The Wines of Alba Viticultores Revisited 

A fantastic lunchtime tasting yesterday with a few good friends at Wine Attack. The subjects were the wines of Alba Viticultores and to an extent the occasion was a return to a similar tasting a year or so ago.

There were of course differences. That first tasting was the first time I and my colleagues really got to grips with these wines, and there was a sense of freshness and discovery that it would be impossible to repeat. But there were also similarities: some of the wines we tasted yesterday were in fact the same wines with more time in rima, and others were only subtly different to the wines we had tasted before.

There was also a return to one of the big topics of conversation around the wines of Alba Viticultores: their price. These tend to be, by the standards of the sherry region, relatively expensive (roughly €15-€40). However, it strikes me as curious what a big issue this seems to be for those who have been involved in the two tastings (particularly since I paid for the wines on both occasions). First, they are hand made, largely natural, small production wines. Second, if the wines sell then I am not going to argue with the prices (and they certainly seem to, – it is certainly not easy to get them). In fact, to me it is almost preferable that the wines are scarce and that the bubbles have similar price points to grower producer champagnes, for example.

More importantly, the tasting was a confirmation of the quality of the wines. The seven wines were generally excellent, a couple of them were really excellent, they prove that with the right care you can indeed make sparkling and unfortified white – and even rosé – wines with palomino, and all down the list there was a demonstration of palomino fino’s ability to express terroir and vintage.

And it was also a lot of fun. The food and snacks laid on by Antonio, Carlos and the team at Wine Attack were first class, the surroundings could not have been more congenial – sitting around a big kitchen table in the back room – and there was even more laughter than wine. Despite the detailed discussion of Manchester music and dancing greats down the ages I even managed to take a few notes, which I will write up shortly, but for the time being, many thanks to everyone for coming along and my compliments once again to Alba Viticultores for some cracking stuff.


Lunch with Bodegas Alvear 

The most magnificent lunch today at Lúa with Bodegas Alvear and a chance to try a “vertical” of the full range of their fantastic new releases. As always I will need some time to write up my notes but it was a class occasion: seven very different bottles, some of them pure magic. The differences were fascinating in fact. 100% pedro ximenez all the way but wines of every style and flavours and aromas of every kind. 

The food wasn’t half bad either – we let the sommelier pick the food and everything from the ensaladilla to pulpo, to mollejas, to merluza and on to canutillos was perfect with the wines (I am forgetting at least one thing too). Highly enjoyable and a real effort to go back to work afterwards.

Ramiro Ibañez in Surtopia – 2017

Surtopia 2017

With apologies for the late notice, this is a shout out to anyone in the Madrid area: today and tomorrow Ramiro Ibañez will be putting in a shift as sommelier in the little corner of Madrid that most resembles his hometown Sanlucar, Surtopia.

Aside from the chance to meet the man himself, a special menu has been arranged to be paired with five wines brought by Ramiro and all for the modest sum of €60.

Last year’s edition was top drawer – see posts here, here and here – and although I have no idea if the plan is similar it is a great opportunity, or excuse, to get out and have some interesting wines. So see you there later!

Jose María Quiros (Bodegas Tradicion) in Taberna Palo Cortado 

A fantastic evening last Monday tasting six unique and exceptional wines in the company of Jose María Quiros, winemaker at Bodegas Tradicion, amongst friends in Taberna Palo Cortado. The wines included a month old fino, freshly drawn from one of the two original botas of fino that later inspired their current soleras, a “forgotten” palo cortado from the Sacristia, a quite exceptional 1975 vintage oloroso, a bottle of the Battle of Trafalgar bicentenary oloroso, an ancient but fruitful pedro ximenez and one of the most flavourful and complex brandies I have come across in a long time.

