Ube Maina 2016

This is just a monster of a wine – so potent, savoury and saline.

It is made by Ramiro Ibañez from 100% palomino fino grown on barajuela albarizas in Finca la Charanga, Sanlucar. It has a marked “river influence” – relative concentration compared to the much fresher “atlantic” influenced wines from Miraflores and Atalaya, in the argot this is a much more horizontal wine.

You can see the colour – slightly dark gold, telling any observant quaffer that this is more than the average quaff, and if they didn’t notice that the nose is unmistakable: stewed apples and diesel, like a savoury riesling. But on the palate, oh my word, it is a beast. Solid block of flavour that just takes over the front of the tongue and mouth – savoury, savoury, and savoury, a hot salty finish on the tongue and then some afters – with those jammy stewed apples coming through.

Really outstanding, superb wine, but a wine that is unique to the South of Spain. It is the opposite of fruity – not dry, but savoury – and it has bite and concentration. Really among the best I can remember and I cannot believe I just opened the last one because it also has legs.

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.

Encrucijado 2015

The fruitiest saltiest white wine you will ever try, and one of the jammiest from Sanlucar. This wine has a very special place in the affections of this blog and blogger for personal reasons but it is a very special wine in its own right.

It is a blend of palomino, perruno and uva rey, three of the many originally autoctonous varieties of the region, whose presence side by side in the same vineyards were the original reason for the variety of wines that came out the other end.

In this one the oxidative inclination of the uva rey and the jammy perruno, together with a decent spell of flor and oxidation, make this wine, which would have been a very nice, bota fermented palomino, into something altogether different and unique.

Bottled after 20 months or so, the four years in the bottle have suited this down to the ground – it has grown in every direction and is now a massive wine – even a massive cucumber as they say down there. A beautiful rich colour and lovely on the nose – ripe melon and baked fruit -, then a palate and finish that manages to be jammy, salty, and fresh.

Fantastic.

Ube las Vegas el Carrascal 2017

Ube: The original

No jokey posts this time or corny lines, serious business tonight with a serious wine. This is the original UBE, one of the first really serious unfortified palomino wines I ever tried and with each passing vintage I am more convinced that it is one of the very best.

It is from the las Vegas vineyard in El Carrascal de Sanlucar, a plot with old, ungrafted vines of some of the original palomino varieties, palomino fino, palomino de jerez, and pelúson (aka big hairy palomino) growing on the loose, antehojuela albarizas of Carrascal de Sanlucar, one the most Atlantic influenced pagos of Sanlucar and el marco. It is fermented in bota and then spends another 20 months there – without flor – growing into this beast of a white wine. Since then it has been a good year and a bit in the bottle already although I think it is fairly recently released.

All that time in the making: a vine that had been slaving away for over 100 years, fruit that spent 2017 making itself, 20 months in the barrel and a year and half in the bottle. And after all that he bottle disappeared in the blink of an eye. One moment it was there. The next moment, it was no longer there.

But what a moment there was in between. This is not only an excellent example of what unfortified palomino is all about it is a truly lovely wine on any terms. In colour (slightly dark gold), aroma (citrus, herbs and sea breeze) and above all on the palate, where it has incredible range and even more extraordinary finesse, it is just a remarkable sup. That range goes all the way from white flowers to stewy herbs, passing through white fruits, jammy fruits, and sweet herbs on the way. And it does it with understated power and an elegance and clarity that is really quite remarkable.

Yes I enjoyed it. What often happens when I open one of these is that three go down in quick succession but that is not happening this time. Iron discipline is at work, but so is the shortage of supply. I am going to quickly sort out the latter, and we will see about the former.

Night of the mayetos in Sagrario Tradicion

They say better late than never so here is a long overdue write up of a cracking night – all of three months ago during sherry week – when we celebrated one of my favourite projects in one of my favourite places.

The project in question is the “Mayeteria Sanluqueña”: José Manuel “Manu” Harana, Rafael Rodriguez, Antonio Bernal and Daniel Rodriguez, four “mayetos” that make up one of the most intriguing stories in el marco de Jerez.

