Williams & Humbert in La Malaje 

A long overdue write-up of an intriguing selection of wines and pairings on a great night at La Malaje, including as a highlight the last of Williams & Humbert’s cracking 2009 finos, their excellent Alegria manzanilla and Don Zoilo amontillado, but also some wines you don’t often see in Spain: favourites in Denmark, Ireland and the UK.

One of them the Winter’s Tale, a lighter, finer, younger, medium-sweet medium (82 gr/l), from six year old oloroso with a reasonable shot of pedro ximenez. I have often said that the sweeter styles are not really my bag and I am not going to pretend to enormous enthusiasm but this was quite striking with very nutty aromas and a nice combination of raisiny sweetness and salinity and freshness. Very gluggable stuff as Shakespeare would no doubt have remarked.

Interestingly, it came up early in the evening and was imaginatively paired with a salad of smoked mackerel. It must be said the combination of smokey salty sweetness in the mackerel and sweet nutty saltiness in the wine worked pretty well, and the acidity of the salad meant you didn’t need much from the wine. If you were being picky you would say that maybe the wine took over a little bit as the glass wore on and the food ran out but on the basis of a quick taste of each this was evidence in favour of drinking sweet wines before the dessert courses.

Another wine you don’t see a lot of was the Oloroso Lacave, a young and pretty light oloroso – I didn’t make a note of how old but it was probably not markedly older than the Winter’s Tale since it didn’t have any great concentration or acidity to it. Did have that same pleasant nuttiness though – not as pronounced a hazelnut as the Fino de Añada but in that direction. Another imaginative pairing – with the gamba roja (the english translation of “red prawn” doesn’t do it justice) – and again the nuttiness was a nice complement, although it went even better with the top class bread and olive oil we had.

After that the wines were of a more familiar stamp – the afore-mentioned Manzanilla Alegria, Amontillado Don Zoilo y Fino de Añada, until the finish and the Walnut Brown. This time the sweet wine was paired with a desert – a Tarta Napoleon in chestnut custard – and although my dessert was gone so quickly it is hard to judge the pairing it certainly seemed alright.

Now the Walnut Brown is an old favourite in my family (if not of mine). It is a sweet oloroso or cream (105gr/l) but interestingly enough has not just palomino and pedro ximenez but also at least a touch of moscatel – and once you know it is there you can really tell it is there, with aromas and flavours of what I identify as stewed tomato. Makes for a more complex palate than the average cream and maybe the varied flavours help balance the sweetness.

A terrific dinner all round, and if it hasn’t converted me to sweet wines as such there is no doubt that it was a chance to try some wines I otherwise wouldn’t.


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.





International Sherry Week 2017


I don’t know what it is about International Sherry Week but every year it catches me on the hop, in utter turmoil, and completely disorganized. Instead of a carefully planned and finely tuned social media campaign over several weeks I end up writing a post like this at the last minute and then shamefacedly sneaking into a couple of tastings – if I have time (which is not guaranteed).

But anyway, there is quite literally no excuse for not getting your sherry on next week. In Madrid alone there will be no fewer than 135 events – something like 20 per day – in Spain there are 773 and there are hundreds more worldwide: you can find them all on this fantastic tool on the official web. There are dinners, tastings, and drop ins of all kinds, and it really is the perfect opportunity to try a few new things whether you are a hardcore sherry fan already or just a curious winelover.

So with apologies for the short notice, get your sherry on everybody!

Willy Perez in Taberna Palo Cortado

A very special night last night in Taberna Palo Cortado. First, it was the final tasting in the Taberna in its current location, and a chance to say goodbye to a little place that in just two years has been the scene of a lot of really fun nights. (Worry not, they will be back – more news soon.) Second, it was a rare chance to listen to Willy Perez and a very rare chance to taste some of the most exciting and sought after wines in Spain, his Barajuela project.

It wasn’t all about the Barajuelas. One of the things that sets Willy and his family apart is that they are winemakers across the whole spectrum, with a range of reds based around tintilla de rota (include El Triangulo and the classy Tintilla 2013), a new and frankly extremely impressive palomino white wine (el Muelle de Olaso 2016) and even a buzzy, full power modern rosé. We were able to taste all of them and fascinating it was too: particularly the comparison between two tintillas.

But the stars of the show were the Barajuelas. This year’s second saca of the 2013 Fino, a first look at the 2014 Fino, a happy reunion with the absolutely sensational 2013 Oloroso and also a glass of the Raya 2015. Four really top wines and awesome to try them side by side: the comparison between the two finos was stunning and I enjoyed the Raya much more in the company of its brethren. The oloroso in particular showed beautifully – worth the entrance money alone and seeing the glass empty brought a tear to the old eye.

Or rather the star was Willy himself. A really good bloke and obviously highly talented chap whose only faults as far as I can see are his excessive height and unnecessarily luxurious barnet. It was frankly amazing how much knowledge he dropped on us – my notebook is once again full of notes I will never have the time to write up.

All in all a night that will live long in the memory, even if your correspondent, after a brave, silent, night-long battle against the flu, succumbed shortly after midnight and almost certainly missed an even better afterparty …

8a Cata de Vinos by Vinoteca Tierra

Salon season is in full swing in Madrid and one of the best events of the year was last night at the Fundacion Pons. It was the 8th edition of Vinoteca Tierra’s annual tasting of the new catalogue and there were some really cracking wines on show. 

The sherry action was in the courtyard. Most exciting new release for this blog was a sneak preview of the Pandorga 2016 by Cota 45. It was absolute nectar and only one of two new wines by Ramiro Ibañez, who also brought the incredibly horizontal UBE Maina, said to be very nearly ready for bottling, plus bonus bottles of the Carrascal and Miraflores and even an Encrucijado. 