Fino de Solera “El Origin”, Saca de Abril 2017.  The fino came from botas were apparently originally acquired in 2006 together with other wines used to refresh the exceptional amontillado solera. At that time, the owner of the bodega’s declared intention was to focus on grand old wines rather than finos, but Jose Maria tucked two botas away in a corner and, after some time static ageing, started drawing and bottling them in 2009. The wines were such that he convinced the owners to invest in fino production and the rest is history: they now have 280 botas devoted to fino production, and the solera is still growing towards a target of 480 botas. These original botas haven’t been in a corner in the intervening years, however – they have been part of that solera, although Jose Maria reckoned they still had a particular character, and had drawn wine from both original botas before selecting one of the two.

The wine itself was a typically compact, elegant and fresh fino, despite its venerable age. Compared to the recent springtime sacas it didn’t seem to have the same degree of saline incisiveness but what it might have lacked in penetration it certainly made up for in aroma and flavour: had lovely bakery and apple flavours on the nose, like apple tarts, and even a little chamomile. Then on the palate it had a really fine zingyness to it – like a saline outline to the profile – and again nice flavours, again bakery, more baked apple and tending to bitter almonds. Top drawer, and the 2017 springtime saca when it comes looks like being a goody.

Solera Palo Cortado “Bota de la Sacristia”. This was wine that had originally been part of the palo cortado solera but which had been set aside in 2003 in half botas of 250 l botas and quite literally forgotten about – not refreshed, moved, or even touched since then. After those 14 years alone in close proximity with the american oak of the half bota the colour was deep and the nose was woody: lots of church furnitire, cigar box and even cigar tobacco, maybe some chocolate or coffee in the background. On the palate it was even more intense – intensely dry and acidic first up, those same woody caramel, very bitter dark chocolate and tobacco flavours and an equally sharp finish. Super intense: you can imagine this getting a heap of points in a cata, but maybe just a bit over the top.

Oloroso Tradición de Añada 1975. Of the wines, this with the fino was the highlight for me. It had a nose that was super fine and aromatic, a lot of of volatile, but if there was lacquer here it was laced with sweet spices and ginger and fine fresh sawdust. On the palate too there was that incisive freshness from the volatile, zingy salinity and crispness and flavours of sweet spices and rich caramel, fading to a really lovely long, sweetly spiced finish. After the super intense Palo Cortado this was super drinkable and elegant – maybe it was favoured by the contrast but even so.

Oloroso “Bicentenario Trafalgar”, Saca 2007. This was the only wine I had had before, a solera oloroso that had had 10 years in the bottle. Unfortunately, while the other bottle I tried had a thrilling, brandy-like aromatic nose, this one was really closed up and had a pungent air of reduction about it: one of the risks you take if you don’t drink these up I guess.  On the palate it was still full of vigour, good acidity and salinity and slightly bitter almond caramel, cigar box and tobacco flavours, before a slightly sour finish that seemed accentuated by the bitterness on the nose.

Pedro Ximenez Tradición VORS (one of 400 bottles). Now this was a regal old wine: age guessed to be around 50 years, and it had all the qualities of a real old Jerez pedro ximenez. Dark as midnight, thick and coating the glass, with nose full of caramel, roasted nuts, peppery spices but, above all and despite the age, raisiny fruit. On the palate too, enough acidity, bitter dark chocolate and spice to balance and freshen the wine, but plenty of soft currant fruit character, fading to a long finish with the burnt caramel bitterness of the nose. Really fantastic stuff in fact.

Brandy Solera Anticuario. Last but not least came a brandy from a solera originally created by the legendary Agustin Blazquez, one of Jose María’s former employers. That brandy had been housed in pedro ximenez botas which were not acquired by Tradición, the brandy instead being housed in oloroso botas. The solera is now used to blend into Tradición’s own exceptional brandy, but this bottle was drawn from the original source and was as full of flavour a brandy as I can remember. Had that burnt wood colour, vanilla and noble wood nose, but a nice nutty sweetness – nutmeg was suggested and was dead on- and then the palate was exceptionally smooth for all the alcohol (48º) and concentration (over an estimated 40 years). Amazing also to see the tubidity of it: the effect of evaporation of alcohol that had literally absorbed particles from the barrel. A very, very dangerous liquid indeed, and it wasn’t even nine pm.

