Mistaken identity

It has been a great week for the many fans of the traditional wines of Southern Andalucía: in addition to International Sherry Week, which goes from strength to strength, there was yet another edition of la Copa de Jerez and once again the DO took advantage of the opportunity not only to celebrate but more importantly to debate the future of the region and its wines.

It was an excellent event all round and if, like me, you weren’t able to get down there, you can watch videos of every minute (in Spanish) on the DO’s youtube channel, vinosdejereztv.

But one panel stood out for this blogger: “Panel 10, new times, new rules II”. On it Cesar Saldanha, Director of the DO, lead a quite excellent debate on the new rules agreed for the region. Those new rules are undeniably welcome and show progress on a number of fronts: a recognition that wines of the recquisite strength need not be fortified, improvements in the recognition of vintage specific wines, a more detailed classification of categories of wines such as manzanilla pasada and fino viejo and rules on the use of terms such as “en rama”.

But neither is there any doubt as to the major disappointment, which is that the excellent white wines of the region will remain outside the DO, and that became from the outset the focus of the discussion between three leading lights of the “new Jerez”: Willy Perez, Paola Medina and Armando Guerra. (In fact rather than “discussion” it might be more accurate to call it a chorus since all three seemed agreed of the value of white wines to the region.)

As so often the arguments were best articulated by Willy Perez. He set out three points: the past, the present and the future.

As to the past, Willy pointed out that in the recent past (last 200 years or so) the “vinos de pasto” were listed on the price lists of all the major houses – and not at the bottom of those lists either. White wines may be fashionable but they are not a mere passing fashion.

It is an excellent point and if anything it struck me that Willy didn’t go far enough: we too easily lose sight of the fact that in the two thousand or more years of the history of the region white wines have always been present, while solera wines (for want of a better term) are a comparatively recent innovation.

As to the present, the argument is simple: the quality and qualities of the white wines being produced cannot be doubted. And while Willy didn’t want to labour the point, for me he stopped short again, because I strongly believe that the white wines being produced in the region are among the finest being produced anywhere: I have no hesitation on sharing them with visitors or taking them with me all over the world and I am yet to find anyone who disagrees. The region simply could not wish for better ambassadors than these wines.

And as to the future, Willy’s argument was again direct: for the region to have a future it needs new blood, new winemakers and innovation, innovation that is incomparably more viable in the production of white wines. Put simply, the investment and time needed to establish a solera is a massive barrier to entry into the sector that only a select few could afford to undertake.

Again, I might have gone even further, particularly in response to some of the round tables that had gone before, in which it was suggested that the future of the region lay in greater classification and barrel selection, ever older, more extreme wines and “discoveries” of long last botas. There is no doubt that recent fans of these wines have lived in a fortunate time, with so many priceless old wines unsold in cellars, waiting to be discovered and bottled for our delight. But we must not forget that our good fortune is a tragedy for the makers of those wines. Those barrels are in those cellars in many cases because there was no market for them, and the legendary names that we all revere are part of history because their owners went to the wall. Put simply, for the region to thrive it needs to make and sell wines: it cannot hope to keep “finding” them.

But it is in this last point that it becomes clear why white wines didn’t make the cut: it simply isn’t in the interest of the wineries making the rules. It is a fact of life that the Consejo Regulador is made up of the region’s largest wineries, all of whom have made those massive investments in soleras and none of whom have an interest in sharing their “brand” with the whippersnappers producing vinos de pasto.

And while Willy’s position was predictable enough (as one of the aforementioned whippersnappers) it was perhaps more surprising that Paola and Armando seemed to agree. Paola (a whippersnapper herself to be fair) made very clear that for her the “identity” of sherry wines came from their organoleptic qualities and that consumers and wineries were increasingly attuned to and interested in the qualities of different vineyards – and even Armando agreed that the region needed to find the courage to diversify, noting that the big wineries too were innovating in just the same way.

But it was interesting to see how the three contributions differed: and in particular while Willy set the stage and Armando cleared up, the key question seemed to me to be the one posed to Paola, as to where the “identity” of the wines of the region lay.

