therefore allowing the wine to age without being spoilt. In addition flor also consumes glycerol so the texture of the wine remains clean, light and taut. This is why you don’t see ‘legs’ dribbling down the inside of the glass, as there is little texture to dry sherry because of the lack of glycerol.
Flor at work in a barrel at Bodegas Sanchez Romate
Depending on which style of sherry the producer intends to make the wine is fortified to a certain level. Fino and Manzanilla are fortified to 15% but Oloroso and Amontillado are fortified to a higher level of alcohol – around 17.5% – which kills off the flor and encourages the darker style to develop. The wines which have flor on the surface are made using ‘biological ageing’ and the more alcoholic, darker styles use a technique called ‘oxidative maturation’ although many producers prefer to use the word ‘traditional’ rather than ‘oxidative’.
Flor gets everywhere – here it is in a bucket at Bodegas Hidalgo
At every producer we travelled to the unmistakeable smell of sherry greeted us – it’s a slightly sweet, mealy, yeasty odour that began to feel like an old friend at every stage of our trip. The first Bodega we visited was that of Emilio Lustau, a producer synonymous with quality and one which you will find on the shelves in our shop. Vast stores of sherry were on display in the huge warehouses, or Bodegas, and Isobel, our guide, explained how the extraordinary micro-climates work. Not only does each Bodega have its own character because of where it is sited, but individual areas inside each building have their own pockets of temperature and humidity which add individuality and style to the wines. Old East India, a sweet blend of Pedro Ximenz and Oloroso, can only be made in one particular building as the humidity there isn’t found elsewhere on the property, and the thicker, richer air was very noticeable. The floors of most of these massive chambers are covered with sand which is watered twice a week – more in the summer – to keep the humidity level high, essential for the sherry’s maturation process. Yet a few miles away on the coast, in the town of Sanlucar where Manzanilla is made, there is little or no sand on the floors as the air is already rich with humidity. In these buildings every attention is given to the natural elements present and all are employed if possible. The Bodegas are constructed at certain angles to take advantage of the prevailing wines, windows are left open so that as much local air and humidity comes inside and vast straw mats cover some of the windows on the inside to keep the sun out. This was consistent at every Bodega we saw. In one chamber Isobel showed us a large pile of what appeared to be newer casks as the wood they were made of was a much lighter colour. She explained that these barrels were being made ready for export to a whisky distillery in the UK. They were full of sherry and after a certain period of ageing the sherry would be poured off and the barrels sent for the purpose of ageing whisky. We all knew about a ‘sherry finish’ on whisky, but none of us had any idea that barrels used were prepared in this way. We all thought old sherry butts would be exported but these were especially made for whisky.
Sherry barrels intended for export to whisky producers – note the bright colour of newer casks
After our tour we tasted nine of the Lustau range, from the bone dry Puerto Fino to the sumptuously rich San Emilio Pedro Ximenez. Everything was excellent but at this very first tasting it was the Amontillado that made most impact – with its nutty core and huge resonated finish it stood out for everyone. A pattern was starting to develop it seemed.
Tasting the range at Emilio Lustau
Our next destination was Bodegas Sanchez Romate and their commercial director, Marcelino Piquero, a man whose dedication to quality sherry and brandy is matched by his enthusiasm and character, showed us round. He told us a little about the history of the Bodega which dates back to 1781, and how they buy very little wine as they own their own vineyards. He also showed us how flor is central to everything, plunging a venencia (that’s that curious dipstick cellar masters use to fish sherry out of the barrel with) into a cask and pouring a murky glass of flor and sherry for us all to inspect.
Flor in the glass
There’s no standing on ceremony here and when one of us hesitated about what to do with the remains of their sherry sample Marcelino seized the glass and flung the remnants onto the floor of the Bodega. That set the pattern and our trek around the properties was regularly punctuated by casually throwing small samples of sherry onto the floor wherever we were. Marcelino recognises the quality of the wines made at Romate yet he won’t be swayed by some of the marketing moves made by some in the area, so his Olorosos and Amontillados are ‘oxidative’ rather than ‘traditional’ wines – ‘I call them what they are’ he explained with a shrug. He also showed us how spiders are not only encouraged but welcome in the Bodegas, saying that ‘natural pest control is far better than some horrible chemicals’.
At one point a gleam appeared in his eye and he called for one of the younger members of the Romate team and sent them scrambling up a wall of barrels and then threw up a venencia which the cellar hand plucked out of the air and then dipped into a barrel before throwing it back down where it was neatly caught by Marcelino. He told us that Romate had produced a spectacular batch of 19 casks of very special Amontillado which was due to be bottled soon for export. The liquid positively glowed in the glass and looked more like a golden Sauternes than sherry. On the palate it was miraculous – endless layers of nutty notes interspersed with unsweetened treacle and dried fruit, and a finish which had me looking at my watch for a good two minutes as the flavour resolutely refused to budge.
