Three things I learnt in Jerez:
- Sherry isn’t just a drink, it’s a way of life, particularly as you can get it for €1.50 a glass in most places. Long sit down meals are for the French and it is much cheaper and authentic to bar crawl and grab a fresh glass of sherry and tapas as you go.
Every style of sherry has it’s place and can be drunk at any time in the day, depending on the time of year and your mood. Except breakfast. At breakfast you drink cava.
The Spanish couldn’t care less whether we’re in the EU or not provided we get on and leave, then they can see the impact on exports and adjust accordingly.
It is clear when visiting the various bodegas around the city the impact that the British made on the sherry industry and that the residents of Jerez regard it with the fondness of an eccentric grandparent. The British have always had a certain taste for fortified wine and have made a huge impact on all of the major historic varieties. The majority of Port producers and Madeira producers have surprisingly English names owing to the family owners roots in the 19th century or so being British, partly due to colonisation. Travelling to Madeira last year I got the impression that whilst the wine is drunk throughout the area copiously at all times of the day, part of its longevity and success as a product was the British fondness for post-prandial fortified drinks. They were more alcoholic than wine but didn’t carry the lower-class connotations or burn that many spirits did.
The difference with sherry is that whilst they acknowledge that a fondness for the drink by the British not only supported the development of some of the major producers, (Tio Pepe springs to mind) it is very much a drink by the Spanish for the Spanish. The British butchered the nuances of the traditional dry varieties by insisting on the addition of sugar, particularly getting a taste for the cream style. The cream style (usually a blend of Oloroso/Palo Cortado/Amontillado and the naturally intensely sweet Pedro Ximenez wine, made from dried grapes) is a style of sherry that certainly has it’s place in the original line up, however the fino cream sherry, sweetened with grape juice and normally seen at Christmas of the Bristol cream variety, does not.
Recently we are seeing a renaissance in the British taste for sherry as a younger generation is introduced to the nuances of the dry styles and the development of the wine. Smaller producers that would never have made it across the waters to Britain in the past are now more common and the concentration of flavour and unique craftmanship is beginning to appeal to the market as oppose to the bulk production and continuity that used to be the required criteria.
Whilst in sherry I was lucky enough to be able to get a better understanding of the development of the wine by visiting three very different bodegas. The first was Lustau, widely regarded as the benchmark for premium sherry nowadays and of course by no great coincidence, stocked at Berry Bros. & Rudd. Their approach is fairly technical. The humid weather is crucial to the creation of the magical flor/yeast layer that covers the Fino sherry in the ageing process, protecting the wine from oxidation and giving it its characteristic bitter notes, hence the floor is wetted in the hotter months to maintain this perfect humidity. Tasting through the range means you start to understand the importance of the location of the barrels, those aged near the sea take on the characteristic of the flor from that area, a saltier quality if you like. Compare a wine aged near the harbour and you can almost taste the seaweed, marginally rougher than the more marine and mineral notes of those aged on the cliff sides. The Oloroso, fortified to a cool 20%, killing the flor and allowing the wine to oxidise, is carefully monitored and each of the marginally different varieties are named for friends of the family and aged in separate solera systems. An east India cream sherry, a blend of their Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez, is aged once blended to give it a softer characteristic rather than bottling immediately. The one exception to this military precision at Lustau is the enigmatic Palo Cortado wine, but more on that later.
The next style of bodegas I saw was the commercial bodegas. Tio Pepe is probably the most well known brand of sherry in the world and one of the largest scale productions. Unlike the other two places I visited they can proudly claim age on their side that led to the scale of the property as it is now. They place a great emphasis on their history, from the original Tio Pepe advising his nephew starting the project in the early 19th century, to the investment from the sherry-loving British banker, Mr Byass, that kickstarted the exportation of the product. They have two huge bodegas dedicated to a visit from the queen of Spain in the 19th century and other notable figures. They range from Churchill to Bobby Charlton, their signatures all preserved in chalk on the barrels, still containing a portion of the liquor that was held in it when they were embossed. They have become synonymous with consistency to be able to provide for the 150 markets they cater to across the world and they can achieve this with a solera system old enough to guarantee this consistency. The solera system is at the heart of the sherry production. The final wine to be bottled is drawn from a set of casks that can contain wine from when the solera first started. This barrel is topped up with wine from the next level up, which is topped up with wine from the next level up, which is topped up with the new wine, fresh from fermentation. In the case of Tio Pepe, despite the wine not having a vintage, some of the soleras can claim to contain wine that is 200years old. It is impressive on both a commercial level and to show the development of the sherry wine to its global popularity today.
The final bodegas I visited gave a sense of the community and passion of the sherry wine. I visited a small producer, Faustino Gonzalez, with a single large ageing house. Despite the family having been making sherry for a few decades, they had only started to sell the product four years ago as Spanish laws prohibited commercial sale of production under a certain amount. The change in law meant that a winemaking family with history, passion and experience were able to bring their expertise and craftsmanship over the years on to the open market. I was treated to a one on one chat with the winemaker and a unique chance to taste the development of a wine through the solera system. Starting with the original white wine, pre fortification, I tasted a standard inoffensive table wine. Then I tasted a single year-aged Fino with the flor just formed, ready to fill the next part of the system when required. Straight from the barrel we tasted the next stage of the system, the colour intensifying and the bitter notes starting to appear. Then the next stage, now at least 4 years in barrel and savoury and salty. Finally we tasted the solera, a minimum of 6 years old, almost golden, ready to be bottled and perfumed with salty almond and deep with concentration. The common thread running through Faustino Gonzales’s wines is the concentration of flavour. Achieved by the very fact that the wine was originally made for pleasure rather than commerciality. Jaime explained to me that the ethos here was to wait, and let the wines create themselves. There was no rush. For example their Amontillado, usually made by ageing a Fino sherry oxidatively to make it a halfway point between the Oloroso and Fino, is not fortified to 20% immediately. Rather the alcohol percentage is gently raised by 1-2% every years letting the flor die slowly and allowing the flavour to intensify over time. A nod should also be made to their extraordinarily good Oloroso. It has a nose of intense sweetness, reminding you of a candied Christmas cake, rich with dried fruit, orange peel and walnut, but the palate is dry, the flavours lingering but the acidity refreshing the palate at the same time. The best wine I tried on my trip. However there was one mystery that Jaime couldn’t explain to me, and that was the Palo Cortado wine. A wine traditionally baffling, originally classified as a fino sherry for its characteristics once fermented but then when re-tasted a year later, deemed to be better aged oxidatively as an oloroso. The wine is never quite as rich as an Oloroso but is smoother than any of the other wines in the line up. The only way Jaime could explain it was that it was a wine that had to be found, it couldn’t be made.
It was Jaime who clarified my impression of the Spanish attitude to Brexit. He asked me my thoughts and upon hearing a tirade of comments on the insanity of leaving a group that our modern institutions are so intertwined with, merely shrugged and said that the Spanish would adjust accordingly but they just needed a definitive stance from the British. He is of course correct. In a town with a heritage of food and wine that is much much older than any treaty agreement, they hardly need to worry about the British but it is always nice to know what’s going on.