Because here I really feel that the region has, in recent years (by which I mean the last century and a half) confused “identity” with “brand”. It has fought so hard to sell its wines by reference to its soleras that it seems to have forgotten that soleras, oxidative ageing, even biological ageing, are not unique to the region. Other regions can and do employ the same techniques with sometimes spectacular results. What made Jerez unique for centuries were the qualities of the wines it produced – whether they went into those soleras or not – and recent history shows that even the greatest soleras cannot compensate for the loss of quality of the wines that go in.

If there is a consolation it is in the direction of travel. As Willy pointed out, the region has already come a long way, Paola noted that consumers have too, and Armando recognized that even the biggest wineries were alive to the need to produce and innovate with white wines. There is consolation also in the thought that on the increasingly competitive worldwide stage the white wines of the region can be found everywhere from Finland to New York and in every publication you can shake a stick at.

But it nevertheless feels like a lost opportunity for the region: an opportunity to celebrate the past, to promote the great wines of the present and to embrace the new winemakers of the future.

Encrucijado 2015

The fruitiest saltiest white wine you will ever try, and one of the jammiest from Sanlucar. This wine has a very special place in the affections of this blog and blogger for personal reasons but it is a very special wine in its own right.

It is a blend of palomino, perruno and uva rey, three of the many originally autoctonous varieties of the region, whose presence side by side in the same vineyards were the original reason for the variety of wines that came out the other end.

In this one the oxidative inclination of the uva rey and the jammy perruno, together with a decent spell of flor and oxidation, make this wine, which would have been a very nice, bota fermented palomino, into something altogether different and unique.

Bottled after 20 months or so, the four years in the bottle have suited this down to the ground – it has grown in every direction and is now a massive wine – even a massive cucumber as they say down there. A beautiful rich colour and lovely on the nose – ripe melon and baked fruit -, then a palate and finish that manages to be jammy, salty, and fresh.

Fantastic.

Origin: landscapes and peoplescapes

This post has only one connection with the traditional wines of Southern Andalucía: it is about wine, and top class wines at that. Because a couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to taste the 2020 vintage of single vineyard wines of Artadi in Laguardia and they were exceptional, as were the people involved.

It started with a reception at Las Colonias in Laguardia – a superb, imposing building – at which there were more than a few friends, before a round table discussion between four top drawer speakers. First was Carlos Lopez de Lacalle, taking the baton from his illustrious father and setting up the day with a warm welcome and the introduction of a well chosen theme: “Origen: Paisajes y Paisanajes” (Origin, landscapes and “peoplescapes”), a title drawing together two of the dimensions of great wines: the places they are made and the people that make them.

First to speak to the topic was Aitor Arregui of Elkano. I have written before on here about the restaurants this man is behind (Elkano and Cataria) their exceptional understanding – and communication – of the terroir of the sea, and how much that knowledge and communication contributed to what were two of the best meals of a life featuring quite a few good ones. Well on Monday there was more of the same – simply and clearly communicated, and with an emotion that set the tone for the day. There was also a first glimpse of the bonds of friendship and family that are one of the other abiding memories of the day. A superb start.

His key point was that landscape and time defined the produce of Getaria, near the southernmost extent of the bay of Biscay, but the way that that produce had been interpreted by the local population had defined a cuisine and culture – we fish it, we grill it – (sounds simple but try it) that in turn attuned the population to the patterns of the currents and life cycles of the animals. By stripping away all artifice the culture is one that demands an understanding of the culinary qualities and seasons of the animals in a kind of virtuous spiral, redefining what can be done with a grill one splash of “Lourdes water” at a time.

He was followed by Ramiro Ibañez, beloved of this parish, who picked up the same theme and took it in a different direction from the opposite end of the Peninsula. Ramiro spoke to how the differences in terrain and wine making possibilities of Sanlucar and Jerez had over the centuries shaped first the wines, then the population and their tastes, spurring further specialization not only in wine but in cuisine and again a virtuous circle that had created great diversity in a small area. He also picked up on the social and industrial changes that threatened to break that virtuous circle, as industrialization and 18th century globalization offered winemakers markets and wine drinkers choices, and lead to a blurring and forgetting of that diversity. (In fact he actually started there – even if I remembered it in reverse.)