Very rare old Amontillado at Romate – extraordinary wine with an extraordinary colour!
As we left the Bodega Marcelino pointed out a pile of barrels near the door and explained that these particular casks made for a different character ‘but only these ones by the door as elsewhere it is not possible’. The possibilities of this ‘micro-climate within a micro-climate’ were mind-boggling! The room offered several variations depending on where the barrels were positioned! This was taking ‘terroir in the winery’ to another level and our discussion over lunch was dominated by how individual sherry could be depending on where the barrels were stored, which way the building faces and how many levels of criadera each producer chose to employ.
Barrel tasting at Romate
As one might imagine lunch with Marcelino was a very interesting and hearty affair – every course was inevitably matched with a different Romate sherry at the truly delicious Albala restaurant.
The ‘sherry rainbow’ at the wonderful Albala restaurant
Some of the matches were always going to work – such as tuna tartare with Fino – but the one which had everyone speechless took place when a large piece of sliced beef appeared. I wondered what Marcelino had up his sleeve but then a bottle of Romate ‘Don Jose’ Oloroso was placed beside the meat. We were all hesitant but the combination of grilled red meat and dark Oloroso was quite remarkable. The rich meaty flavour was firmly held in check by the nutty Oloroso and the characters entwined in spectacular fashion. That night at another food and sherry matching exercise the same combination was served and again it was a superb partnership. Marcelino’s trump card came in the form of a brandy Romate had infused with bitter orange – Cardenal Mendoza Angélus – which was served at the end of our meal. It was a delicious drink on its own but Marcelino then added a splash of orange juice to the glass and it transformed into a palate cleansing drink of immense character. Memorable stuff.
We said our farewells and were taken to the truly magnificent Bodegas Tradicion, one of the highlights of the trip. The winery itself is effectively new having been founded in 1998, yet it is the successor to the oldest winery in the Jerez production area, Bodega CZ, J.M. Rivero, which dates back to 1650. These days the producer specialises in premium quality aged sherries of impeccable character. No filtration or cold stabilisation is used here so the wine’s true nature is allowed to shine, and what wines they are. We tried a number of barrel samples with Daniel Martinez, who runs the promotional department at Tradicion.
Daniel Martinez serving sherry from the barrel at Bodegas Tradicion
His delight at showing off the treasures made here was obvious as he watched our expressions of disbelief at the ridiculous amount of time his wines lingered on our palates – the finish and length of these old sherries is hard to convey. And, as with everyone we encountered, it was the Amontilado which set the standard – and indeed our pulses racing – with its slow build, steady crescendo and whopping finish it was something else. But this was a sherry at least 30 years old, and at that age the bottles produced by Tradicion are some of the most sought after and exciting in the entire area.
Tasting the range at Bodegas Tradicion
We asked about a good food match for the 30 year old Oloroso and once more red meat was the prime suggestion, but also suckling pig and pungent blue cheese was recommended. It is the richer, fattier nature of the food in which Oloroso finds such mutual parallels – you really have to try these combinations! After the sherry came two absolutely sensational brandies. The first – Brandy Gold – was a mere 30 years of age and had a wonderfully smooth texture with terrific flavour build and a long finish of honeyed ginger. If that wasn’t enough we were treated to Tradicion’s Brandy Platinum which featured spirit that had been aged in Pedro Ximenez casks for a staggering 50 years. This was a magnificent brandy with sensational caramel aromas and a character reminiscent of the finest aged rum imaginable. My tasting note contains unprintable adjectives, but let’s just say that I liked it a lot. We also saw what must be one of the finest private collections of Spanish grand masters in the country, housed in a smartly lit area just by the cellars. A very casual approach led us to enjoying a mind-blowing assortment of paintings by such luminaries as Goya, El Greco, Velázquez and Picasso to name but a few.
Dinner that night was at the beautiful converted Bodega restaurant La Carboná in the centre of Jerez where another carefully matched food and sherry menu was presented to us. At lunch we had enjoyed some Asparagus Tempura paired with Palo Cortado, and this evening we had some Fino paired with artichoke.
Asparagus Tempura with Romate Palo Cortado
Most people who know their way around a kitchen will tell you that asparagus and artichokes are high on the list of foods that simply don’t go with wine, yet here they were getting on famously – but with sherry. It seems sherry has many more facets than many would expect and being a fantastic partner for a variety of foods is certainly a good one.
