The Didactic Selection, Part II: under the flor

Part II of the Cuatrogatos Wine Club Didactic Selection of Vinos Galacticos y Didacticos: la Charanga, la Choza, la Maruja, Camborio (or the special bottling thereof by Mr Alex Jules), Blanquito, Origen and el Cerro.

Galacticos because they are all world class and Didacticos because they all tell a story that I believe is relevant to understanding Jerez as it is today. That they all come from small independent and pretty likeable producers is also a big part of it – the official history this is not.

Part I was top class – two lovely palomino wines that went down a treat – but with a bit of luck you still have a glass or two of those to sup alongside these two lads in Part II as we explore under the flor.

By that I mean two examples of biological ageing: ageing of a wine under the veil of flor. Probably the most distinctive single feature of winemaking in Jerez (and, let’s be fair, a number of other less famous regions), biological ageing is where butts are left two thirds full (or more, but with at least a bit of a gap between wind and water) so that the native yeasts of the region – and particularly the saccaromyces beticus that thrives in Sanlucar and the montuliensis up in Jerez – form a living, lipid barrier on the surface of the wine.

That barrier protects the wine from oxidation but does so much more: the flor eats away at the sugar, alcohol and glycerol in the wine, making it dryer, sleeker, finer and sharper, exposing its saline and mineral skeleton, and in return juicing it up with the acetaldehyde output of its synthesis. New flavours and aromas develop – all yeasty bakery, chamomile and nuts – and the already more white fruit and herbal than average flavours of the palomino are sharpened and concentrated into really punchy, compact profiles.

And that isn’t all, because the flor, a tiny organism that lives on the surface of a butt of wine, well, it came for a good time, not a long time. It lives fast, on alcohol, sugar and glycerol, and dies (predictably) young. When it does, it falls to the bottom of the butt where it finally settles down and gently decomposes, creating what we call the “cabezuelas” – a kind of elephants graveyard of rockstar flor molecules that pretty much does the job of the lees in less interesting wines. The cabezuelas give the wines body and structure, from a slippy oil in the younger wines to a thick buttery mouthfeel in the wines that have been a while in the barrel. It is an often overlooked but very important factor in the winemaking of Jerez.

But anyway, enough with the intro already, here we have two top class examples of what a lipid can do when it puts its mind to it: a manzanilla de Sanlucar and a fino de Jerez (or is it?)

First up is La Maruja, a manzanilla de Sanlucar. (Maybe it is an appropriate moment to remind everyone that only wines “criados” in Sanlucar can be called manzanilla – a name derived from the characteristic chamomile aromas of the wines in the olden days, when the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar were probably more distinct than they are today.) This is wine that has been produced over around 8-9 years in a solera with 8 “classes” (what the bodegas in Jerez call a criadera) – young wine and vigorous flor at the top, and you can guess what happens as they blend their way down to the solera.

The result is a wine that when compared to the white wines is noticeably more aromatic (that acetaldehyde), sharper and zingier from the salinity, more pungent on the palate and fresher, more mouthwatering on the finish (again from the salinity). This one is no relation to the white wines in vineyard terms – all the wine these days comes from Pago del Hornillo in Sanlucar – and of course it is probably at least 8 years older on average (while it cannot have a vintage, the label on mine tells me it was drawn in June 2019 (the L number tells you year and day – 19174 is June 23, 2019)) but still you can see the similarities and the differences and get an appreciation for the magic of the flor.

That aromatic nose, zingy start and fresh finish are what make manzanilla such a famous aperitif of course but there is so much more to this wine – for a start it has had much more than the mandatory three years of crianza and the concentration of flavours and the body and depth speak to a much older, more serious wine.

The first of the similarities with its brother in arms in this Part II: the fino en rama Camborio, a 10 year old wine from a saca also in June 2019.

Now Camborio as a wine has a fair bit of history, some of it pretty recent. This is the name of the wine that was made by Juan Piñero in a solera and bodega at Calle San Francisco Javier in Jerez until a couple of years ago, when said bodega and solera were acquired by no less a winemaker than the legendary Peter Sisseck, who picked it up together with his long time partner in Spain Carlos del Rio as the foundation of what is one of the most exciting projects in Jerez – Bodegas y Viñedos Balbainas. The new owners of the solera and bodega didn’t acquire the brand and probably didn’t count on the existing management taking 5,000 litres of the wine with them to create a new solera elsewhere (not that they were concerned – their interest in the solera, fascinatingly, was in those under rated cabezuelas) and so the Camborio really never went away, with these new sacas resurfacing in 2019.

