Bodega y Viñedos Balbaínas – Part II

Went to a sensational tasting this week organized by the Union Española de Catadores. Peter Sisseck and his wines, including two vintages from each of Chateau Rocheyron, Flor de Pingus and Pingus itself. And of course, wines from each of his soleras in Jerez (I am not sure how many of us were there for the fino.)

You don’t need me to tell you that these wines are top drawer. The 2009 Pingus in particular is one of those wines that I can still feel on the palate the best part of a week later – superb richness and a solid, elegant structure to it, like a sculpted and polished block of fruit and spice. But the 2015 Pingus was also a beauty – similar elegance, a bit more brooding power and just a little bit less polished. As for the Flor de Pingus and Rocheyrons, well, it is a pretty good tasting where these wines are not the pick of the bunch.

Neither will it be any surprise to you to learn that Peter Sisseck is a winemaker with both a wide field of vision and a very clear idea of what he likes. It was fascinating to hear him on the relevance of ph, the types of soil (he enjoys a bit of calcium down in the rootstock) and the methods of replanting – his thoughts on training vineyards as far afield as Saint-Emilion and Balbaina, and vines as distinct as palomino and merlot.

But what struck me was his vision of the wines of Jerez. Because when he spoke about Jerez he didn’t speak in the same way about the vineyards, where they were, how they were planted and tended. Neither did this winemaker’s winemaker talk about unfortified white wines or fermentation temperatures or deposits. Rather, he spoke with something like veneration about what makes a fino, – and in his words, Spain’s great gift to the world’s wine heritage – the truly unique wine from Jerez. His thoughts were surprisingly classical but with an interesting twist, and resolved for me one of the great recent mysteries.

You see after acquiring a solera making one of the great finos – Camborio – Peter and his colleagues decided not to continue Camborio as such but to make two different wines, and I must admit being puzzled as to why you would buy Camborio if what you wanted to make were new wines (other than the fact that Camborio was for sale and would give you a pretty handy headstart of course).

The answer is the fascinating part, because your man explained that for him the top finos of Jerez gain their unique character and structure from one of the less glamourous sources: las cabezuelas. The dead lipids, the remains of the flor, tiny proteins that having given their all fighting off the oxygen and eating alcohol, sugar and glycerol from the wine but then die and sink to the bottom where they create a bed of madre that, much like lees in a white wine, gives the old finos and manzanilla pasadas a silky, buttery mouthfeel. Camborio and the other botas in the bodega had, in addition to some high class wines, a treasure trove of character and personality settled on the bottom of the barrels that would otherwise take years to accumulate.

He is certainly onto something. There is no question in my mind that those old solera finos have a fatness, solidity and clarity of profile that the single vintage wines, without those years of accumulation, lack. (In fact I was struck later by his comments on the importance of ph in his merlot and tempranillo because, as I understood it, he was thinking on the same lines – the importance for mouth feel and the sensations that the wines could give you.)

And the wines are good too. The Balbaina is a haybale heavy fino, plenty of aromatics and benefits from that age it has – the Macharnudo wine is also aromatic but raw by comparison – if the Balbaina is a swimming pool the Macharnudo had a touch of incontinent feline about it. But both are seriously interesting finos already with that structure to them. I cannot wait for next year’s first release.

But those Pingus, good grief …

Fino Inocente in Zalamero Taberna

With all the new wines, labels and makers emerging in Jerez sometimes it is easy to forget the classics – the mountains in the background of the painting.

This fino is just such a classic. Possibly the most traditional, old school fino on the market and one that nevertheless ticks modern boxes: single pago and fermented in oak, it may be from one of the big producers but it is the antithesis of industrial.

And if you are going to be single pago, this is the one to be: Macharnudo. The most famous real estate in Jerez, and the fount of some of the best wines ever made in el marco. Of which, let’s be honest this is one.