“Mayeto” is the traditional term in Sanlucar for a small scale grower – of anything really (if you haven’t tried the potatoes from a navazo you haven’t tried real potatoes) – but particularly vitis vinifera. Historically these small producers have played a big role in the wines of Jerez: mayetos have been responsible for a large proportion of production, although at least in recent years their numbers and production have fallen, and have tended to be limited to supplying the cooperatives and larger bodegas.

But now with the inspiration and help of the great viticultor and winemaker Ramiro Ibañez the mayetos of the Mayetería Sanluqueña have started once again to make their own wines. They are unfortified wines from palomino fino sold under the brand “Corta y Raspa” from vineyards in some of the most emblematic and famous “pagos” of Jerez and Sanlúcar: Añina, Atalaya, Charruado, Maína and Miraflores. They make them from their best, oldest vines, with a production of less than 7,000 kg per hectare (a condition of being part of the project, in a region where it is not unusual for yields to be more than 11,000 kg/ha) and using artisanal, traditional winemaking techniques.

And the result is a series of wines that are fresh, drinkable, but which express the characteristics of the vines and vineyards like no other. We are talking honest wines with minimal intervention that let you clearly feel the influence of the altitude, location, climate and type of the famous albarizas.

The only pity is how hard it is to find and enjoy them – here in Madrid or anywhere else for that matter. (Although you can get them from the Cuatrogatos Wine Club). So when I was asked by my good friends at Sagrario Tradicion – a fantastic new restaurant here in the neighbourhood – what they could do for sherry week it didn’t take me long to further my agenda of bringing these wines within reach.

Were it not for the awful year that 2020 has been we would have had the mayetos come and present their wines to a packed house. That was not to be – but we were able to get hold of the few bottles that remained so that Nico and his crew at Sagrario could pair them up with their quality cooking. Specifically we were able to get the Atalaya 2018, “La Charanga” (Maina) 2018 and “La Charanga” (Maina) 2017.

They are wines that come from vines a small distance apart – just 2,8km – but despite being neighbours, the difference in the albarizas, together with the degrees of humidity and freshness in the vines, result in a vegetation of the vine, thickness of the skin of the fruit, concentration, and other possible parameters that give identity and character that make the vineyard recognizable in the wineglass.

In the words of the mayetos themselves:

Atalaya is a pago near Sanlúcar, with “lentejuela” or “antehojuela” albarizas, with a high chalk content, but a looser, less compact structure, allowing an easier development of the roots and vegetation of the top side. It is at about 55 metres above sea level (above the magic 45 metres celebrated in “Cota 45”) and is closer to the sea, with the effects of the fresh, humid winds of the poniente (from the sea). The wine is dry, sapid, saline, and structured without losing freshness and acidity.

Maina is a pago (slightly) further inland, but with more influence from the river and the winds of the “levante”. The poniente winds are weakened by the pago Hornillos (Callejuela), Martin Miguel, and Atalaya that bear their brunt. The altitude is higher, at between 65 and 75 metres. The albariza here is barajuela, the toughest. It is very rich in calcium and structured in layers, making the development of the roots difficult and leading to lesser top vegetation. The wines are very direct, dry and potent, the most sapid of them all. It is the pago richest in content of “diatomeas” (fossils of microscopic organisms) in the marco de Jerez, giving the wine great impact on the palate.

On the other hand, in the case of La Charanga we were able to try the different qualities of two different vintages: the 2017, with a very warm summer which obliged the growers to bring forward the harvest, and the 2018, a year with abundant rain and a very cool summer which obliged them, on the contrary, to delay the harvest to September for the first time in many years.

A tantalising prospect and it turned out to be an absolutely great week by all accounts. I am not sure how many people pitched up – although Sagrario is always busy anyway – but if everyone who sent me a message did then they must have been standing in the aisles. It was fair packed when a group of like minded souls and I rocked up and availed ourselves of the opportunity before the curfew, and neither Sagrario nor the wines disappointed.

From the first I had thought of the two as a perfect match – in Sagrario they like their natural, terroir driven wines for a start, with Nico having been the man behind more than one in his time – but the obsession with tradition and nature isn’t only a wine thing. I will never forget Nico telling me all about where the frogs that generously donated their legs to the cause of his pisto were from and why. But just in general it is a place for simple but imaginative and always nicely carried out preparations of top quality produce and the menu they came up for with the mayetos was no exception.