Bodegas Delgado Zuleta
Tuesday began brightly with a short road trip to Sanlucar, the home of Manzanilla sherry, and for us a tour of the excellent Bodegas Delgado Zuleta where export manager Pelayo Garcia showed us around. We met Salvador, the cellarmaster, who was on his rounds tasting each barrel in turn
Cellarmaster Salvado with his barrels at Delgado Zuleta
The history and love of the place came into focus as Salvador told us about his Grandfather doing the same job at Zuleta, and one gets the feeling that sherry and the traditions surrounding it are very much in the blood in this part of the world. In the old days the process of the soleras had to be done by hand with each barrel being painstakingly part-drained before the criadera above it was used to fill the space in the barrel below. These days a modern system of pipes pumping the wines from cellar to cellar is in place, so automation is key, but the same level of care is still very much at the fore.
Barrels at Delgado Zuleta
The salty nature of wines made at Sanlucar was obvious – whether it is the ‘sea air’ as sherry romantics will have us believe, or if it is the salt water of the sea finding its way into the soils, or just the way the micro-climate works down here is not clear, but these sherries certainly taste different. That salty influence finds its way into all the wines made here, of that there is no question. We finished our trip with a tasting of several of Zuleta’s wines, the highlight of which was a new En Rama shortly to be released. And the Old Amontillado of course – there was no way we weren’t going to notice how good that stuff was!
From Zuleta we were taken to Bodegas Barbadillo where we were greeted by Tim Holt, an Englishman who has been in Spain for getting on for 30 years, and who runs Barbadillo’s marketing department. This was a vast Bodega and Tim showed us the main building which is the largest cathedral style Bodega in Sanlucar and which holds around 3,500 barrels.
Tim Holt of Antonio Barbadillo
It was enormous and very impressive indeed. There is a very interesting area at Barbadillo with displays of very, very old bottles as well as a lot of historical things about sherry including a curiously Heath Robinson-eqsue bottling machine.
Historical bottling machine at Antonio Barbadillo
I asked Tim about various bottlings Barbadillo do and was surprised to discover that this producer was the first to produce En Rama sherry in 1999 although they didn’t decide on the marketing drive many others have since taken on as part of the sherry calendar. Unusually for a sherry producer Barbadillo buy no wine from Almacenistas as they own 500 hectares of vines, although they do purchase some additional grapes. Barbadillo produce a variety of wines, from everyday sherries to spectacular aged examples such as a 100 year old Palo Cortado, but only 30 bottles of that nectar are produced annually, making it highly prized. We tasted a selection of Barbadillo sherries and the quality was consistent throughout, but once again the Amontillado took first prize. We thanked Tim and hurried on for our appointment at the beautiful Bodega Hidalgo and its remarkable owner, Javier Hidalgo.
Barbadillo boasts the largest cathedral Bodega in Sanlucar, but at Hidalgo we found the oldest example, and what a spectacular building it is. Originally built right by the sea it is now around 300 metres away as time gradually altered the coastline. The maritime influence finds its way into so much here, from the direction the place faces which is perfect for the damp air which blows into the Bodega, to the 200 year old casks which are set onto hand carved sea rock. The irresistibly flamboyant approach of Mareclino at Romate is in contrast to Javier Hidalgo, who prefers a more restrained, laid-back and all-round quieter take on sherry and wine-making and he served each sample with a wry, knowing smile. Yet his wines are all outstanding and among the greatest we tasted during our trip. Again everything is from the barrel, with Javier dipping his venencia into casks of his choice before pouring a generous portion into our eager glasses.
Javier Hidalgo, owner of Bodegas Hidalgo
A great deal of the main Bodega is taken up with barrels of Javier’s famous La Gitana, an excellent textbook Mazanilla which is sold all over the world. We asked him about it and its commercial possibilities. Javier shrugged and said that although it is undoubtedly a fine sherry his personal preference is for his Manzanilla Pastrana which is a more expensive – and indeed more expressive – bottle. When Javier takes us to lunch at the wonderful bar that is owned by Hidalgo – appropriately named La Gitana – he orders a bottle of each so we can taste the difference for ourselves. La Gitana is delicious – crisp, salty and with real freshness. It’s perfect with a platter of plump Spanish prawns we peel by hand.
Manzanilla sherry from Hidalgo and giant Spanish prawns
By contrast Manzanilla Pastrana ups the quality factor and shows a broader array of flavours that overtakes La Gitana with ease. Alongside the fresh and saline notes are elements of dried orange peel and grilled nuts. This was great with those fat prawns but it was with the battered baby calamari where it really shone. From the Hidalgo range it will come as no surprise that the Napoleon Amontillado, a sherry of brooding nuttiness and layered dry treacle and figs, won friends the quickest. An old Oloroso followed, also quite exquisite with a darker heart and richer finish, which Javier suggested would be a fine partner for another traditionally tricky food match – fried eggs. Sitting in the Bodega it made perfect sense that the clean yet deep notes of this sherry would slice into the rich yolky texture of egg and we all made a note to experiment with this potential partnership. As with all the other tastings we finished with a dollop of Pedro Ximenez, a dessert sherry that makes Sauternes taste merely off dry – but then it contains a staggering 450 grams of residual sugar per litre (by contrast Château d’Yquem has a mere 140 grams!). As Javier studied our stunned expressions he admitted he doesn’t drink this sherry – ‘I never eat or drink anything sweet’ – but he smiled as we sat in awe of the black liquid that rolled around our taste buds. A very hearty lunch followed as previously mentioned, and the fresh nature of the Manzanilla it was washed down with left our palates fresh and ready for our final appointment of the day.
