Corral de la Moreria at Enofusion: the Jeweller of Jerez

Once I posed a rhetorical question about why it didn’t go more often to a class spot in Madrid and got the laconic response, from a laconic source, that it was because I had “family and a job”. And indeed I do. And I have been exceptionally fortunate lately. I have the same amount of family, but ever more work, which is good news except that it means that the spare moments dedicated to this blog are few and far between.

So the Corral de la Moreria has been a particular boon to me these last few months. They have had a lot to celebrate – a National Gastronomy Prize for best service and a Michelin Star, no less – and they have the charming habit of celebrating at lunchtime, notoriously the one time in my calendar that I can make it out and about without complaints from colleagues or kin.

And these lunchtimes are not your standard lunchtime (unless your standard lunchtime involves Michelin star food, outstanding sherry, and really top class flamenco dancing (thought not)).

So when they invited me to attend their tasting at Enofusion – Madrid’s gastronomic festival – I couldn’t turn it down, even if it involved half an hour each way on the metro due to the taxi strike.

In the end it was an operation carried out with surgical precision. I strolled in off the metro and through the door at 14:59 and was on my way to the station again at 16:00 sharp. And if that seems impressive the real miracle was what took place in between.

It will be no surprise to the half-dozen readers of this blog that there were some cracking wines involved. In fact, this being a tasting organized by Juan Manuel del Rey, in which he was even billed as the “jeweller of Jerez” you won’t be surprised to read that is was a succession of beautifully presented wines that have spent longer in the bottle than one of those mexican lizards.

As an aside and with apologies to the many poetic minds involved I personally don’t agree with the idea of comparing these wines with jewellery. Jewellery is static – a load of pretty looking minerals – whereas these are living things. Vegetable with a small v and perishable, kept alive so long only when well made and perfectly kept. So for me Juan Manuel isn’t just a jeweller, there is much more skill involved here.

Be that as it may, first up was a Manzanilla la cigarrerra that the years has refined and maybe dimmed but was fresh and full of old grass and iodine – lovely mouthwatering stuff.

That was followed by a rarity. A “Maruja” manzanilla fina olorosa – 58 años in the bottle no less and a style that has disappeared. For me the aromatics were refined an chamomile rather than explosive but and incense but it was still flavourful on the palate.

Then out came a Terry Fino la Ina from the 1970s that was really incredible – just superbly sharp, clean and focussed, for its forty odd years – unlike some we could mention.

From this stage onwards my notes become more and more poetic, perhaps influenced by the frequent interjections of amazement by some distinguished attendees.

It is also possible that the wines called for it. Certainly the next one, Carta Blanca amontillado fino – which was paired with a “Soleá – was pure macharnudo class, calling to mind not just salinity and almonds but vanilla and white chocolate.

That was followed by more of Forrest Gump’s chocolate box. This time the Dos cortados, which was all salty, zingy peanut butter like a kind of alcoholic Reeses cup.

Then the wine I might have expected to be a bombon, the 1976 bottle of Rio Viejo – was superbly serious. Again macharnudo but this time all diesel power, a deep groove of salinity but delicate and ethereal on the palate. Really superb – reminded me of an earlier musing about bottle ageing: if the way to make a million making wine is to start with ten million, the way to make a lovely fine old wine is to start with a chunky new one. Whatever the reason, it was rarified stuff, really exceptional.

And that was followed by the bonus ball, a wine from Gonzalez Byass and brought to the tasting by Antonio Flores himself: no less than a 1908 bottle of Matusalem. Amazing to think of all that time, and this was fascinating stuff. A lot of pinewood, eucalyptus and ginger, light and liquid in the body with flavours of ginger and sawdust.

The liquids were not alone, because when you have lunch with El Corral you are fed by a top, top gun, David Garcia. Here he only had the chance to give us a few bites, on the road in the midst of a trade show, and he noticeably even spoke about them from the sidelines, perhaps recognizing that we had come for the wine. But the guy is a genius, he loves his sherry and it shines through. In those few bites he showed what sherry pairings are all about in terms of echoes and harmonies – absolutely perfect.

