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.

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