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.

Vinoble 2018

Save the dates everybody: the 10th edition of Vinoble, the festival of “noble wines” is on the horizon and will be held on June 3rd-5th at the Alcazar de Jerez. You can get full details of this fantastic event here at the official website. (You certainly won’t get much useful information on this blog, as you probably already know.)

As with the last two editions work commitments make it very unlikely that I will be able to go, but , it was a great honour to be invited to the official presentation here in Madrid’s own corner of Jerez – el Corral de la Moreria. Thanks again for that and will do my best to get down in June!

Vinos de España, una pasión – 2018

Another one of my favourite events coming up – Vinos de España, the annual event organized by my mate Juan Manuel Hidalgo, this year on March 22 in Bodegas Campos in la Juderia Cordobesa (Cordoba) from 11:30 til 19:30. Full details are on the website here.

As always, a full list of absolutely top bodegas from all around Spain (best of the lot being Emilio Hidalgo of course). I have missed out the last couple of years – weekdays are not easy to take off – but this time it is a stone’s throw from Madrid so I really hope to be there.

The Cuatrogatos Wine Fest 2018

I am on the train to Madrid after a fun and inspiring weekend with winemakers from every corner of Spain, brought together by my friend and top man Federico Ferrer.

There were a few exciting new wines from el marco de Jerez and I will be writing up the notes as soon as I can, but for the time being I wanted to post my thanks to Fede, Marta and all the winemakers for a really fantastic event and a lot of laughs.

Wines do not make themselves. They do not occur in nature. They do not grow or emerge from the soil, however famous the vineyard. They are made by people and making them is bloody hard work. (And if you think making them is hard, try selling them.) I am a little in awe of anyone who can make wine, an awe that only increases when you spend time with them and see just how much of their life they pour into that work.

I really feel privileged and grateful to have been there this weekend. Long live the winemakers, and long live the Cuatrogatos Wine Club!

The Cuatrogatos Wine Fest 2018

It is back: the Cuatrogatos Wine Fest III – on February 24 in Puerto de Santa Maria.

To be specific, you will find the merriment taking place in a tent at the bottom of the garden of the Hotel Duques de Medinaceli between the hours of 11:00 and 19:00 (although I wouldn’t expect full readiness at 11:00).

It is the big event run by the fantastic Federico Ferrer of the Cuatrogatos Wine Club and knowing him will involve laughter, and wine, in that order, and in great quantities. The list of bodegas is class:

Quinta Milú, Almaroja, Verónica Ortega, Primitivo Collantes, Juan Piñero, Lagar de Sabariz, Cota45, Mayetería Sanluqueña, Entre os Ríos, Barco del Corneta, Alexander Jules, Viña La Callejuela, Coto de Gomariz-Xose Lois Sebio, Luis Pérez, Forlong, Casa Castillo, Celler Pardas, 4OJOS Wines, Goianea Koop -Txakoli UNO, De la Riva and Clos Lentiscus

and there will also be some quality tastings throughout the day.

In any event, it is highly recommended – as the extensive coverage of last year’s festivities probably gives you an idea.

See you down there!

Paola Medina in the new Taberna Palo Cortado

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Paola Medina of Williams & Humbert is one of the most important wine makers in el Marco de Jerez and was the star of yet another absolutely outstanding tasting at Taberna Palo Cortado – this time in their new premises at Espronceda 18.

Williams & Humbert are well known for their collection of vintage wines – they are said to have a cask set aside from every harvest since time began (or at least since the bodega began). Until relatively recently – in fact until the Medina family took over the reins in the early noughties, the wines that were released were of the old oloroso variety, but for the last fifteen years they have also been setting aside 10-20 casks of wine a year for biological ageing and the results – most vividly experienced via the Colección Añadas of a year or so ago – have been ground-breaking. Just as Ramiro Ibañez’s Pitijopos collections have laid to rest any doubt about the relevance of terroir for the wines of the region, Williams Colección Añadas are about the best evidence for the relevance of vintages.

And the tasting provided more of said evidence and also some good news, in the shape of new wines. Taking the good news first, Paola told us that they were in fact making even more distinct wines than before. Since 2015 they have been making an ecological fino de añada, and in addition to the finos and olorosos de añada that we already know and which come from wines from vineyards in Añina and Carrascal (de Jerez), the bodega is now also making separate wines – in fino and oloroso – with fruit from those two pagos/viñas, making a total of seven specific wines for each vintage.