Ramiro in turn was followed by Rodrigo Gonzalez, director of wine for the Dani Garcia group who picked up what looked like a nasty hospital pass and to be fair he ran on with aplomb. He recognized too the same issues of globalization and industrialization that Ramiro had picked up but rather than denying the market he took their themes of people and places and tied them to the stories of wine that resonate with customers in restaurants and stores. When the client can come from anywhere in a shifting world, and can get their DRC on almost anywhere they go, a wine shaped by a place and a people is an anchor – and a wine and a cuisine borne of the same culture is an anchor upon anchor, a link between the ephemeral pleasure of a glass of wine, a dish. and the centuries, millenia, and more. It was a beautiful way to tie up one of the best round tables I have witnessed at a wine event.

That round table gave way to a debate about the same concerns – how changes in society were challenging the succession of traditional family businesses and prising the most precious real estate from their historic owners, in Rioja and elsewhere. Pretty gloomy stuff, but probably the same debate has been repeated for the last 100 years and the world has not come to an end just yet. More optimistically, the very presence of Ramiro was a reminder that however far a wine region can fall from its tree, consumers will seek out wines that reflect the place and the culture when possible.

Fascinating stuff but the time tends to drag on when you have four empty wine glasses in front of you. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait much longer for the bride and groom and before we knew it the glasses were no longer empty. After a few words on the – pretty challenging – climate conditions and evolution of the vineyards during the 2019-20 growing season it was time to taste the 2020 single vineyard wines.

The tasting had a neat structure because we tasted the wines, more or less, in order of the depth of navigable soil in the vineyards, as captured by a set of “calicatas” – from 60cm to over 2m tall. (You like terroir? Look at those tubes!) This frankly is right up my street – an attempt to understand the wines in the context of the soils, and opens up a dimension I look forward to exploring further. And neither was it excessively nerdy – Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle disarmingly recognized that they were exploring and trying to understand the “what” but still didn’t know “why”.

First up were Cuerdamayor and Santa Cecilia – two old vineyards, planted in the 20s and 30s but with only 55 and 60 cm of topsoil. Surface feeding old vines you might call them. And the contrasts started right away: while Cuerdamayor had a bright, floral and fruity nose and a zesty, lively acidity, Santa Cecilia was altogether more mineral, more serious, a touch of the skin of barbecued peppers. Both extremely drinkable but with distinct personalities.

The second flight were three classy wines: La Laguna, San Lazaro, and Quintanilla. Vineyards planted in 1920, 1956 and 1951, respectively, with 105, 145 and 175 cm of topsoil available. Again this flight showed personalities that were different between each other and from the earlier flight. La Laguna was all blackcurrant fruit gums and even a touch of honey on the nose, and then a surprisingly saline and savoury palate. San Lazaro, by contrast was like a punnet of fresh black fruit, or even a blackberry bush on the nose, and had that same freshness and a leafy acidity on the palate. Quintanilla was a further step in that direction, with blackberry jam on the nose and then a palate with soft tannins and a hint of apple seed, nice profile that was full of flavour and compact.

These, by the way, are from my notes, but I wish I had taken better note of what had been said by Juan Carlos and Carlos as they presented the wines because their thoughts and angles on the art of wine tasting and description were fascinating. I tend to think of wines in shapes and textures, but Juan Carlos seems to see them like a combination of architectural blue prints and poetry (and don’t worry, no poetry was recited). Carlos, on the other hand had a more direct-to-the-emotion approach, comparing wines to the feeling of a surfboard on a wave amongst other things.

Anyway the third flight had four wines: Terreras (1960, 1970 and 1990 – up to 2m), La Hoya (1965, 105 cm), la Poza de Ballesteros (1960, 115cm) and San Martin (Laguardia, 1930, 185cm). As you have probably guessed by now, four distict personalities. Terreras is deep ribena on the nose and on the palate, black fruit from start to finish, long, acidic, and with a lovely fine shape to it – fruit all the way to the end, but with tannins that give it a graphite, mineral quality. La Hoya by comparison was light and vivacious, with structure but spark. This was a wine where Juan Carlos’s comment really struck home – he described it as having “living” room, space between lines – and I can understand it – the lightness, brightness of the edge of the profile and the softness of the centre. Very nice. That was followed by la Poza de Ballesteros, again a delightful combination of lightness and meatiness, quieter than La Hoya but meatier too, a very nice balance to it, and then by San Martin, which for me was something else, with a funkier nose, and a richness of palate and texture, chocolatey complexity that I loved. At the time San Martin was my wine of the day, with just an extra dimension that the others did not have – can’t wait to see it all grown up in a couple of years.