But even up to there you might say nothing new here: this blog is after all the chronicling of lunchtimes that are frequently characterized by heavy use of stemware and by no means averse to the occasional Michelin star.

And you would be crushingly wrong, because when you have lunch with Corral de la Moreria, there is art, there is poetry, music and dancing. This time provided by Eduardo Guerrero. Here his stage was only a little bit bigger than a bar stool but even so – class – and if it is said that writing about wine is like tap dancing about architecture then imagine how well I write about flamenco …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Vinos de la feria

Been a cracking couple of days down in Jerez in and around the Feria de Jerez and I didn’t want to let it go by without a word or two about the wines we drank there.

I must admit to a bit of trepidation at the title of the post, because “vino de feria” is not the most complimentary way to describe one of the wines from Jerez by any means. This is not a wine fair, nor a wine tourist destination. You are not going to find many unique wines or experimenta of any kind. It is a massive event, of mass consumption and not a lot of earnest appreciation (a significant proportion of the fino that gets drunk is mixed with lemonade if that gives you an idea). In fact, almost every serious wine tasting with a bodega from the region in Madrid used start with a “these are not vinos de feria” or similar.

Having said that, what else can you call a post about the wines you drank at the feria?

First up, the one wine you are guaranteed to have a drink of at the Feria is Tio Pepe. Ironically it is pretty scarce in Madrid – even in its en rama version – but it is massive worldwide and a hegemon in Jerez. A mate was telling me it was available in 90% of the casetas at the feria and I believe them. Not that there is anything wrong with that, or with the wine. Just saline enough, nutty enough and juicy enough, served cold in little bottles, it is a perfect little freshener and cracking foil for the ham and tapas on offer from every side. Gonzalez Byass also have one of the essential casetas to visit – really top drawer.

The champion caseta of this year’s feria, however, was the sensational “Trasiego”, complete with shades made from sarmiento and a glass bar filled with 600kg of albariza. Really top class decor and top wines from Bodegas Lustau: we had fino la Ina and amontillado Botaina (they had run out of Papirusa, to the disappointment of our crew which was heavily stacked with Sanluqueños).

While I was at the “cachivaches” with my kids in the “calle del infierno” (the funfair – really not that bad!) the same crew found the bargain of the feria: Amontillado de Harveys in the caseta of Bodegas Fundador for only €15 a bottle. I hope they enjoyed it. Really. (The churros and chocolate were excellent anyway.)

The class act of my feria was to be found later that evening – a glass or two of Gobernador in the caseta of my good friend Juanma Martin Hidalgo, of Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo. Delicious wine just begging for a dish of callos as an accompaniment.

Overall no complaints from me on the liquid refreshments. The feria is not your venue for high end or cutting edge wines but there is nothing wrong with these wines (I have been in a few supermarkets where they would have been a very welcome sight indeed) and there is something joyous in the absolute ubiquity of fino (and in seeing everybody swig it down). More than anything, there is a real sense that this is a fino’s natural habitat, and it is much fun hunting them in the wild.

La Feria de Jerez

Back from a few fantastic days in and around the Feria de Jerez and although I will write up the wines I found there I didn’t want to leave it too long to express my gratitude to all those down there that made the last few days so memorable.

The Feria is absolutely spectacular, for the horses and carriages by day, the breathtaking illumination by night, and of course the ladies in their gorgeous dresses (the chaps also brush up but not by comparison). It is also absolutely chock full of life in all its dimensions. Masses of people, loud music – from flamenco to reggaeton and everything in between -, drinking, dining, dancing, parading, conversations shouted over the music, high heels hop stepping over the biological residue of the horses – deafening for all the senses. (And that is before you get to the “fairground” known as the Calle del Infierno.)