So this wine is not the magical stuff from 2016 or 2017, but it is a pretty remarkable effort, with the solera built up again with wine sourced from some top producers. Neither is it, strictly speaking, a “fino de Jerez” but rather something altogether more remarkable – a fino de Sanlucar (and therefore should be your first choice in Bar La Manzanilla in Jerez).

And what about the contrast with the manzanilla? The difference in structure and concentration is impressive. In part that is a function of how these wines are made. Whereas the manzanilla hot foots it through eight classes in eight years and is bottled 8 or 9 times per annum, the Camborio takes a full decade to dawdle through three criaderas to the solera, where it mooches about before being bottled twice a year. Different strains of flor are at play too – a beticus is a sprinter, this requires the stately montuliensis. And of course the wine is different – here we have some wine from pago Añina and a lot from pago Macharnudo – higher altitude, higher concentration pagos that Hornillo.

But good grief it is a great wine – so concentrated, so serious on the nose, so saline, so sizzling on the salt and pepper finish. The thing is a beast. Gone are the high, sweet notes of la Choza – the structure is there but it has gone down in register and up in bite. A verse of Lorca springs to mind – “Camborio de dura crin” – top stuff.

And the fourth dimension, once again, comes from the people behind the wines. Here we have a single name: Juan Piñero, again a small producer but one who has built up a sensational range of wines of a very high class. La Maruja is 8/9 years old and if you like it trust me you will not believe la Maruja Pasada – one of the truly great wines. As for Camborio, well not much to add to the above, and on top of these there are some old old wines – including a cream – that deserve some serious attention. And I probably don’t need to tell you who advises the bodega on winemaking matters – there was a clue in Part I.

And here endeth lesson II – my iphone is out of battery and a siesta beckons. Hope you are enjoying these wines as much as I am – I can’t wait for lesson three.

Fino El Aljibe

One of the newer labels in Jerez but an old school wine. A compact, solid fino with a lot of time in the barrel.

It comes from a compact, solid project with 16 hectares of vines on Pago de Añina in three vineyards: San Cristobal, El Aljibe and San José. Under new ownership but with old vines, a lot of varieties and clones in each vineyard but also a lot of new thinking. They have had them in ownership since 2015 and have produced wine since 2016. Those wines are used to rociar acquired soleras with a long history.

The fino is from a solera with four criaderas and the 2500 or so bottles a year have had an average of 8 years under flor.  The result is that compact, solid fino I mentioned earlier. Almond, yeasty dough and haybale aromatics and then a solid palate with a nice zingy start, bitter almond and slightly undercooked bread and then a mineral finish.

And it has a solidity to it that makes you feel like it is one of those unbeatable finos. The spanish have a frankly mystifying word: impepinable. Literally it means “uncucumberable” but after eighteen years in Spain it seems to me that it means you can’t fault it. 

And you really can’t fault it. Uncucumberable.

Taberna Palo Cortado

Taberna Palo Cortado is an unreal place where unlikely, even impossible things are within reach. Took some colleagues there for dinner and, given free rein to show off the best of el Marco and beyond, it turned into one of those memorable dinners.

We started with champagne – not pictured – and maybe it is less well known what a nice little selection of champers is available here. This bottle was just for refreshing between courses but over the years I have had some serious and high quality bubbles. But it wasn’t long before we got stuck into the superb Andalucian wines for which Palo Cortado is famous.

We kicked off with the De la Riva Fino from Balbaina Alta – with that deep colour, deep haybale and hazelnut and fresh background – like a nut store floating on a mountain stream.

But, as I said, I was given free rein, and next up was la Barajuela Fino – 2016 – and it was the star of the night. What an awesome wine – the fruit and top register, the depth and compactness. Everyone loved it – they always do.

Tragically, it soon ran out and so we tapped an altogether more classic fino – a Panesa from October 2019 – which never let’s you down. Just class, sculpted palomino, with all its nuts in butter.

I then picked a wine slightly out of order – Encrucijado 2015 – the proto palo cortado (by now I was fully warmed up and well into an explanation of the situation pre-phyloxera), should really have come earlier. Butterscotch loveliness but so much finer and more subtle in profile than the heavy old Jerez finos.

By now we are tucking into some world class escabeches – pularda and presa ibérica – and the chosen accompaniment was the VORS Amontillado by Bodegas Tradicion. What a class wine – fine, fragrant, flavourful and elegant. One of the very best in its category.