The final flight was lead out by Valdegines (Laguardia, 1989 and 1992, 2m), then El Carretil, (Lagurdia, 1930, 1975 and 1988, 2m) and, finally, El Pison, the family vineyard, planted in 1945 on a site in Laguardia with soils of at least 1,50 (and possibly endless). Yet more contrasts. Valdegines was aptly described as a creature of an inhabited mountainside, fruit and leaf but hints or malted barley and stew on the palate and fruit on the finish, with perhaps an outermost covering of charcoal tannins. For a wine from such young vines a real cracker. El Carretil is really a little gem. On the nose it is burgundy-like, has that tension like the strings of a tennis racquet and red fruit, even liquorice. Then on the palate you get a lovely tight profile with those same red fruit flavours, beautiful wine. And el Pisón is a big gem, a massive cucumber as the boys round here would say. Less brightness and tension on the nose than El Carretil and fruit that is darker, but a profile that could have been carved by Bernini, silky and elegant, and not jammy but full – fruit in every atom, and there, long and soft all the way through a long finish.

A really outstanding tasting, superb wines and an unforgettable opportunity to taste 12 wines from different vines together on an equal footing. The sort of tasting that makes me painfully aware of my shortcomings as a taster and writer, even when I take notes and they survive the day.

And there was plenty left for them to survive because the festival didn’t finish there. After a brief stretch of the legs in the sunshine we were back for lunch at the hands of Aitor and his crew from Elkano and it was, again, thrillingly memorable, with antxoa, txitxarro, lobstr, kokotxas (on the grill and pil pil), potxa a lo pelayo, the world famous rodaballo (turbot) and a dessert that, if it isn’t famous yet, really ought to be.

It was a lunch that on another day would have been the highlight of the year, and again it was washed down with more outstanding Artadi wines: Izar Leku 2017, the fourth generation of their really excellent sparkling txacoli, a superb Viñas de Gain Blanco 2014 that stands comparison with many much more famous Rioja whites, and then four reds that were a happy reminder of what the years would bring the wines of the morning: Viñas de Gain 2011, La Poza de Ballesteros 2012, Grandes Añadas 2000, and El Pisón 2004. You don’t need me to tell you that those last three, in particular, are absolutely world class, but by this stage of proceedings my note taking had dwindled from note taking to non-existent, and as the afternoon wore on and bottles came and went, the dancing and singing started and my memory becomes increasingly cloudy.

Not enough to obscure the memory of a wonderful, unforgettable day, and it would be incomplete and unfair too to sign off without mentioning the warmth and fun of the company from start to pretty late finish. The bonds of friendship and family were evident throughout the day and it was a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of it.

Larga vida y muchas gracias a Artadi, Elkano, sus paisajes y paisanajes!

Verdejo, pero viejo

Of the many joys that this blog has brought me undoubtedly the greatest has been the possibility of trying things that otherwise I would not. I have been spoilt by sommeliers, invited to events, been able to visit wineries and meet winemakers, and generally been very fortunate indeed. And there was a new example this week as a colleague from the firm where I work shared something really unique with me.

His family own a winery, Bodegas Otero. up in Benavente, one of five wineries in one of Spain’s least famous DOs, where they make some very enjoyable reds and whites from prieto picudo and verdejo. Unusually for this blog, we are not talking a new winery: they were founded in 1906. Also unusually for this blog, the wine was not a new one either, quite the contrary.

The bodega has the typical “sala de visitas”, with old barrels on every wall, many of them signed for family members, recently decided to take stock of the wine in those barrels, and what they have found is quite extraordinary.

The barrels were filled with verdejo in the 1980s and then they, and their contents, literally became part of the furniture. The angels took more than their share and the barrels became a little less full, allowing a veil of flor to form for a few years before a decision was taken to fortify around 15 years ago, since when they were left to grow old as gracefully as possible. Until last year, when the barrels were emptied into two deposits, from which a few bottles – no more than tasting samples – have been produced.