Jan Pettersen of Fernando da Castilla originally comes from Oslo but has been in Spain for over three decades. He took over the company in 1999 and since then quality and respect has accelerated to the dizzy heights now achieved on an annual basis. Although smaller than many of his counterparts Jan’s hands-on approach ensures a continuous release of highly sought after sherries, and export is now responsible for 80% of production.
Jan Pettersen of Bodegas Fernando de Castilla
Unusually for Jerez Castilla own 45 hectares of vineyards and only the Pedro Ximenez is bought in, with the Palomino grapes all grown by the Bodega. Slightly different production techniques are used here. The Antique range is fortified twice rather than once, for instance, and this ensures the Fino has a long life and can age for up to 30 years which is almost unheard of. This range is bottled once a year and when it’s gone it’s really gone despite many customers pleading for further bottlings – ‘but I don’t have any more…’ Jan has to explain to his more impatient fans. He takes us around the labyrinth of barrel-lined passageways, stopping occasionally at a favoured cask he wishes us to try. We taste a variety of wines from pristine Fino to leathery Amontillado to oily Pedro Ximenez. At one point he tells us about some really ancient casks he has in the Bogeda, including a PX he says has ‘the texture of mustard’. Of course this sounded most interesting and I asked if we could see these bizarre barrels. In one corner lay 3 huge casks which Jan directed us towards. He opened one and with a knowing look plunged the venencia into the hole and invited me to stir the sherry. It was impossible – the venencia stood up on its own and trying to get the ‘liquid’ moving was a non-starter. This was more like chocolate spread than sherry and I asked Jan what he might do with it. ‘Do with it?!’ he replied ‘I can’t get the damn stuff out of the barrel!’ He told me that these sherries were well over 100 years old and that he wasn’t sure what was possible but added ‘I don’t think there is any hurry!’ He offered me a glass of what looked like a mixture of tar and treacle – it didn’t even begin to pour properly but once I tried it the steady ooze of deep PX enveloped my mouth with rich molasses, prunes and liquorice-coated raisins – as well as a slightly chalky texture. It was excellent quality, if a little unusual, but when Jan starts selling jars of PX spread I will be first in line!
Extremely old Pedro Ximenez sherry, with ‘the texture of mustard’
Our visit to Castilla ended with a tasting of Jan’s brandies. These delectable spirits are aged – of course – in old Oloroso barrels. We tasted brandy aged 4 years, 14 years and finally the crown jewel that is Unico, which is over 40 years old. These were all exceptional brandies and with a marked difference to the great spirits of Cognac and Armagnac. ‘This is brandy made with a wine philosophy’ Jan explained. Unico was an extraordinary brandy, ridiculously smooth with a finish that I timed at over two minutes. We sat in Jan’s tasting room and he told us of his time at Edinburgh University and his passion for English music as he is a major fan and even used to contribute punk articles to a local music magazine in the 1970s. Who’d have thought the owner of one of the great Bodegas in Jerez was a fan of The Damned and the Sex Pistols? Being a collector of this kind of music I felt this discussion was a fine way to end our tour of the wonderful Bodegas of Jerez and we left with Jan assuring us he intended to visit Yorkshire when he could.
That night our final meal – at the excellent La Cruz Blanca restaurant – was predictably matched with a different sherry for every course. It was Romate that dominated proceedings that night and each wine poured was a fine partner for every course served. We discussed the extraordinary places and people we had seen and met and everyone stood by their opinion that Amontillado must vie for the position as the ultimate expression of sherry and we referred to Jan Pettersen’s words that begin this article. It is that quote which encapsulated our time in Jerez, but the hospitality we encountered at every Bodega and restaurant is something none of us will forget in a hurry, and that includes Angeline Bayly who arranged the whole trip and who was an excellent host throughout, as she ensured our schedule was both full and endlessly interesting. Jerez is a lovely area of Spain with its own individuality, food and character and it’s a part of the world which ought to get more exposure than it appears to receive today. As my plane climbed into the clouds I looked down on the town and could just about see Sanlucar in the distance. In my bag was a miniature bottle of Fino Sherry, given to me by Angeline and which was destined to give me one final burst of flavour to remind me of my time in Andalucia. Until next time that is…