I write a lot about terroir and vintages, to the point where it may come across that they are all that matter. That certainly is not the case. On the contrary, although it sounds an obvious point, it is a fact that the winemaking processes and, in particular, the ageing processes are absolutely central to making the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar what they are, to the point that they are ofen defined and categorized by the processes used rather than their characteristics as finished wines. I sometimes rebel at this – I occasionally feel that the process centered assumptions (like “the older the better”) get in the way of making the best wines possible, but it is undeniably one of the great strengths of the industry, because while the raw material will determine the possibilities of a wine in general, the processes and techniques that can be brought to bear in the cellar can contribute to creating wines with a staggering range of characteristics, from the utterly ethereal to the bogglingly concentrated and fierce.
At this Friday afternoon’s sherry palooza in Lavinia there was a great opportunity to try the wines of three bodegas that may not be making terroir specific or vintage wines but are making wines of considerable distinction and in that respect were maybe unfairly overlooked in the great EPS article Resurrection of the Wine last weekend: Emilio Hidalgo, Fernando de Castilla, and Bodegas Tradicion.
Emilio Hidalgo is family owned since its foundation in 1860 and is probably the bodega with the highest quality overall range of wines around: La Panesa, El Tresillo, El Tresillo 1874, Gobernador, Villapanes, Privilegio and Santa Ana (preblog but one I am going to have to have again). It is also a perfect example of a bodega focussed on the “other terroir”, where the specific characteristics of the bodega have a key influence on the wines that are produced. The supreme case is La Panesa, a fino that spends a staggering 15 years, on average, under flor, and is still recognizably a fino. What is really interesting is that the solera with the oldest finos is located in one specific room of the bodega; no other room allows a yeast population to survive on such old wines. That incredible age must also be a tribute to the cellar management and wine making skills of the bodega, since this must surely be the limit of what is technically possible in biological ageing. More generally, it is striking how clear an identity all the wines have – not just la Panesa but also the others have a really rich, savoury quality and density of flavour. Oldest of the old school – no dated sacas etc – but a very modern approach to just making the best wine they can.
Bodegas Tradicion, while a new winery in its current form, also has a historic connection with the wines of Jerez (the Rivero family previously owned “CZ”, one of the most historic brands) and have done as much as anyone to maintain that history alive with a great archive and exhibition. They are a bodega with a clear focus on solera ageing of the highest quality, albeit with one eye on the modern audience: all the wines indicate the date and size of saca, and even the number of the bottle. More importantly the wines, most of which would be classified as VOS (20 years old or more) or even VORS (30 years or more) have a recognizeable style. For me the star of the show is the VORS Amontillado (which I am shocked to learn has not been reviewed on this blog) but the Palo Cortado and Oloroso are not far behind and all the wines have a nice touch of citrus and an excellent structure (even the Pedro Ximenez and Cream, which I have only tried fleetingly, seem to have a more structured shape than you might expect). They have also been capable of producing finos with a long time under flor (an average of 12 years and for my money the successive sacas seem to get better). All this can only be a result of careful selection of mostos and cellaring perfection.
Last but not least, Fernando de Castilla is another relatively new winery in its current form but one that makes very matchable, high quality wines in the old school and, although the soleras may have been acquired from different sources, there is a recognisable identity and quality across the range of wines. Here my favourites would be the Antique Palo Cortado and Oloroso, but I find that all the wines have a nice acetaldehide profile and balance that makes them very easy to drink and pair with food. They are an interesting contrast to Tradicion because their wines don’t carry the VOS or VORS labels (indeed neither do the Emilio Hidalgo wines) and indeed probably don’t have the years required, but for me they are spot on age-wise: enough age to give them bite and character but young enough to be fresh and not astringent. Fernando de Castilla date the sacas of their Fino en Rama but not, as far as I am aware, the other bottlings.
Three great bodegas old and new that demonstrate just what can be achieved in the cellar. I can feel a glass or two coming on …