And this is where my luck comes in because I was fortunate enough to be given a couple of those bottles and asked if I thought it was worth bottling the rest. Even before I opened them I was intrigued – who wouldn’t be – and I couldn’t think of a better place to do so than Angelita, with its cooking based on the produce of the same zamoran fields.

And the wines didn’t let anybody down – a lovely golden colour, clear as a bell, and aromatic, with barrel, sawdust, wax and brandy there but also old old apple. On the palate too: nice acidity, mellow flavours, not at all heavy on the palate despite their 19 degrees and a long, mouthwatering finish with that same aromatic profile. The two wines – we had a bottle from each deposit – were also full of character. One finer, all barrel and mellow, and the other brasher, with more volatile acidity and the juicier, spirity profile and nose that that brings.

I was impressed enough, indeed, to want to compare them with some of the many sherry wines on excellent list and they really stood their ground admirably – finer and maybe less potent on the palate due to their lack of solera, but no less aromatic and flavorful and maybe even more elegant.

So a lovely discovery all told, no doubt at all that these need bottling – in fact they will be a couple of wines that will be well worth hunting out when they are finally available (and I am glad to say you should be able to find them in Angelita). My sincere congratulations to Bodegas Otero and my thanks to them for sharing.

Cortado La Barajuela 2017

They are doing it you know.

A couple of years ago they passed me a draft of a first section of a book intended to tell the true history of the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar. It was pretty dense: knowledge and enthusiasm per square inch off the chart, and a story that I had never heard before.

And they started with an explanation of how these wines used to be called. Palma, Raya, and everything in between. It was pretty nerdy – wine names you had never seen and a narrative coming from a whole new direction. But it rang true. Every wine lover and wine maker – even this wine bluffer – knew it to be true the moment that they read it. At that time it read like a theory in need of practice. But now you can experience the practice, and you can really appreciate the power in the theory.

This wine is the successor to a wine called oloroso. My guess is that it no longer can be called oloroso, because it was, like its sibling the palma cortada, cut off in its prime.

If it cannot be called an oloroso it is a mistake, because it might not be as aromatic as some but it is an almost divine representation of the effect of oxidation. The first time that I tried Oloroso la Barajuela, a few years ago now, I was mystified – I have had more oxidated burgundies (quite often). But then I was looking for more oxidation, more concentration, and I overlooked the wonderful way the palomino frame carries the oxidation.

And just as the flor can be cynically used to produce effects rather than wines, – carve wines too fine, produce too much haybale and too much sea air at the expense of too much fruit – oxidation can be thought of as just a tool for producing caramel, toffee, black toffee and burnt toffee, when in reality it can be a way of turning white fruit, quite literally, gold.

I mean it stands to reason that olorosos didn’t just start leaping from the barrel at 12 years old. There must have been a moment when people started noticing how nice these wines were with a bit of oxygen – before we all started overdoing it.

And that is what we have here, in this white wine from the greatest vineyard in Jerez. And it is what we are beginning to see too in its counterpart from Sanlucar, Agostado. Both of them are white wines so solid on their frame that that oxidation is not a defect but a burnish, a polish.

And those words – palma, raya, cortado – they are on bottle labels, wine lists and, hopefully, in publications, and blog posts, and rankings. And the word will spread.

And who knows? We may one day see the second section of the book even …

La Bota de Palo Cortado 92 – “Pata de Gallina”

Pata de Gallina III, with a vengeance

In the 1980s a young undertheflor would watch a program on the TV called “The Day the Universe Changed”. In it, the great James Burke tells the story of the advancement of human knowledge and the humans that advanced it. Nerdy as it may be, it was absolutely outstanding, a celebration of achievement and knowledge, and nearly 40 years on I still remember some of the episodes. (There were none involving wine, although brandy and barrels get a look in in a couple.)