And indeed the first wine we tried on the night was the first of the new kids on the block, the Fino Ecológico de Añada 2015, made with palomino from a vineyard near Trebujena and in process and a lagar (on the road from Jerez to Rota) that are fully separate from those of the other wines. (Apparently, in order to get the certification of ecological you need the ecological alcohol from the Rioja and you have to keep everything separate, which requires some pretty extreme measures – early harvests and fermentation in a different town, for example.)

Whatever the difficulty level it was a cracking little wine – had a nice subtle chestnut aroma on the nose, was full in body again with a suggestion of chestnut and had tremendous sapidity and zing for a wine that had only had a bare two years under flor. Paola attributed the sapidity to conditions in the lagar, where a lovely, healthy, thick white veil of flor formed, but this will be an interesting wine to follow.

Next up was Fino Don Zoilo, a classic fino with a good nine years under flor. A classic that we don’t see often in these parts since the majority is apparently exported to Japan, where in addition the public prefer filtered, clarified wines. Couldn’t have been more distinct to the wine that preceded it: even aside from the biological angle and the Jerez/Trebujena sourcing it was solera rather than vintage, nine years under flor rather than two, and filtered. Those differences showed: although the 2015 had sapidity this had sharper saline intensity, was finer in body and greasier too. To me it had a chamomile tea-like nose, a much dryer palate with less chestnut and more raw almond and mor pronounced citrus notes, with a classic fresh finish. Top stuff.

Then came the wine that I was looking forward to – a look at the Fino de Añada 2010. I was a big fan of the Fino de Añada 2012 and probably even more so of the Fino de Añada 2009 and was looking forward to more of the same but this is a fish of a different kidney altogether. Whereas the Fino de 2009 was so chestnutty, generous in body and full of manzanilla-pasada like fruit, this one is incredibly dry, fine, and sapid, a much more austere wine altogether. Surprising contrast and a demonstration of the variations possible in static ageing: whether as a result of the rainy growing season in 2010, or the climatic conditions in the years that the wine spent under flor, two wines from the same pagos in consecutive years are totally different.

The surprising 2010 was followed with Amontillado Don Zoilo, an amontillado with an average age of around 12 years, of which nine under flor. Specifically, we are looking at the continuation of the Fino Don Zoilo: wine from the last criadera of Don Zoilo is used to refresh a small solera of one criadera and the solera itself of this amontillado. The resulting wine, it must be said, is fantastic. Has a lovely hint of honey on the nose and honeyed chestnut on the palate and the oxidation and concentration (this was 19%) really seemed to complete what had been quite an austere fino, while keeping its lovely sharp profile and fine body. Really buzzy, enjoyable wine that would be superb on the dinner table with almost anything savoury.

After the amontillado it was time for an oloroso but not just any oloroso: our old friend the Oloroso de Añada 2009. Really enjoyable as always, and maybe it was the time of year but it just reminded me so much of Christmas pudding on the nose, with brandy, burnt Christmas cake, nuts and figgy fruit. (There was another top shout from one of my colleagues (or somebody anyway): baked banana.) Then after all that enticing richness there are saline flavours and a little bit of burnt caramel bitterness in there. Really such an enjoyable, juicy wine.

The last wine up was the Canasta 20 años, the VOS version of the original Canasta (which has around six years of ageing). It is a cream of oloroso and pedro ximenez. Unlike some creams the Canasta wines are blended at the outset rather than prior to bottling as a means of enhancing integration and you have to say this resulting wine is extremely elegant. Nice acidity and freshness to it despite what must be a fair dollop of sugar per litre, and very nice array of flavours from figgy to cedar and even tobacco. Really enjoyable stuff, although these sweeter wines really refuse to grow on me. I sometimes wonder if I do them justice when they are tagged on to tastings of dry wines like this one:  maybe one of these days I should try to get a few of these VOS and VORS creams together and try them out side by side and in the right mindset.

And then the Taberna Palo Cortado tapas party began, with lashings of Williams & Humbert wines and an awful lot of laughter. Another absolutely top night: perhaps the best news of all is that normal service is well and truly resumed.

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.