Friday, April 22, 2011

El Puerto de Santa Maria, featuring Gutierrez Colosia and Bodegas Grant

If Jerez is home turf of the the landed gentry, or "señoríos," and Sanlucar de Barrameda is where the drug runners live (this is occasionally the explanation you'll get from residents of either town), then El Puerto is where well heeled families from all over this part of Andalucía spend part of their summers. Walking the town, there are attributes that speak to El Puerto's status as a popular resort town: fancily built out restaurants along the water, sweaters draped along the necks of "pijos" in said restaurants, and sparkling clean streets all around.

As it relates to Sherry El Puerto de Santa María is by far the smallest town in production terms in all of the sherry triangle. Most bodegas here are almacenistas, selling their stocks to larger houses. A few recent exceptions to this rule would be Gutierrez Colosia, which has been an independent shipper since the late 1990's and Bodegas Grant, an almacenista which more recently has begun to sell their own production.

Gutierrez Colosia enjoys a prime location, proximate to the Atlantic, and as a result makes one of the freshest tasting, most saline and delicious finos around. You do not need to enjoy it at the winery, or even in Spain, to fully appreciate its immediacy and pristine flavors. Not only does the flor survive here year 'round, but there may be even more of a maritime influence here than in Sanlucar. Typically bodegas maintain humidity by employing dirt floors and occasionally watering them; here the 18th century bodega boasts beautiful stone floors.

We had the opportunity to taste many interesting wines here, including a fino fortified to 16% (1 degree above the normal) which showed a very soft and elegant character. Cool stuff. Also tasted was the fino solera in various stages as well as the solera for the famous "Sangre y trabajadero" Oloroso - as dry, classic and elegant a young oloroso as you are likely to encounter. One thing that was interesting about the fino criadera tastings was their volatility: lots of VA and weird kombucha-y stuff going on right up until we tasted the finished, final blend product, which was completely fine and perfectly representative. Flor consumes volatile acidity in a process that still seems to offer little in the way of clear cut explanations. Lots of research continues to go on about flor and its role in winemaking, as well as other applications and implications yet to be discovered.

Across town at Bodegas Grant, the scale is much smaller and the wines very interesting indeed. From the very start, I noticed that the fino has a real vinous (and some might even say 'unfinished') quality for this style of wine. The entry level amontillado, La Garrocha (named for the famed choreographed dance performed by pure-bred Andalusian horses, performed with a little human direction), is also softer, a bit fruiter and more generous than others, not as tense either. We tasted a delicious, spicier, richer and older amontillado, as well as a very pungent oloroso full of rancio quality, and a rare, tasty palo cortado (as large as our crew was, and as good as everyone was feeling, we joked and later felt bad about drinking our would be "allocation" of this wine).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Welcome to Jerez! Now let's go to Chipiona!!

Sometimes, to get a little bit closer to the truth, you need to step away from the intensive research and just drink a shit ton of sherry in situ during a small town carnaval. And then soak up the alcohol with fried seafood, especially some baby shark fried with cumin and vinegar.

While this may not be established knowledge, it certainly served me well last month while in Jerez. I'm going to backtrack a bit. A group of wholesale, retail and restaurant clients of De Maison Imports (myself included) had recently arrived in Jerez for a three day sherry "boot camp." Seeing as it was carnaval season in Andalucía, the time during which young and old folks alike party all night, into the morning, and deal with the consequences the next day, I think that it was certainly the right call to visit Cesar Florido, a producer based west of the sherry triangle in Chipiona. Incidentally, Cesar did everything in his power to dissuade us from coming to his little town during the craziest time of the year.

Cesar Florido is a specialist in moscatel, someone who has owned moscatel Alejandria (muscat of Alexandria) vineyards in the sandy soils outside of Chipiona (he has since sold most of them off) and who vinifies moscatel to produce under his own label. These are sweet wines which quickly ferment and reach 2% abv before being fortified to about 15%. 180 g/l sugar and fairly low acidity makes them quite sweet, but they are also floral and, depending on your taste for sweet stuff, well balanced. These wines are what Florido is commercially best known for.

