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.