Ramiro was, appropriately enough, sharing a table with his mucker Primitivo Collantes and while Primitivo didn’t bring anything new, with wines like the Arroyuelo Fino En Rama and Fossi neither does he need to. 

To their left was Mario Rovira of Bodegas Akilia. He had a cracking range of earthy but fine natural reds, his Tosca Cerrada and, most interestingly, a buzzy, lively palomino with 16 months in cement. Really good stuff and worth looking out for. 

And on their other side was Fran Asencio of  Bodegas Alonso, with whom I was able to finally catch up after numerous near misses. Worth catching up too because the wines are top drawer – the Velo de Flor I knew all about (which didn’t stop me having some) but it was a great opportunity to try the three oxidated wines. Fascinating to try them together since they couldn’t be more different in character: a smooth and silky palo cortado, an oloroso that is at the same time burnt caramel but light and ethereal and a super fine, super dry amontillado. But most surprising of all – and interesting – was an unfortified palomino with a couple of years in the barrel, on its way to becoming a “Sanlucar vin jaune”. 

And even then there were more sherries: la Bien Pagá and its mother ship Delgado Zuleta, who were showing off a new amontillado. The only disappointment was that Fernando Angulo of Alba Viticultores didn’t make it. 

And there were also some excellent wines from other regions inside – the garnachas from Bodegas Ziries, German Blanco and his ranges from Bierzo, Ribera del Duero and Rioja, Olivier Riviere and Viña Zorzal, to name just four of the producers. I had the chance to catch up with Colet, a traditional cava maker that has successfully teamed up with Equipo Navazos for several years – they didn’t have the Colet Navazos with them but you can’t beat some quality bubbles.

And, finally, there were also some top quality drinkers around: friendly faces all over the salon, a lot of laughter and as the evening wore on even a few smooches. 

Absolutely top bombing – may they celebrate many more! 

Soleras cincuentanarias (y una centenaria) de Perez Barquero

Fantastic cata last night at the Union Española de Catadores as José Ruz of Perez Barquero and Paco del Castillo lead us through the wines of this great Montilla bodega. 

As you can see, there were some real heavyweight wines to be tasted, and I for one learned a few interesting things. We started with Fresquito, a sparky vino de tinaja, then moved smoothly through the gears with the Fino en Rama Gran Barquero (Spring 2017), the Amontillado Gran Barquero, an Amontillado Gran Barquero bottled in 1996, the full range of Solera Cincuentenario wines – the Amontillado, the Palo Cortado, the Oloroso, and the Pedro Ximenez – and before that last one the Oloroso Solera Fundacional (Lot B). 

I am a huge fan of the Amontillado Gran Barquero – an absolutely world class wine – and it would take some persuading for me to choose any of the others over it last night. There was a lot of concentration and a lot of intensity on show, and some rare and expensive wines (sacas of 200 and 500 bottles), which really had very distinct profiles. 

In fact, it was very interesting and quite disarming to hear that the Cincuentenario Palo Cortado – one of the stars of the night – was the result of barrel selection rather than any intentional process. Motivated by the current high fashion status of palo cortados the guys at Perez Barquero had selected from amongst their older olorosoa the wines they felt had that kind of profile – without really knowing why they did. It would not have been due to selection or mostos, because they were all olorosos, but it could have been some biological action in the tinaja before the wines entered the solera. (Perhaps there is some mystery after all.) In any event, and whatever the cause, there was no doubting the difference in character between this and the oloroso. 

It wasn’t the only star either. The Oloroso Solera Fundacional was an absolute beast – brandy, salinity, burnt Christmas cake and a finish like the after dinner cigar (and nearly as long). One of those wines that you consume with extreme care. 

I could and will write a note on all the wines because the standard was exceptionally high across the board, but the one I could drink gallons of is the current Amontillado Gran Barquero. It is the standout in terms of elegance, profile and all round flawlessness – a marvellous wine that only gained in comparison to the bigger beasts. 

And a word of thanks and congratulations to José and Perez Barquero, the UEC and Paco del Castillo for a fantastic tasting – really top class. 

Sanchez Ayala at Distribuciones Navarro 

It is Salon season in Madrid and there are few events on the horizon. Today I was lucky enough to be invited to the presentation of the new catalogue by Distribuciones Navarro and it was an absolutely top class event: held at the NH Collection Eurobuilding in one of the nicest salons I have seen. Top, top wines too, and although I only had time for a flying visit, it was enough for a couple of cheeky glasses of champagne and a chat with a bodega I have wanted to catch up with for a while – Sanchez Ayala.

Sanchez Ayala is an old name (the family ran the bodega through most of the 20th Century with an even older bodega (dating back at least as far as 1798) and has also been the source of some fantastic wines under other people’s labels: a couple have achieved near legendary status under the Equipo Navazos label and Antonio Barbadillo’s first Sacristia ABs were from the same source. More recently, the bodega have been distributing wine under their own label more widely after years of serving the local market.

And impeccable wines they are too. Both the Gabriella manzanilla and its en rama, selected big sister the Gabriella Oro go through 9/10 classes and are top class manzanillas, with a characteristic apple, salt and hay bale profile.  Oloroso el Galeon is a lovely little saline, elegant and tasty oloroso, and the 45 year old Amontillado Don Paco (seen here in the background and due to be released in the coming year) is as sharp and as saline as any Sanlucar VORS. 

And you always learn something new when you have an opportunity to chat to these guys. Amazingly, the wines are apparently all sourced from a single vineyard – las Cañas, on Balbaina Alta (and in the right kind of neighbourhood too, bang opposite El Cuadrado). Fantastic stuff.