Jose María Quiros. The highlight, however was the opportunity to hear the thoughts of Jose María Quiros, one of the top winemakers in the region and a guy with the responsibility for some of its finest old wines. He spoke with considerable technical expertise but also a tangible passion and enthusiasm for the wines and an understanding of them as such, had a good sense of humour and I have to say I thought he was an absolutely top bloke.

It was fascinating to hear him discuss the kinds of wine they were trying to make, the reasons why and the methods used to achieve them, and in particular, his views on the challenges of making vintage wines. For instance, his focus on finding a balanced acidity and concentration in the wine and for avoiding excess, whether in those aspects or in the acetaldehides that can make finos so aromatic but can also make them less stable and more prone to evolution in the bottle. On that subject, I found his thoughts struck a chord with my own observation of how high acetaldehide wines tended not to age as well – or at least showed themselves more prone to evolution – and about the transformation of those acetaldehides into bitter and metallic notes over time. It made me reflect on a memorable vertical of the Tradición finos and how well they appeared to hold up over time (not that they get the time to evolve in this house).

It was also immensely cheering to hear that some 2015s have been set aside for ageing as vintage wines (remind me in 20 years or so) and of the increasing importance being placed on pago and terroir. I got the sense that in this case there wasn’t a lot of conviction that single pago wines were necessarily better than the carefully selected wines they currently sourced, but they did seem convinced of the marketing benefit of being able to name the pago, which is good news in itself.

And after all that, while not sure I have extracted full value from my notes, I certainly extracted full value from an exceptional tasting with one of the real experts. I also had a ball amongst a lot of good friends, and there can be no better surroundings than Taberna Palo Cortado, particularly when the delicious tapas start to appear as if by magic. Many thanks again to Jose María, Lorenzo and Miguel from Tradicion for a memorable evening and to Pakui at Palo Cortado for hosting us on her night off. Bravo all round!






Eduardo Ojeda in Lavinia 

As you can see from the compressed nature of the collage above, a fella was present at a fantastic evening in Lavinia this week. A dinner with the great Eduardo Ojeda of Grupo Estevez (including Valdespino and La Guita) and, of course, Equipo Navazos. And my kind of dinner too: six courses with a mere 13 wines and a brandy. It was a top evening in every respect, with first class wines, excellent knowledge from the horse’s mouth, good food, and charming company.

The tasting was also cleverly structured. After a nice refreshing glass of Tio Mateo as an aperitif, and as the collage above shows (if you look closely), with each course we had wines from both sides of el marco – La Guita/Miraflores (Sanlucar) and Valdespino/Macharnudo (Jerez), respectively – and with increasing age/intensity.

Valdespino is famously a single pago brand, but it was interesting to hear that, since acquiring La Guita in 2007, the group was also attempting to be far more selective in sourcing for that business and in particular to focus on Pago Miraflores (where the historic La Guita house can be seen). (It was also very interesting to see an emphasis in the tasting on single vintage wines, particularly the recent vintages but also some wines that were around 15 years old, although they are not commercially available.)

Round 1: Miraflores Joven (a sample of the Florpower 2015) and Valdespino Ojo de Gallo 2015. Two young unfortified palominos from these two famous pagos and I found the comparison very interesting. The Ojo de Gallo was recognizably macharnudo and had that breadth and flavour but the Miraflores, while of course not a finished wine, had not only a fresher profile but what seemed like more punch on the nose and palate. Very curious contrast between the two and really set the scene for the wines to follow.

Round 2: La Guita (bottled in 2011) and Fino Inocente, also with time in the bottle. These are both classic, fortified and solera aged wines and, as you would expect, they were noticeably finer than the wines that had gone before. Actually the second time I had tried this 2011 bottling of La Guita and with a couple of years extra time in the bottle it seemed to have not only evolved but also improved, with a lot more hazelnut nuttiness than you might normally expect. The Inocente was fantastic – just like the first wine it seemed quiet and restrained at first but soon opened up and showed its class, with hay bales/esparto grass on the nose and that big, yeasty/bready/nutty palate. Not as evolved as the La Guita and I honestly couldn’t have told you that it had spent time in the bottle had it not said so on the menu.