Because it has everything you could ask of a fino. An aromatic nose of sea breeze, fresh baked bread and almond, then a palate of all those things but edged around with zingy salinity and a long, fresh, sea breeze and mineral finish.

Really top class.

Santa Ana Pedro Ximenez 1861

Lunch today featured a really outstanding finale – this quite superb, fruitful, elegant and compact old wine.

It is the oldest wine of probably the finest cellarmen around – Emilio Hidalgo. Makers of the killer Panesa fino and the finest amontillados, olorosos and palo cortados in Jerez, these guys have a touch of genius when it comes to caring for the wines in their butts.

This wine is probably the starkest example. When they are as old as this pedro ximenez wines can get twisted into all sorts of shapes but for whatever reason this maintains perfect form. It has the flavours and aromas of the inside of a raisin fruit but with a sharp acidity and a freshness that make it feel as light as a feather.

Almost too easy to drink, when you should really imbibe it drop by tiny drop.

The coravin is not something you write about often in sherry circles – sherry wines frequently have screw caps, or media tapones, or other closures, and even if they didn’t sherry wines are generally unbreakable under oxygen, whether for their powerful vinous frame or because they have been so long exposed to the elements, making the coravin unnecessary.

The coravin is nevertheless a fantastic invention. It’s cunning argon gas powered system allows top restaurants to sell us their most treasured wines by the glass and takes some of the guesswork about our own cellaring. But it really comes into its own when, say, it falls into the hands of a guy with a big, well stocked cellar of fantastic wines, fantastic knowledge acquired over many years of consumption and the kind of analytical approach to life for which horizontal and vertical tastings were invented.

Which is why is such cracking news for the internet, wine lovers, and wine in general for the stars have in fact aligned in just this manner.

In the interest of objectivity I should declare that I have known the author for going on 20 years and have benefitted enormously over that time from his cellar and generosity. Having said that, it also means I can bear witness: I have seen this man “tasting” wines in depth and on numerous occasions, and while I do not have his breadth of knowledge I can also certify that in relation to those wines I do know a lot about he is fundamentally sound. You could not find a better bloke to drink wines with, to talk about wines with, or to learn from and I wholeheartedly recommend following Cora the Explorer on her travels.


The shape of wines to come

This blog may not amount to very much but it has brought me into contact with some top class people, I have had some superb dinners and I have learned about some fantastic projects, for all of which I am very grateful. There was a bit of all three this week when I was able to have a cracking dinner in Taberna Verdejo with Carlos del Rio, who is not only a really nice bloke and great company but also one of the men behind probably the most exciting new project in Jerez in recent years.

Because as you surely must have heard, Carlos and his family (famous for Hacienda Monasterio) have teamed up with Peter Sisseck to start a new project in Jerez, acquiring the bodega and solera that produced Camborio until three years ago (three years already …, time flies when you are having fun) and, to judge by my conversation with Carlos this week, making some serious progress in the meantime.

First, they have acquired vineyards in Macharnudo and Balbaina (in el Cuadrado no less), where little by little they are busy inserting palomino de jerez clones to replace palomino fino. At the same time they have added to and reorganized the botas they acquired into two separate soleras: one producing a fino based on the rump of the Camborio solera but aimed at producing an altogether finer wine, with more criaderas and replenished from their vineyard in Balbaina, and a second that they have founded afresh, again producing fino and with wines taken 100% from their Macharnudo vineyard.

And they aren’t stopping there – what was one of the oldest of old school bodegas now has more high tech gear than Iron-man’s gaff, the absolute cutting edge, and there is more building work going on than in the lego movie. In fact in the course of a very pleasant dinner it became clear that these guys are literally not taking anything for granted but had explored and paying serious attention to literally every step in the wine making process. (And to think I was under the impression that they were just going to top and tail Camborio …)

The half dozen readers of this blog will know that this sort of thing is, in my opinion, exactly what the doctor ordered. A focus on terroir, vine, and proper wine making, with attention to detail down to the smallest speck of dust. There are a lot of excellent producers down in Jerez, and happily there are a few with a similar focus on winemaking and terroir, but it is frankly excellent news el marco that serious winemakers like these have come to the party and are prepared to not only get on the dance floor but also try out a few new moves. (And they have a lot of new moves in mind – I have never heard so many wine making ideas in one conversation.)