Cesar Florido is also an independent bodega owner. He has various soleras: fino, fino amontillado, oloroso, manzanilla (provided by a cousin of his), very old palo cortado (at least 50 years). On one particular barrel of one criadera, you can see someone's cell phone number (maybe a soccer teammate who wants to buy a bota?) In addition to his moscatel winemaking facility and his old bodega, Florido is also putting the finishing touches on a new tasting room. This is where we wrap up our visit, eating cheese, chorizo and jamon, drinking his sherries, and settling into the wine culture of what is Spain's most original and important contribution to the world of wine.

After the visit, Sr. Florido suggested a spot that serves some of the best pescadito frito in town: Bar Franchi. He was right. This was by far the tastiest fried fish I would eat while in Sherry country. Teenagers and twenty somethings dressed in costume were all around us, as were locals snacking on tapas, older folks strolling through the street, and plenty of outsiders there to enjoy carnaval (here, outsider might mean from Cadiz, El Puerto, Carmona, Sevilla - all places in Andalucía outside of Chipiona).

Enough prose. For this night, pictures are best.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Old School Indie at El Maestro Sierra

In as prim, proper and establishment a place as Jerez, a place where family name is as important as showing up to lunch with a crisp pair of khaki's, a pressed pink button down shirt and tweed coat or blazer, you've got to appreciate the independent bodega who, from their very inception, faced long odds and had to work harder than most, with minimal resources, in order to establish their little niche in the sherry business. Such was the case with El Maestro Sierra, an almacenista begun by a master cooper during a time when setting up shop in Jerez was primarily a sport for the nobility. Even today, the winery maintains its outsider cred as it is run by Doña Pilar Pla Pechovierto, a widow whose deceased husband was a direct descendent of the winery's founder, and the export manager is not only a woman, but a real outsider, from Ribera del Duero in Castilla y Leon. I can only imagine the type of shit talking which may have been dished out about El Maestro over the past 181 years!

That having been said, nowadays, El Maestro is appreciated in Jerez as a bastion of tradition and legacy, having recently been recognized as such by the D.O. The bodega looks and feels every bit as old as its history. while visiting there recently there was some fairly persistent rain that morning and a noticeable leak in the reception area. While I cannot speak to this section of the building, I was told that the roof over the barrels in the bodega is the original 1830's roof . The winery produces a wine called 1830 Amontillado, a VORS which consists of a two bota solera; both botas were built in 1830 and have never needed any repair work whatsoever.

As far as the bodega's wines, I could best describe them as richer than most, and, for the wines aged under flor, occasionally a bit on the funky side of flor. Five criaderas are often used here, more than the 3-4 which are commonly employed elsewhere. Racking is done by hand every 4-6 months.

This was a cool visit in that, given that Andre "Guiding Light" Tamers organized things, we had the opportunity to taste wines at various stages of completion, to taste some very, very old stuff, and to be in the presence of some very knowledgeable Jerezanos - both from within El Maestro Sierra as well as from outside the winery.

Sobretabla (one year old, fortified base wine)

Very vinous and mineral. Ana Cabastrero compared it to still cava.

3a Criadera (Fino)

Deeper color and more complete flavors, getting closer to a finish product.

Solera con flor (Fino)

Soon enough this will be bottled and will become a current batch of El Maestro Sierra Fino. The color has now become a lighter, more typically light straw fino hue. Rich and full of distinctive flor produced acetaldehyde flavors.

1830 Amontillado

No notes. I was too focused on the age of the 2,000 liter botas. I remember liking this, but not as much as the olorosos which followed it.

1/14 Oloroso

Awesome. Big cocoa and dried fruit flavors in this 50 year old wine.

1/7 Oloroso

Another mention of "vino de pañuelo" from one of the old-timers. Heavy rancio aromas. My notes are short on specifics and long on abstraction. They read, "Deep. Shit is deep. Walnut husk. Cocoa. Peanut shell."

