The Didactic Selection, Part II: under the flor

Part II of the Cuatrogatos Wine Club Didactic Selection of Vinos Galacticos y Didacticos: la Charanga, la Choza, la Maruja, Camborio (or the special bottling thereof by Mr Alex Jules), Blanquito, Origen and el Cerro.

Galacticos because they are all world class and Didacticos because they all tell a story that I believe is relevant to understanding Jerez as it is today. That they all come from small independent and pretty likeable producers is also a big part of it – the official history this is not.

Part I was top class – two lovely palomino wines that went down a treat – but with a bit of luck you still have a glass or two of those to sup alongside these two lads in Part II as we explore under the flor.

By that I mean two examples of biological ageing: ageing of a wine under the veil of flor. Probably the most distinctive single feature of winemaking in Jerez (and, let’s be fair, a number of other less famous regions), biological ageing is where butts are left two thirds full (or more, but with at least a bit of a gap between wind and water) so that the native yeasts of the region – and particularly the saccaromyces beticus that thrives in Sanlucar and the montuliensis up in Jerez – form a living, lipid barrier on the surface of the wine.

That barrier protects the wine from oxidation but does so much more: the flor eats away at the sugar, alcohol and glycerol in the wine, making it dryer, sleeker, finer and sharper, exposing its saline and mineral skeleton, and in return juicing it up with the acetaldehyde output of its synthesis. New flavours and aromas develop – all yeasty bakery, chamomile and nuts – and the already more white fruit and herbal than average flavours of the palomino are sharpened and concentrated into really punchy, compact profiles.

And that isn’t all, because the flor, a tiny organism that lives on the surface of a butt of wine, well, it came for a good time, not a long time. It lives fast, on alcohol, sugar and glycerol, and dies (predictably) young. When it does, it falls to the bottom of the butt where it finally settles down and gently decomposes, creating what we call the “cabezuelas” – a kind of elephants graveyard of rockstar flor molecules that pretty much does the job of the lees in less interesting wines. The cabezuelas give the wines body and structure, from a slippy oil in the younger wines to a thick buttery mouthfeel in the wines that have been a while in the barrel. It is an often overlooked but very important factor in the winemaking of Jerez.

But anyway, enough with the intro already, here we have two top class examples of what a lipid can do when it puts its mind to it: a manzanilla de Sanlucar and a fino de Jerez (or is it?)

First up is La Maruja, a manzanilla de Sanlucar. (Maybe it is an appropriate moment to remind everyone that only wines “criados” in Sanlucar can be called manzanilla – a name derived from the characteristic chamomile aromas of the wines in the olden days, when the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar were probably more distinct than they are today.) This is wine that has been produced over around 8-9 years in a solera with 8 “classes” (what the bodegas in Jerez call a criadera) – young wine and vigorous flor at the top, and you can guess what happens as they blend their way down to the solera.

The result is a wine that when compared to the white wines is noticeably more aromatic (that acetaldehyde), sharper and zingier from the salinity, more pungent on the palate and fresher, more mouthwatering on the finish (again from the salinity). This one is no relation to the white wines in vineyard terms – all the wine these days comes from Pago del Hornillo in Sanlucar – and of course it is probably at least 8 years older on average (while it cannot have a vintage, the label on mine tells me it was drawn in June 2019 (the L number tells you year and day – 19174 is June 23, 2019)) but still you can see the similarities and the differences and get an appreciation for the magic of the flor.

That aromatic nose, zingy start and fresh finish are what make manzanilla such a famous aperitif of course but there is so much more to this wine – for a start it has had much more than the mandatory three years of crianza and the concentration of flavours and the body and depth speak to a much older, more serious wine.

The first of the similarities with its brother in arms in this Part II: the fino en rama Camborio, a 10 year old wine from a saca also in June 2019.

Now Camborio as a wine has a fair bit of history, some of it pretty recent. This is the name of the wine that was made by Juan Piñero in a solera and bodega at Calle San Francisco Javier in Jerez until a couple of years ago, when said bodega and solera were acquired by no less a winemaker than the legendary Peter Sisseck, who picked it up together with his long time partner in Spain Carlos del Rio as the foundation of what is one of the most exciting projects in Jerez – Bodegas y Viñedos Balbainas. The new owners of the solera and bodega didn’t acquire the brand and probably didn’t count on the existing management taking 5,000 litres of the wine with them to create a new solera elsewhere (not that they were concerned – their interest in the solera, fascinatingly, was in those under rated cabezuelas) and so the Camborio really never went away, with these new sacas resurfacing in 2019.

So this wine is not the magical stuff from 2016 or 2017, but it is a pretty remarkable effort, with the solera built up again with wine sourced from some top producers. Neither is it, strictly speaking, a “fino de Jerez” but rather something altogether more remarkable – a fino de Sanlucar (and therefore should be your first choice in Bar La Manzanilla in Jerez).

And what about the contrast with the manzanilla? The difference in structure and concentration is impressive. In part that is a function of how these wines are made. Whereas the manzanilla hot foots it through eight classes in eight years and is bottled 8 or 9 times per annum, the Camborio takes a full decade to dawdle through three criaderas to the solera, where it mooches about before being bottled twice a year. Different strains of flor are at play too – a beticus is a sprinter, this requires the stately montuliensis. And of course the wine is different – here we have some wine from pago Añina and a lot from pago Macharnudo – higher altitude, higher concentration pagos that Hornillo.

But good grief it is a great wine – so concentrated, so serious on the nose, so saline, so sizzling on the salt and pepper finish. The thing is a beast. Gone are the high, sweet notes of la Choza – the structure is there but it has gone down in register and up in bite. A verse of Lorca springs to mind – “Camborio de dura crin” – top stuff.

And the fourth dimension, once again, comes from the people behind the wines. Here we have a single name: Juan Piñero, again a small producer but one who has built up a sensational range of wines of a very high class. La Maruja is 8/9 years old and if you like it trust me you will not believe la Maruja Pasada – one of the truly great wines. As for Camborio, well not much to add to the above, and on top of these there are some old old wines – including a cream – that deserve some serious attention. And I probably don’t need to tell you who advises the bodega on winemaking matters – there was a clue in Part I.

And here endeth lesson II – my iphone is out of battery and a siesta beckons. Hope you are enjoying these wines as much as I am – I can’t wait for lesson three.

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