Round 3: La Guita Amontillado (bota sample) and Amontillado Tio Diego. Two really class wines with the next course: amontillados from Sanlucar and Jerez respectively. Again a fascinating contrast, the Sanlucar wine offering up crunchy bar on the nose and hazelnut and roast apple sauce flavours on the palate while the Tio Diego had more caramel and dairy notes, again big hay bales and punchier fruit, more like marmalade than apple sauce.  I had kept a glass of Inocente alive and it was fascinating to hear that the Tio Diego and Inocente came from soleras in parallel and with the same number of criaderas – the principal difference being not the total age but the speed of rotation down the solera (one saca and rocio per year rather than two).

Round 4: Miraflores Palo Cortado 2003 and Valdespino Macharnudo 2001. Two single vintage wines that are very sadly not commercially available. The Miraflores Palo Cortado might have been the wine of the night and had a bit of everything, a beautiful rich amber colour, a nutty sweetness on the nose and a beautifully elegant toffee, nut and mineral palate. As is now de rigeur there was some discussion as to why it was a palo cortado and Eduardo’s explanation was simple: it smells and tastes like one (some subtleties may have been lost in the summary). By its side the Macharnudo 2001 maybe didn’t sparkle quite as brightly but was a delicious wine in its own right. More serious, with less sweetness and more haybales on the nose and a deeper nutty and zingy palate, but still elegant and balanced. What really struck me about these two wines, however, was the contrast in profile – the vertical, fresh feel to the Sanlucar wine compared to its horizontal, fuller Jerez counterpart – a difference that seemed as clear as it had with the first two wines.

Round 5: Amontillado Coliseo and Palo Cortado Cardenal. Now these two wines are both Valdespino but even so we maintain the distinction between Sanlucar and Jerez: the Coliseo is an outrageously old amontillado refreshed only with manzanilla while the Cardenal is of course refreshed with fino. They were both absolutely epic and worthy of a tasting to themselves. The Coliseo is like a highly polished wooden javelin: dark mahogany in colour, a punchy, furniture-polish nose and then incredibly saline and dry on the palate with woody flavours of black treacle, burnt cake and pipe tobacco. The Cardenal, by comparison, is a massive war axe, with a salty, iodine and burnt caramel nose and just an enormous palate of treacle and roasted nuts, incisive zingy salinity and sharp acidity.

Round 6: Moscatel Promesa and Moscatel Toneles. I must admit that by this stage of the dinner, with any spitting discipline a distant memory, my critical faculties were not everything they might have been and, as I have had occasion to mention before, the sweeter wines are not absolutely my satchel. Nevertheless, although the notes may be pretty patchy the mental fog isn’t thick enough to obscure the fact that these were two cracking wines. The Promesa I hadn’t tried before and was very good – nice light, marmalade nose and a decent edge to the palate – and what can you say about Toneles?

Finally out came the brandy to finish me off altogether: the Maximum Brandy de Jerez Palomino 100% 2014. A pretty interesting one too, incorporating a blend of styles and finishes, date specific and 100% palomino (as you may have guessed). A punchy, high quality end to an excellent tasting and evening that was as educational as it was enjoyable.



Big weekend in Madrid 

Big couple of days coming up here in the capital. Tomorrow not one but two top class events: Primitivo Collantes in Taberna Palo Cortado and Eduardo Ojeda of Equipo Navazos and the Estevez Group in Lavinia. Then, on Friday night a festival of Jerez, also at Lavinia.

Hard decisions have to be made and I will only be able to attend one of the three: Eduardo Ojeda in Lavinia. It is a shame because Primitivo Collantes gave anabsolute masterclass in Enoteca Barolo recently and last year’s feria at Lavinia was cracking fun. (There was a similar clash a little while ago – Ramiro Ibañez at Taberna Palo Cortado at the same time as Antonio Barbadillo at Lakasa.)