In the story of the advancement of my wine knowledge there have been a few days when the universe changed. One was the day I tasted Episode I of the Pitijopos, one was when I was given a tour of Emilio Hidalgo by the great Juanma, another when I visited the pagos and vineyards of Jerez and Sanlucar with Ramiro Ibañez. Even single wines have done it. I will never forget my first bottle of la Barajuela Fino or of Toneles Moscatel. And one of those days was the day I tried the wines from Pata de Gallina the first time, in the guise of La Bota de Palo Cortado 34, by the great Equipo Navazos.

I went and found it in Enoteca Barolo after getting the tip from Victor de la Serna that I should look for “La Bota”. But when I took it home I really had no idea what to expect and it just blew my mind. I will never forget the moment. I sent an email to a mate of mine about it – I wish I could find that!

It wasn’t just shock value, it was a really outstanding wine, No 34. I loved it deeply and dearly, buying up every bottle I could in Spain and even reimporting a case from the UK (to the amusement of the sellers involved). I think I still have a bottle at the back of the minibar there. The ones I have had recently have faded a little, but back then it had a bit of everything, complexity in handfuls, and a balance and a lightness that very few wines share. Eight years later and probably 800 different sherry wines (and similar) later it is still right up there.

And this, its most recent reincarnation, is a lovely reminder of it. It is not the same wine – I am convinced that the more recent releases have become sharper, finer, with less fullness of bone and more definition, and I frankly miss that puppy fat. But this is still one of the very best examples of what this style of finer oloroso is supposed to be about. Flavourful but sharp – cheeky and complex. And when I say sharp I mean rapier sharp, without renouncing the full palate and a bundle of flavours and sensations that take minutes to unpack as you hold it on the tongue, warming your gums and the inside of the cheeks with its acid and salinity. Burnt wood, burnt caramel, sweetness, bitterness, citrus, sawdust – but without being overbearing in any direction really.

A lovely, balanced wine yet again, and I always wonder if the 34 was better or if I was worse, or am I worse now? I suppose in end it doesn’t matter. But I hope this wine will change a few universes as its predecessor did mine.

Solear en Rama Spring 2014 – the Red Kite, 7 years on

Amazing to think that I started hoarding these little bottles seven years ago and even more amazing to crack them open and find the wine is still sensational, maybe even better than it was.

Was nostalgic to see this bottle still had the “manzanilla” with no pasada on the label and the agglomerate cork instead of the natural cork in the recent bottles, and it has been fun trying to recall what I was up to in 2014 when I first opened this. I didn’t have the blog yet and I hadn’t even been to Jerez in those days. I wasn’t on instagram yet even – what in the world did I use to do with my time? (Yes I know there aren’t many posts these days so same difference I suppose.)

But some things haven’t changed. Back then I loved these little bottles and I still do. I suppose the question is whether I loved them more or not and that is an interesting one. In general of course these wines no longer have the impact they did on that more impressionable young fella, but this has withstood the test of time as well as any.

And this specific wine has certainly taken the passing years in its stride. It is still intense, full of zingy saline heat, and full of juice too: real concentration of flavour. The colour is that touch darker, and the flavours have gone down a notch in register – but this is just as full a palate as I remember, and with time open a sweetness comes through on the finish that just rounds it off.

I would swear it was better for seven years in this tiny bottle – wish I had bought a couple of magnums and had a couple of decades …

Ube las Vegas el Carrascal 2017

Ube: The original

No jokey posts this time or corny lines, serious business tonight with a serious wine. This is the original UBE, one of the first really serious unfortified palomino wines I ever tried and with each passing vintage I am more convinced that it is one of the very best.

It is from the las Vegas vineyard in El Carrascal de Sanlucar, a plot with old, ungrafted vines of some of the original palomino varieties, palomino fino, palomino de jerez, and pelúson (aka big hairy palomino) growing on the loose, antehojuela albarizas of Carrascal de Sanlucar, one the most Atlantic influenced pagos of Sanlucar and el marco. It is fermented in bota and then spends another 20 months there – without flor – growing into this beast of a white wine. Since then it has been a good year and a bit in the bottle already although I think it is fairly recently released.

All that time in the making: a vine that had been slaving away for over 100 years, fruit that spent 2017 making itself, 20 months in the barrel and a year and half in the bottle. And after all that he bottle disappeared in the blink of an eye. One moment it was there. The next moment, it was no longer there.