But, while not wanting to overdo the cliche, what really makes it special is the people. I am fortunate to have quite a few friends down in Jerez and was able to catch up with a goodish proportion of them at the Feria (and it would have been more had it not been for hangovers themselves acquired at the Feria). In fact I was struck by just how incredibly social it was – big lunches, casual encounters with people I hadn’t seen in years, more than once I was introduced to entire families … however big an event it is (and the scale is large), it really seemed to maintain the ambience of a kind of massive communal wedding feast, with everybody getting together, glad rags on, and ready to have a good time. And have a good time they did – from before lunch to just before breakfast.

The people certainly made our trip – I really have not experienced sustained kindness like it. People were so generous with their time during a week that must be absolutely hectic – we simultaneously felt guilty for monopolizing their attention and for not staying with them longer – and so generous in every other sense too. So many warm welcomes and big smiles, so many glasses of sherry, so many little plates, so much joy in our company – it was wonderful to be there.

I cannot name everyone who made it such a special few days – the list would be too long for a post like this – but in particular want to thank Cesar Saldaña of the Consejo Regulador. Cesar not only invited us down but made it impossible to refuse, and he and his lovely wife Carla did so much to make it a wonderful trip for my family and I. I will be forever in their debt, and in Cesar’s case not for the first time – my interest in sherry, this blog, I owe them both to Cesar. I suppose there is no chance of repaying something like that, but I fully intend to try!

Cuatrogatos Wine Fest IV

Otro año mas han vuelto, los grandes, grandes gatos de tan selecto club, organizando lo que viene a ser el evento de vino de este y cualquier otro año – el Cuatrogatos Wine Fest IV.

Sera este sábado, 16 de febrero, en la Hacienda el Pinar del Puerto de Santa Maria, y como en anteriores ediciones habra un montón de winemakers allí expuestos con sus productos, entre otras atracciones.

Un servidor no estará esta vez, y lo llevo francamente mal. En ningún caso deben perderlo ustedes, porque se pasa el día francamente bien bebiendo como dios manda, aprendiendo alguna cosa y riéndose mucho.

Ahora perdonadme, pero quiero estar solo un rato …

An evening with Pepe Blandino in Taberna Palo Cortado

A fella hasn’t had a lot of time for wine tasting lately, and even less time for writing them up, but couldn’t not write up this one after a cracking night with Bodegas Tradición in Taberna Palo Cortado.

The wines we already know: superb, compact finos from the latest saca and those of the last couple of years and a couple of fine amontillados, including one from the first criadera and of the course the famous VORS. And boy that old amontillado is class. But on this occasion the star of the show was the human element, Pepe Blandino, the capataz of the bodega.

If the enologist is the architect, the capataz is the foreman in the cellar, and although the role may not be unique to the sherry region there are very few areas where they have the same importance. The sheer amount of time that these wines spend in the cellar sets the region apart from most (even the finos on the night were over ten years in the making),  and the wines are not just sitting in the barrels either. The solera processes and the range of ageing styles give the enologists and cellarman a range of options, and challenges, that simply don’t arise elsewhere.

As such it was a real privilege to hear from one of the big names, and one of the real characters too. You had the impression that he enjoyed himself and he definitely had the crowd  in the Taberna spellbound. Let’s be honest, there was plenty of shtick and a fair few anecdotes about the good old days. There were even a few disclaimers of the “I don’t know the fancy words” variety.

But underneath it all your man gave the impression of a really canny operator – frankly you wouldn’t expect anything less from a quality outfit like Tradición-, and there were some fascinating technical details in there about the processes, the classification and the way the wines are used. He also had some very clear views about the merits of terroir vs selection, static and dynamic ageing.

I was also told that Pepe was personally responsible for the hand-numbering of the labels that go on the wines and it struck me as perfect. Tradición has always been the embodiment of a modern approach to making the most traditional of wines, those labels are a great example of just that and for all the shtick on the night the hand numbering is precisely the kind of attention to detail you would want from your capataz. An honour to meet him and a great night as always in Palo Cortado.

De Jereces y marquistas: polisemia vinosa

Had to share the link to this cracking piece by Carmen Martinez de Artola (and not just because she refers to me in it as “el Guerrero”) of the tasting I was lucky enough to take part in this summer at Der Guerrita.