And the wines, well they were three little beauties – only 2.8km and 12 months in it but three lovely wines that were as different as you could ask for. A perfect demonstration of the potential of the terroir of Sanlucar and Jerez and one of the best wine experiences for a long time.

Sherry Week 2020 – in Madrid and worldwide

Sherry Week 2020 is upon us and, while understandably restrained this year, it is still a great excuse/opportunity to try a glass of one of the world’s great wines. If you’d like to find an event – whether a tapas and sherry offer or a full blown tasting menu – there is a cracking searchable map on the Sherry Wines Website.

In Madrid as always we are well looked after. In Madrid every week is Sherry Week – whether in its Sherry Temples, Palo Cortado, Surtopia, Corral de Moreria or A’Barra, or its wine temples, lead by Angelita Madrid and la Fisna, or the restaurants and taverns with outstanding lists of sherries like Zalamero, Taberna Verdejo, la Canibal, Lakasa, la Taberna de Pedro, La Malaje, Media Ración, Kulto, Triciclo, la Antoja, the “new” Venencia … there are many and I am bound to forget some for which I apologize in advance (luckily I can edit this post later).

But this week there are 29 different locations listed in Madrid, including in the aforementioned Canibal, Pazo de Lugo, Kulto, Distinto, la Antoja, and many others – the full list is on the website – but at the risk of upsetting some very good friends, one event stands out to me: “La Mayeteria Sanluqueña in Sagrario Tradicion”.

La Mayeteria Sanluqueña is one of the greatest things in the new landscape of Jerez (in this case Sanlucar) and the event – a menu paired with wines from two of the mayetos from two pagos that are close by but express different stories, and two vintages – 2017 and 2018 – that express very different times. In fact I should declare an involvement here – Nico asked me for a suggestion of how to take part in sherry week and that was all the excuse I needed to further my agenda on all fronts. I love the traditional wines of Andalucia in all their forms, but palomino, vintage and terroir are my bag in a big way, and if you throw in artisans and tradition, and if the wine is as good as these are …

So get down to your local sherry event, and if you can find them, check out the mayeteria!

UBE Carrascal 2015 – in Taberna Palo Cortado

This was the original UBE and still my favourite overall. From Carrascal de Sanlucar, the freshest and most vertical of the great pagos in el marco, but from old vines and a low yielding vineyard that produces wines of relative potency and concentration.

It is of course 100% palomino (although with Ramiro other options are available), from three different clones – palomino fino, palomino de jerez and palomino pelusón (which intriguingly translates as big hairy palomino). It is fermented in bota and then spends another 20 months there, without flor, after which this one has been another three and a half years in the bottle.

That period in the bottle has really brought it on – as I so often find with palomino white wines – and the result is a highly enjoyable, fresh but flavourful white wine.

As you can see, it has taken on a very attractive old gold colour, clearly darker in shade than I remember it, and it has a very distinctive nose, chalky interlaced with lemon but with a hint of stewy herbs in the background. In fact those herbs come through more and more as the wine opens up. Really interesting balance of mineral, fruit and savoury. Then on the palate more of the same, the effect of the chalk, the fresh start and a nice, generous mouthful of citrus and herbal fruit before slipping away in a long fresh finish.

Plenty to enjoy here, a really excellent wine, and that savoury character makes it a great wine for one of the cheeky lunches I have missed so much …

Navazos Niepoort 2018 in Coalla Madrid

Aperitivo o’clock in a bustling Coalla Madrid and nothing better to wash down your berberechos than a glug or two of this white wine from pago Macharnudo.

One of the first unfortified white wines from Jerez – the first vintage was back in 2008 – this project by Equipo Navazos with one of the story of Jerez’s unsung heroes, Dirk Niepoort aims at recreating the wines of Jerez in centuries past. From 100% palomino fino from the famous albariza of macharnudo, fermented in bota and no fortification, with only a few months of spontaneous flor.