And to judge by the liquid accompaniment to our dinner they know what they are about too. Carlos brought two sacas from the Balbaina solera – one from October 2018 and one from June 2019, and they were frankly fascinating. The June 2019 was a classic fino, zingy and full of haybale aromas and burnt almond flavour – maybe a touch finer and fresher than that Camborio but a serious fino in its own right. And the October 2018 was something else entirely, much finer, more elegant, more Esparto grass than haybale and more a fine wine than a winey fino.

Frankly both of them are delicious and the kind of stuff you could drink hectoliters of, although unfortunately there aren’t going to be hectoliters. They expect to release the first wine next year and the 10,000 bottles have already been sold (these are not any ordinary winemakers) for distribution to lucky winelovers across two continents.

If you are able to get your hands on them they are going to be worth trying. In fact if you call yourself a sherry lover or wine lover at all this is a project that deserves your support. I am going back for a second dip Monday night at an event here in Madrid featuring Peter Sisseck himself and some relatively some well known wines from his other wineries up north and I am looking forward to that immensely.

In fact it brought to mind a comment Carlos made this week. He told me that Peter himself had said “I am lucky to have Pingus because it means I can also make wine in Jerez.” It is a great sentiment but he is only half right, because Jerez, and those of us who love the wines of Jerez, are just as lucky to have guys like him and Carlos, and projects like the one taking place at Calle San Francisco Javier 8.


Cork, Bilbao

A brief visit to an absolutely cracking wine bar in Bilbao – the legendary Cork, which was already a temple for sherry lovers when this blog was in short trousers and, despite the proliferation of competition since, has a selection of wines of the highest class. It is not often I go to a place these days where I am keen to try more than a couple of sherries, but here they had no less than eight that seemed to leap off the shelf.

A real quality line up, starting with Encrucijado 2014, the Manzanilla de Añada 2012 5/11, the original, 2015 saca of La Maruja Manzanilla Pasada, el Amontillado 3/10 by Alexander Jules, el Amontillado Olvidado by Sanchez Romate, oloroso VORS by Piñero, oloroso El Cerro, and an old bottle of the the now out-of-catalogue Medium from Barbadillo (gorgeous with gorgonzola). A really pleasing line up of wines and perfect restoration for a palate dulled by a long, hard day at the mill with only coffee and water for company.

Even better, they were accompanied by an equally varied and almost equally tasty lineup of very pleasant pintxos. Even even better, all that was accompanied by pairing advice and all around friendly chat of Jonathan, owner, enthusiast and gentleman.

There is no doubt that Cork is deserving of a place in the “must visit” category of winebars for sherry fans and winelovers in general. No sooner had I started on my little sherry flight than I found myself wishing I had started with some of the bubbles in the ice box, could find space for the trousseau staring me in the face or the other corkers lurking in the background.

Fantastic evening in a fantastic wine bar. I will be back!

Descubrir el Jerez with Los Generosos in La Canibal (aforo completo)

This blog often gets pelters for focussing on small production wines that are unavailable to 99% of readers, but to celebrate this year’s sherry week I am branching out into publishing events that you won’t be able to participate in either.

It is a pity because it is a cracking event, aimed at introducing the wines of Jerez to a wider audience, featuring a really nice selection of the different styles provided by the producers and Consejo Regulador, each of which will be spoken to by one of the Generosos, a club dedicated to drinking and the exaltation of drinking sherry wines of which I am proud to be a member, and in the convivial surroundings of La Canibal.

Such a good event, in fact, that it was already full (50+ signups) even before we had the poster ready. If by any chance you have already signed up I look forward to seeing you there!