Next up, es la hora de fiesta: Carnaval and a visit with Cesar Florido in Chipiona.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gonzalez Byass

Stepping off the plane in Jerez (and given that this is a regional airport, you do literally step off the plane before heading inside), you will be greeted by a large Tio Pepe sculpture, a huge monument of the familiar guitar holding campesino logo which you will then likely see all over Jerez and anywhere that sherry is sold throughout the world. Once you get situated in Jerez, you will notice the beautiful gothic cathedral, and adjacent to it, the grounds of Gonzalez Byass, adorned all over with, you guessed it, our good friend the Tío Pepe logo. Inside, 25,000 barrels are devoted to this one wine. A wine train circles the property, carrying tourists there to see Jerez' most famous export. It is hard not to associate Gonzalez Byass with Jerez and the other way around.

As an inquisitive wine lover and champion of all that is handmade and lovingly produced in small quantities, it may be tempting to discount Gonzalez Byass as a huge sherry factory churning out mediocre stuff. This would be tempting, it would be easy to do, but the truth is that Gonzalez Byass still makes great wine. Tío Pepe, when fresh (which is increasingly the case in the US, at least here in California), is a tasty, representative fino. And the entire range of sherries, from Tío Pepe on up through the VORS wines, is very good and shows lots of diversity in styles.

As does Valdespino, Gonzalez Byass has their own winemaking facilities. They own 800 hectares (!) in Jerez, which provides for a good chunk of their needs. To supplement their own grapes, they have long-term contracts with other growers. If I understand correctly, they do not buy finished wine for their sobretablas.

Conducted by their master blender Antonio Flores, we tasted through a good portion of the Gonzalez Byass range:

Gonzalez Byass Tío Pepe Fino

Sea salt, almonds and loquat aromas lead to a very fresh, dry, brisk palate. Average age of this wine is four years. As are many other fino sherries, it is clarified and cold stabilized. Bottled in early February 2011, this bottle showed nice and fresh.

Gonzalez Byass Viña AB Amontillado

This is Tío Pepe that is lightly fortified, to 16.5%, and aged oxidatively so that the total average age is around nine years. Definitely in the fino amontillado style, the wine shows a very light amber color. Aromas are of salt, loquats and very subtle, understated wood. The palate shows much of the freshness of Tío Pepe, with a bit more richness and a dried orange quality.

Gonzalez Byass Oloroso Seco Alfonso

At 18%, this is a comparably light oloroso, one that has great acidity and a very low amount of residual sugar, just 3g/l. Wood, vanilla and dried orange aromatics lead to a dry palate with a bit of a rancio quality and just the barest suggestion of sweetness.

Gonzalez Byass Palo Cortado Leonor

This is where the tasting became even more interesting, in so far as my understanding of a particular style being challenged. According to Antonio Flores, this palo cortado never is aged under flor, and it is selected almost from the beginning of the production process for its combination of finesse and richness. At 20% abv and twelve years average age, it is assertive with dried fruit flavors, hints of cocoa, and more bass tones than the oloroso. Isn't palo cortado initially aged under flor, until the flor dies, and the winemaker puts a slash mark (/) through the palo (|)to create a palo cortado? Apparently, not so at Gonzalez Byass. In Jerez, it is important to remember that sometimes (ok, often times) there are no clear cut rules and boundaries regarding styles of sherry.

Gonzalez Byass Palo Cortado Apostoles VORS

This is a hint sweet since, at about 10 years of age, 10% PX is blended with the palomino to sweeten the wine in this very old solera, first created in 18_. Aromatics show a combination of palomino dried citric fruits and PX figs and dates, and the palate is just beautifully balanced, the touch of sweetness making this appropriate for both an aperitif as well as an after dinner drink (I'd probably go with after dinner, personally). Flores pointed out that this style can be referred to as "abocado" or even "amoroso" - hey now!