It is delicious stuff – fresh, saline and aromatic, with a suggestion of white fruit and a touch of the old esparto grass. Fruit, mineral, herb in a lovely balance, and very elegant. The berberechos were also top class it must be said and a better pairing I cannot think of.

Marvellous – with wines like this by the glass no wonder Don Ramon is enjoying Madrid!

Vendimia 2017 de Faustino Gonzalez

So here is a new addition to the growing variety of “blanco de albariza” on offer from the small producer behind the Cruz Vieja fino and others.

These guys have some serious real estate – the fino shares its roots with some of the great wines of Jerez’s past, so I was interested to try this in Taberna Verdejo recently.

As you can see, it is a beautiful old gold colour, crystal clear (apologies for the condensation), then a nose and palate of beefy herbs and grapey fruit. On the palate there is that tingle of salinity up front, those flavours and then a finish that is part jammy, part mineral and part fresh.

A cracking tipple – albariza in glass.

Socaire Oxidativo 2015

Unquestionably the wine of a pretty good summer. In fact Mrs Undertheflor even asked me earlier this evening, knowing we had bagged a few unicorns over the course of the vacations, and it was gratifying that there was at least some interest in my opinion on this occasion so I thought I might share it more widely.

You see I knew Socaire Oxidativo 2015 was excellent but last week I had one of those rare opportunities to explore the wine from every angle – and it was one of those even rarer moments when a wine thus explored got better the more I explored.

I was fortunate enough to be in Chiclana for my holidays – beautiful beaches and climate, some really top class restaurants -, even more fortunate in that Primitivo Collantes himself was kind enough to show myself and some good friends around his vineyards and bodega, and even even more fortunate that he was generous enough to let us taste the oxidativos from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 (and of course the other Socaire, the Arroyuelo en Rama and the Fossi, not to mention the new sensation, “Tivo”).

Now Primitivo Collantes SA is one of the few bodegas I have actually visited, and probably a principal cause of my recommendation to anyone really interested in a wine to go and visit the makers. It is a special organization lead by a special individual. It is the only bodega in Chiclana – aside from the coop – to grow and harvest grapes in Chiclana and make its own wine, and the last survivor of a once very proud tradition in these parts. And it plays its part in that tradition too, withe some venerable wines and styles: Arroyuelo is a great fino, Fossi a superb amontillado.

But its great wines, for me, are those that go by name of Socaire. The first Socaire was revolutionary in its day – a barrel fermented, bota aged unfortified palomino from the sheer white soils of Finca Matalian that blazed with zest and expression in its first vintage, and subsequently has shown with power, complexity, elegance and every combination thereof year after year. Really one of the great modern wines from the region.

And now this. The difference between the two is one of age – this is what happens when Socaire gets more than two years of bota age, and starts to show its fondness for the oxygen that surrounds us.

And what a transformation that time brings. The 2019 was a refined mosto – fuzzy and rampant, for all that it had nearly 11 months in the bota. The 2018 was finer, a real wine now, but still spiky and up for it. 2017 was finer and more elegant, losing those spikes and almost holding itself in. And then 2016 had grown again: aromatic, full of flavour and character, a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. In terms of barrel tasting (well, not really, 2016 was going into the bottle already) it was as good as I have experienced – a real anatomy of the creation of a wine. And then of course we tasted it next to the 2015, with its year in the bottle and its polish.

It was an outstanding introduction to the wine, and was soon followed by the horizontal dimension, as we tasted it next to the other wines from the same exceptional vineyard (Finca Matalian, now you ask), including the upstart “Tivo” from the traditional Chiclana Uva Rey. If the vertical gave us an anatomy of a wine in the making the horizontal gave us its geography – it was like looking at old family portraits of a dear friend and spotting all the familiar features of sisters and brothers.

And those features are the features of an outstanding white wine. Lower in register than some of those appearing further North, this is mountain flowers and sweet herbs on the nose, aromatic and rich, then a lovely elegant profile delivering those same flavours on a steely frame of salinity, which leaves your mouth watering as you finish.

An outstanding wine from an excellent producer, a beautiful place and thoroughly good family. My wine of the summer 2020 is Socaire Oxidativo!