But what a moment there was in between. This is not only an excellent example of what unfortified palomino is all about it is a truly lovely wine on any terms. In colour (slightly dark gold), aroma (citrus, herbs and sea breeze) and above all on the palate, where it has incredible range and even more extraordinary finesse, it is just a remarkable sup. That range goes all the way from white flowers to stewy herbs, passing through white fruits, jammy fruits, and sweet herbs on the way. And it does it with understated power and an elegance and clarity that is really quite remarkable.

Yes I enjoyed it. What often happens when I open one of these is that three go down in quick succession but that is not happening this time. Iron discipline is at work, but so is the shortage of supply. I am going to quickly sort out the latter, and we will see about the former.

Night of the mayetos in Sagrario Tradicion

They say better late than never so here is a long overdue write up of a cracking night – all of three months ago during sherry week – when we celebrated one of my favourite projects in one of my favourite places.

The project in question is the “Mayeteria Sanluqueña”: José Manuel “Manu” Harana, Rafael Rodriguez, Antonio Bernal and Daniel Rodriguez, four “mayetos” that make up one of the most intriguing stories in el marco de Jerez.

“Mayeto” is the traditional term in Sanlucar for a small scale grower – of anything really (if you haven’t tried the potatoes from a navazo you haven’t tried real potatoes) – but particularly vitis vinifera. Historically these small producers have played a big role in the wines of Jerez: mayetos have been responsible for a large proportion of production, although at least in recent years their numbers and production have fallen, and have tended to be limited to supplying the cooperatives and larger bodegas.

But now with the inspiration and help of the great viticultor and winemaker Ramiro Ibañez the mayetos of the Mayetería Sanluqueña have started once again to make their own wines. They are unfortified wines from palomino fino sold under the brand “Corta y Raspa” from vineyards in some of the most emblematic and famous “pagos” of Jerez and Sanlúcar: Añina, Atalaya, Charruado, Maína and Miraflores. They make them from their best, oldest vines, with a production of less than 7,000 kg per hectare (a condition of being part of the project, in a region where it is not unusual for yields to be more than 11,000 kg/ha) and using artisanal, traditional winemaking techniques.

And the result is a series of wines that are fresh, drinkable, but which express the characteristics of the vines and vineyards like no other. We are talking honest wines with minimal intervention that let you clearly feel the influence of the altitude, location, climate and type of the famous albarizas.

The only pity is how hard it is to find and enjoy them – here in Madrid or anywhere else for that matter. (Although you can get them from the Cuatrogatos Wine Club). So when I was asked by my good friends at Sagrario Tradicion – a fantastic new restaurant here in the neighbourhood – what they could do for sherry week it didn’t take me long to further my agenda of bringing these wines within reach.

Were it not for the awful year that 2020 has been we would have had the mayetos come and present their wines to a packed house. That was not to be – but we were able to get hold of the few bottles that remained so that Nico and his crew at Sagrario could pair them up with their quality cooking. Specifically we were able to get the Atalaya 2018, “La Charanga” (Maina) 2018 and “La Charanga” (Maina) 2017.

They are wines that come from vines a small distance apart – just 2,8km – but despite being neighbours, the difference in the albarizas, together with the degrees of humidity and freshness in the vines, result in a vegetation of the vine, thickness of the skin of the fruit, concentration, and other possible parameters that give identity and character that make the vineyard recognizable in the wineglass.

In the words of the mayetos themselves:

Atalaya is a pago near Sanlúcar, with “lentejuela” or “antehojuela” albarizas, with a high chalk content, but a looser, less compact structure, allowing an easier development of the roots and vegetation of the top side. It is at about 55 metres above sea level (above the magic 45 metres celebrated in “Cota 45”) and is closer to the sea, with the effects of the fresh, humid winds of the poniente (from the sea). The wine is dry, sapid, saline, and structured without losing freshness and acidity.

Maina is a pago (slightly) further inland, but with more influence from the river and the winds of the “levante”. The poniente winds are weakened by the pago Hornillos (Callejuela), Martin Miguel, and Atalaya that bear their brunt. The altitude is higher, at between 65 and 75 metres. The albariza here is barajuela, the toughest. It is very rich in calcium and structured in layers, making the development of the roots difficult and leading to lesser top vegetation. The wines are very direct, dry and potent, the most sapid of them all. It is the pago richest in content of “diatomeas” (fossils of microscopic organisms) in the marco de Jerez, giving the wine great impact on the palate.