Anyway, my loss but I hope the rest of you have more luck!

Unveiling the mystery: Gonzalez Byass and its Palo Cortados 

A really impressive tasting this one: the chance to taste Gonzalez Byass’ vintage palo cortados, including not just the current release but past and future releases too, and with Antonio Flores himself on hand to lead the tasting. The event was organized by the Unión Española de Catadores and due to the large number of attendees hosted by Gonzalez Byass themselves in their (pretty flash) Madrid headquarters.

Given the quality of the wines and the surroundings though I was surprised by a couple of aspects of the organization. First, the wines were served in very nice Riedel glasses but, as you can see above, glasses with not much more diameter than a traditional catavinos, whereas for wines of this age, concentration and complexity I would have killed for a bigger glass. Second, the wines had all been served before we arrived – hard to say how long before but it seemed a goodish while – and as a result the wines were at a warmish room temperature when they would probably have shown better a few degrees cooler.

Anyway, we soon got underway and you have to say Antonio Flores is a showman. He had us all imagining we were transported to Jerez for the evening (not hard to do given the sunshine outside and the aromas filling the room) before launching into an account of the history and origins of palo cortados, with equal measures of charisma, shtick, photographic and documentary evidence, graphs representing chemical changes in the wine over time and anecdotes that you would call both historic and historical. For me it was particularly interesting to hear Antonio reference with approval the views of the Sobrinos de Haurie, and in particular Ramiro Ibañez, acknowledging the relevance of the original añada wines, the importance of terroir and the quality of the mosto and even the role and importance of Sanlucar in the development of the solera process. However, Antonio is clearly a believer in the “mystery” that the title of the tasting referred to and kept returning to the mysterious, accidental or incidental origins, in particular involving cunning old capataces, and concluding that palo cortado was wine with not only a soul but actual fairies in it. (Fair enough: the man is described as the “Poet of Jerez” after all.)

While all this was still being explained I got stuck into the wines and a fascinating flight it was too. Gonzalez Byass reserve 200 botas each year (out of 26,000 produced) of first press wines using a specific kind of press whose name now escapes me. The botas are american oak and have 100l of air to allow the wines to develop, and when ready/in the best years, they release 987 bottles. Once those 987 bottles are consumed they move on to the next vintage. (And this really did strike me as a mystery, since 200 botas can produce quite a bit more than 987 bottles – either I am getting something wrong here or a lot of wine is being kept for some ulterior purpose.)

The first wine up was Leonor, not a vintage wine but Gonzalez Byass’ 12 year old palo cortado. A first press, fermented in stainless steel, fortified and aged in a solera. The resulting wine is 20% proof has 6g/l of residual sugar and a nice 4.2g/l of acidity. The sugar is there in the honey and nut aromas and although the sugar isn’t as evident on the palate it is a juicy caramel with a bit of spice and bite. Very decent indeed.

The first of the vintage wines was the Añada 1994, which the excellent ficha told us came from an extremely dry year with only 35 days of rain (347mm) and an average temperature of 19.7C. It was a punchy 21.5% proof, had 5.2g/l of residual sugar, 7.1g/l tartaric acid and 1g/l acetic acid and was absolutely top drawer. It had a fine, brandy-like nose of roasted nuts and spices, and a searing palate which after a first, acidic attack delivered a big, long mouthful of nuts and spices, even dried fruits like figs. I was surprised to hear Antonio say that he thought the wine lacked something on the palate – I found it had plenty of character.