Gonzalez Byass Del Duque Amontillado VORS

Intense in all respects: acidity, alcohol (21.5%), wood flavor extraction. Deep yet subtle vanilla and dried fruit aromatics lead to a nearly perfect balance of acid and wood extracted flavors on the palate. Excellent richness and a real hazlenut like quality on the finish. A "vino de pañuelo," translated as handkerchief wine, something you dab on the handkerchief to carry with you for the day. Tasting this while listening to him wax poetic, I got the sense that Sr. Flores is an amontillado guy.

Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloros VORS

With 25% PX added, this is a sweet oloroso. However, the acidity is every bit as defining an attribute here as the residual sugar; these two are so impeccably balanced. As I commented on the acidity, Flores reminded me here that acidity intensifies with time in the barrel, so that acidity in VORS wines (even the dry ones) can be quite high (in fact, north of 6g/l is not at all uncommon). Aromas of old barrels combine with a rancio dried fruit and nut quality, and for lack of a better way of putting it, the flavors taste both old, very old, as well as fresh and bright. This solera began in 1847.

Gonzalez Byass Pedro Ximenez Nectar

An average of 8 year old wine, the aromas are all figs and raisins, with lots of these rich fruits on the palate as well. 380g/l residual sugar and 15% abv.

Gonzalez Byass Pedro Ximenez Noe VORS

More intense on the nose and the palate, this old wine has even more of a dried fruit quality, with dates in particular on the palate, as well as a surprising jolt of acidity for PX. Mocha notes as well, which is commmon for PX to acquire if it is from an older solera. 420 g/l residual sugar!

Next up...we go from very large to very small at boutique producer El Maestro Sierra.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


The history of Valdespino, at least as participants in the wine business in Jerez, goes back to the 1430. It's a lineage that goes back a good bit further than that of any other bodega in sherry country. Valdespino's history as a sherry producing bodega, however, can be traced back to 1875. Since 1999, Valdespino has been owned by Grupo Estevez, a large company with other interests in Jerez (primarily Real Tesoro) as well as a business breeding Andalusian horses. With over 25,000 barrels, a few large bodegas to age their various sherries, and a huge bottling facility, Grupo Estevez is a medium large producer by Jerez standards (which makes them very large by any other measure). That having been said, Valdespino is still amongst the best houses in sherry, definitely the crown jewel among the products in the Grupo Estevez portfolio. If you follow Equipo Navazos' bottlings, you will recognize Valdespino from their fino, amontillado and palo cortado editions.

A few factors help to define Valdespino's sherries and make them amongst the best around:

1.) Valdespino owns a 56 hectare vineyard in Marcharnudo Alto, regarded as the best district for growing palomino grapes in Jerez.
2.) All estate fruit is used, fermentation occurs on-site next to the bodegas where soleras are held (both of these situations are rare in Jerez; even the boutique bodegas generally buy wine from growers)
3.) Fermentation occurs in old wood 600 liter botas - everywhere else fermentation is in stainless steel tanks. I'd be curious to see exactly how this affects the flavor profile, but until the winery does an experimental solera of fino inocente from inox fermented wine (which to my knowledge they have no plans to do) I guess I will never know.
4.) LONG AGEING. Even their fino (Inocente) has ten criaderas, whereas most commercial finos only employ four. Fino Inocente is an older, richer, but yet still mineral and very fresh fino. This of course forms the base of their amontillados and palo cortados, also tops.

Though I was familiar with the Fino Inocente (my favorite fino) as well as the solera 1842 (a lightly sweetened VOS oloroso with terrific, rancio, walnut character), I had yet to try Tio Diego Amontillado, which I tasted at the winery. For an amontillado, it is still very fresh, not too heavily marked by wood, and very reminiscent of the Inocente. In fact, you might even refer to it as a fino amontillado given the lighter color and strong fino character of the wine. It averages 14 years old, 7-8 years of which it spends as a fino, so the "fino amontillado" description seems to make sense.

Unfortunately, there was no time to linger over palo cortado and dry oloroso this time. Maybe on another visit....

Next up: Gonzalez Byass is pronounced "BEE-yahs" and makes more than Tío Pepe.