On the other hand, in the case of La Charanga we were able to try the different qualities of two different vintages: the 2017, with a very warm summer which obliged the growers to bring forward the harvest, and the 2018, a year with abundant rain and a very cool summer which obliged them, on the contrary, to delay the harvest to September for the first time in many years.

A tantalising prospect and it turned out to be an absolutely great week by all accounts. I am not sure how many people pitched up – although Sagrario is always busy anyway – but if everyone who sent me a message did then they must have been standing in the aisles. It was fair packed when a group of like minded souls and I rocked up and availed ourselves of the opportunity before the curfew, and neither Sagrario nor the wines disappointed.

From the first I had thought of the two as a perfect match – in Sagrario they like their natural, terroir driven wines for a start, with Nico having been the man behind more than one in his time – but the obsession with tradition and nature isn’t only a wine thing. I will never forget Nico telling me all about where the frogs that generously donated their legs to the cause of his pisto were from and why. But just in general it is a place for simple but imaginative and always nicely carried out preparations of top quality produce and the menu they came up for with the mayetos was no exception.

And the wines, well they were three little beauties – only 2.8km and 12 months in it but three lovely wines that were as different as you could ask for. A perfect demonstration of the potential of the terroir of Sanlucar and Jerez and one of the best wine experiences for a long time.

Palma cortada la Barajuela 2017

One of the new crop of wines from the Barajuela project and another stunning chip off the wonderful block called el Corregidor.

I say a new crop of wines because we are not just talking about a new vintage (although it is a vintage wine – a 2017), we are talking about a new beastie altogether: no fino, or oloroso, but a “palma cortada” (and the other wines released in this batch are the “cortado” and the only slightly more familiar “raya”). What can the reason for this spiffy new moniker be? Well I have purposefully not done any research or asked the man himself (he said as if anyone expected this blog to have actually researched anything) but my guess would be that this “palma cortada” was a wine that was selected for “palma” status (for your reference, the Barajuela Finos used to indicate “una palma” on the back label) but went only slightly off the beaten path and had to be “cortada” (cut off at the knees) before reaching the promised land.

I may be wrong – it may be deliberate – but in any event it is a return to the ancient traditional nomenclature for the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar, a time before industrialization when the mighty white wines of Southern Spain had a fair claim to be considered the world’s best.

It could be considered surprising that in only the fifth vintage of this project what is clearly the “finer” wine with the white label has been rebaptized, contrary to all the norms of brand building and confounding future verticals, but frankly I find that more reassuring than anything. It may be possible to make an unfortified, single vintage fino every year, but the fact that this has been labelled more precisely tells you that the standards being reached for here are genuinely stratospheric, and the transparency involved is, well, a breath of fresh air. And the fact is that in those five vintages we have had only three finos and one oloroso: it is time to recognize that the fruit and the wine do not always conform to such narrow classifications.

And so we step back in time 150 years or so (or more, I have no idea really) and we enjoy our palma cortada. And enjoy is the operative word, because this may not have the word fino on the bottle, but it does have the word “Barajuela”. And even if it didn’t there would be no mistaking its origins or majesty: the flavours are utterly characteristic of the project and vineyard.

It is a beautiful white wine, lovely clarity and old gold colours on the eye, and high register white fruits, concentrated honey-suckle, dried flowers and herbs on the nose (seems sacrilegious to say it but there is chamomile in there). It really looks and smells of ambrosia.

Then you sip it (in whatever quantity you consider a “sip”) and, wow, the acidity and sensation of the wine, that incredibly deep, low to high flavour and tingling, mouth watering finish. The middle of it reminds me of the mellow roasted apples of a really good blanc de blancs with plenty of years of rima and bottle, a touch of oxidation, and the front end also reminds me of champagne with that acidity, but there is a greater umami and herbal depth in the middle part of the palate and the finale is so long, so zingy, it really is sensational.

So don’t be put off by the nomenclature. This is punky by comparison to the quite exceptional 2016 fino but still a superb wine on any register.