Next up was Añada 1989 – wet year, with 76 days of rain (694 mm), warm with an average temperature of 20.1C. 21% vol, 7.0g/l tartaric acid, 0.82g/l acetic acid, 5g/l sugar. Really distinct to the first wine – on the nose a lot more haybale and even sawdust, then on the palate rather than nuts and spices I got burnt caramel and woody flavours. A fine, dry wine with a lot of concentration but, for my money, slightly less juice that the 1994. I was intrigued by the comparison and the information on the growing season – would the wet year have meant less concentrated fruit, or would the higher temperature compensate for that? Does all this concentration concentrate the nuances of the original wines? My impression, for what it is worth, was that in this wine the barrel maybe had taken over from the original wine – would have been interesting to try it five years ago.

Next was the current release, the Añada 1987 – 21.9%, 8.04g/l tartaric acid, 0.97g/l acetic acid, and 11g/l glycerin (only mentioned in this ficha). It was clear why the glycerin was pointed out – it was really evident in a wine that despite being older and even more acidic seemed fuller and with a sensation of sweetness. Had a really powerful, eye watering acidic attack up front and a full palate of very roasted nuts and spices like a blackened Christmas cake or the baked crust of something. Again lasted a long, long time and held its profile while it lasted – I begun to see what Antonio meant about the palate of the 1994 not being as substantial, although I am not sure all wines need to be this immense. (Unfortunately no information on the growing season for this wine.)

Next was the Añada 1978 – nearly forty years in the making (although now I think of it I am not sure when these wines were bottled) and 21.2%, 7.5g/l tartaric acid, 1.5g/l acetic acid and fully 8.3g/l sugar. On the nose it was that bit richer and heavier, reminiscent of church furniture polish, and on the palate too it was astringent and sharp, with black treacle sweet to bitterness and a bitter to bitter finish with notes of coffee and tobacco coming through. Impressive stuff and one to savour for a long time, but compared to the previous wines it struck me that it had gone a bit over the top in terms of drinkability.

The final vintage wine was the Añada 1967 – a dry year with only 475mm precipitation and a wine with 22% abv, 8.7g/l tartaric acid, 2g/l acetic acid, and 9g/l sugar (interesting that the sugar levels were so much higher in those older wines). Again the nose seemed foreboding, with woody, polish and bitter treacle aromas to the fore, and on the palate it was all concentration, bitter and astringent like burnt caramel and old furniture, with aniseed, coffee and tobacco flavours coming through on the finish. Not a wine to be approached lightly though.

And we finished up with a glass of Apóstoles (87% palomino and 13% pedro ximenez, 20%, 6.2g/l tartaric acid, 0.8g/l acetic acid, 50g/l sugar). Here we have palomino fortified to 18% and the pedro ximenez to 15.5% and placed in separate soleras for 12 years, before being blended and aged together in a single solera for a further 18 years. No longer labelled a palo cortado it is nevertheless a classic and was interesting to try after the añada wines. The sweetness balances it up – sweet tomato aromas on the nose and figs or dates on the palate – and it is certainly more accessible than the older vintage wines, but as often happens it feels a little more bolted together than the monovarietals.

Unfortunately I had to hurry off and was unable to ask any of the questions that were piling up in my tiny mind. What are they doing with all these reserved botas? Why don’t they release a few more añadas? Is all the concentration really necessary? Wouldn’t it be better to bottle and release the same wines at different stages so the variation in vintage might be more apparent? Interesting as the wines had been, all that power and concentration made them hard to really enjoy for me, and it all struck me as a shame that this huge reserve of high quality single vintage wines was only producing very small quantities of extreme wines that are so very difficult to obtain.

Antonio signed off by encouraging us to take our favourite wine and dip our handkerchief in it so that we could enjoy the aromas in the days ahead. I didn’t take him up on it (Mrs Undertheflor has strong enough views on the subject of wine tastings without me coming home whiffing of bodega), but even without the aural cue I came away with memories of some exceptional and very interesting wines.

As for the mystery, I didn’t notice the presence of the soul or fairies in the wines, and unless I missed something I understood they were first press oxidated wines – palo cortados that might once have been called olorosos – rather than the product of any cellaring error or intervention divine or otherwise. The only mystery, if you ask me, is why they are so old, so few, and so hard to get.