Really top summary of the (better) wines we drank on the day (or in my case, spat out, unfortunately) but above all I love the introduction – why worry what we call them if the wines are good?

Nice piece – in Spanish and another good reason to learn the language kids!

Marquistas: de marca blanca a Equipo Navazos

Was an honour to participate this summer in a tasting lead by Armando Guerra as part of the series of summer tastings at Taberna Der Guerrita.

A really interesting, ambitious tasting too, aiming to cover the phenomenon of the “marquistas”: the practice of selling someone else’s wine under your own brand. In fact in this case even more ambitious all the way across the spectrum from the “white label” of the supermarkets all the way up to Equipo Navazos.

Armando invited me on the strength of some musings of mine back in February on this subject and I was delighted to accept even if it is a bit of a hospital pass: for some reason people get very offended if you suggest they may be a marquista.

The scope was too ambitious for me – I am very far from an expert in white label wines and that business strikes me as absolutely distinct, in terms of the volumes, characteristics and role from the business of the “bota hunters” I am more familiar with. (In fact one interesting point to come out of the cata was the discovery of a third category in a kind of middle ground – the own-label exporters.)

That broad scope may also have prevented us from getting as in-depth into the phenomenon as we might have liked. Not that there wasn’t debate: it was a pretty lively group in the room too and there were some pretty frank exchanges of views. But for all that we didn’t really advance very far.

There really wasn’t much discussion of the supermarket level, but on the “bota hunters” and exporters there was broad speaking agreement as to their useful role: marketing and explaining the wines, providing novelty, different vision. Some in the room firmly believed that the special selections were better than the standard wines from the bodega (I tend to find the law of averages persuasive). There was also general agreement that the marquistas do most good – and least harm – when they identify the source of their wines.

But Armando made an interesting comment that rang true, which is that the “bota hunters” face an increasingly uphill task. Put simply, with the upturn in interest in these wines there are not as many special old botas lying around to be discovered, it is getting harder to find something different to say to better educated consumers and the bodegas too are getting more sophisticated in terms of their own approach, squeezing the space the marquistas used to have to themselves. Another challenge is carving out a unique message in an increasingly crowded space: new pretenders cannot simply take for their own the “magic numbers” of Equipo Navazos and you find some increasingly novel ways of describing the uniqueness of the wines.

And when you think about it it is interesting to witness the evolution of Equipo Navazos, for me the number one marquistas and one of the undisputed stars of the sherry story in recent years. You certainly can’t fault them for standing still: they may have started as bota hunters, but it is noticeable that the wines increasingly come from tried and trusted sources or from far and wide, that they increasingly make their own wines and have even diversified into rum, whisky, and even gin.

While all this was going on there was of course a lot of wine going down: or in my case, being spat out (I had to drive back). A really top lineup in fact, with everything from supermarket fino via Sacristia AB, and Equipo Navazos to the legendary “Teran Salvaje”. In fact at least one wine was wrongly included: the De la Riva oloroso in the final flight. De la Riva is a new project but certainly not a marquista. Ramiro Ibañez and Willy Perez, beloved of this parish, actually bought the solera involved (“with wood” as they say around here) and have acquired wine to refresh the solera on an on-going basis. Noone is making or bottling wine for these guys and the brand is registered in their name. (Having said all that, what an epic, flavorful oloroso – no complaints with having a glass of that.)

It was a fascinating and fun discussion albeit one that tended to confirm my beliefs rather than challenge them. I for one think that Equipo Navazos and others like them have done a fantastic service to the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar by bringing them to the attention of a wider public, and by showing how special they can be. And marquistas are always going to be around: the best marquistas have deservedly strong brands and even if they didn’t in some places it will always be easier to sell a new, exclusive label than a traditional brand.

But the marquistas are no more the future of the region than own label brands. You can see the future in fact in what Equipo Navazos (and many others) are doing – making and experimenting with new (or old) ways of making wines and focussing on vintages and terroir. In fact the real future is probably neither the marquista or the bodega, but the vineyard.