Jerez and the weight of history

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to attend a really top class private dinner organized by Vila Viniteca to celebrate ten years since the release of their 75th anniversary wines, a series of 26 unique wines made by Spain’s leading names in their honour. The setting – Ramon Freixa at the Hotel Unico – was spectacular and I have to say the food was really excellent, but the stars were the wines and the winemakers.

We were joined by five of said leading names (above, from left to right): José Maria Ruiz (Pago de Carraovejas and Ossian); Telmo Rodriguez (Lanzaga, Matallana, Gago, Gaba do Xil, Viña 105, Basa, Pegaso, Al Muvedre and Molino Real); Ana Martin (Guitian, Terras Gauda and Itsasmendi ); Mariano Garcia (of Mauro, Aalto, Viña San Roman, and Garmon); and Victor de la Serna (Finca Sandoval, El Mundo and Elmundovino). They had each brought the wine they had contributed to the Collection and they were excellent on the night – five very different wines but they all had a lot of personality, from subtle richness and complexity through freshness, fruitfulness and all the way to structure and power before a superlative old malaga wine to fnish.

More importantly, they sang generously for their supper, sharing some entertaining accounts of their wines and thoughts on winemaking and since the viewpoints were far from uniform it is fair to say there followed a pretty healthy and lively debate. It was fascinating stuff and although a lot of different views were expressed it was hard to disagree with any of them. Almost everything was covered, from the merits of bulk and supermarket wine to the loss of the historic places, and it was this last theme, raised by Telmo Rodriguez, that really piqued my interest.

There was a bit of lively debate as to the relevance of the history of a vineyard, and understandably so: although established names, the winemakers around the table were also all pioneers. But there seemed to be consensus that there was much to be gained from knowing the history of the winemaking in a region, planting where the village elders recommend, learning from the techniques of days gone by and the like. But Telmo’s concern in particular was that the economics of modern winemaking made it difficult to justify historic but inaccesible vineyards, or at least to work them in the right way, and that really rang true.

Because if there is one winemaking area in Spain with historic places you can probably guess what it is. I am no wine historian and it seems at times that any wine making area worth its salt can trace its history back to the romans, but my impression is that Jerez has the kind of history that any region would envy: Columbus took it with him in 1492, Magellan was said to have spent more on sherry than on weapons, and Francis Drake started an innovative form of import business into the UK all before the end of the 16th Century. More importantly, I may not know much about history but I enjoy a bit of the bard and your man Shapesmoke seemed to enjoy a sherry.

Those historical headlines haven’t been forgotten – for better or worse they form a prominent part of the marketing of the wines from the region. But what struck me about the comments by Telmo and the other winemakers at the dinner, not for the first time, was how much of the real history of winemaking of the region has been forgotten: the vineyards that the phoenicians and romans were busy naming, the varieties that were cultivated and the techniques that were honed over centuries. It also struck me as ironic that this process of forgetting happened during precisely the period in which other regions were rising to prominence (both Vega Sicilia and modern Rioja are mid 19th Century, for example), and just as Telmo pointed out, that the reasons were often disguised as economic and scientific advances.

And so once again I had managed to go to a dinner at which there was no sherry and found myself thinking obsessively about sherry. Fortunately I didn’t have the chance to bore everyone about it out loud because the debate was, by that stage, high energy. But I have certainly had cause to reflect since, about winemaking and sherry, but also about history, and the conflict between modern history and, for want of a better term, real history.

 

 

 

 

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