And then callos, garbanzos, and the absolutely epic oloroso De La Riva. Not a lot to say about this absolutely sensational oloroso, except that it struck me as wonderfully elegant for all its rusty nail and acidity.

By this stage of dinner the intellectual discourse has become fragmented and there is a sense that the battle is won. I cannot remember what we had for dessert, but we accompanied it with a regal old 1955 pedro ximenez from Toro Albala, before a glass of the top class Tradicion brandy to cap off the night.

A fantastic dinner with a fair bit of laughter and a range of wines you can only find in one place in Madrid. Many thanks to Paqui and the team and the less said about Thursday morning the better …

La Panesa – January 2020

A brand new bottle of this marvellous wine, the pinnacle of bottle ageing. A full 15 years under the flor (on average, a lot longer in the case of some of its contents) and after six weeks or so in the bottle as fresh as a daisy.

The archetypal fino with a nose full of nuts, yeast and minerals and a superb full, solid palate – like a great opera tenor no woolly vibrato here. Full in flavour but elegant in profile – a really fantastic wine.

And in the background maestro David Villalon selecting cheeses from the unequalled board at Angelita Madrid. Two legends in one lunchtime.

Bodega y Viñedos Balbaínas – Part II

Went to a sensational tasting this week organized by the Union Española de Catadores. Peter Sisseck and his wines, including two vintages from each of Chateau Rocheyron, Flor de Pingus and Pingus itself. And of course, wines from each of his soleras in Jerez (I am not sure how many of us were there for the fino.)

You don’t need me to tell you that these wines are top drawer. The 2009 Pingus in particular is one of those wines that I can still feel on the palate the best part of a week later – superb richness and a solid, elegant structure to it, like a sculpted and polished block of fruit and spice. But the 2015 Pingus was also a beauty – similar elegance, a bit more brooding power and just a little bit less polished. As for the Flor de Pingus and Rocheyrons, well, it is a pretty good tasting where these wines are not the pick of the bunch.

Neither will it be any surprise to you to learn that Peter Sisseck is a winemaker with both a wide field of vision and a very clear idea of what he likes. It was fascinating to hear him on the relevance of ph, the types of soil (he enjoys a bit of calcium down in the rootstock) and the methods of replanting – his thoughts on training vineyards as far afield as Saint-Emilion and Balbaina, and vines as distinct as palomino and merlot.

But what struck me was his vision of the wines of Jerez. Because when he spoke about Jerez he didn’t speak in the same way about the vineyards, where they were, how they were planted and tended. Neither did this winemaker’s winemaker talk about unfortified white wines or fermentation temperatures or deposits. Rather, he spoke with something like veneration about what makes a fino, – and in his words, Spain’s great gift to the world’s wine heritage – the truly unique wine from Jerez. His thoughts were surprisingly classical but with an interesting twist, and resolved for me one of the great recent mysteries.

You see after acquiring a solera making one of the great finos – Camborio – Peter and his colleagues decided not to continue Camborio as such but to make two different wines, and I must admit being puzzled as to why you would buy Camborio if what you wanted to make were new wines (other than the fact that Camborio was for sale and would give you a pretty handy headstart of course).

The answer is the fascinating part, because your man explained that for him the top finos of Jerez gain their unique character and structure from one of the less glamourous sources: las cabezuelas. The dead lipids, the remains of the flor, tiny proteins that having given their all fighting off the oxygen and eating alcohol, sugar and glycerol from the wine but then die and sink to the bottom where they create a bed of madre that, much like lees in a white wine, gives the old finos and manzanilla pasadas a silky, buttery mouthfeel. Camborio and the other botas in the bodega had, in addition to some high class wines, a treasure trove of character and personality settled on the bottom of the barrels that would otherwise take years to accumulate.

He is certainly onto something. There is no question in my mind that those old solera finos have a fatness, solidity and clarity of profile that the single vintage wines, without those years of accumulation, lack. (In fact I was struck later by his comments on the importance of ph in his merlot and tempranillo because, as I understood it, he was thinking on the same lines – the importance for mouth feel and the sensations that the wines could give you.)

And the wines are good too. The Balbaina is a haybale heavy fino, plenty of aromatics and benefits from that age it has – the Macharnudo wine is also aromatic but raw by comparison – if the Balbaina is a swimming pool the Macharnudo had a touch of incontinent feline about it. But both are seriously interesting finos already with that structure to them. I cannot wait for next year’s first release.

But those Pingus, good grief …

Fino Inocente in Zalamero Taberna

With all the new wines, labels and makers emerging in Jerez sometimes it is easy to forget the classics – the mountains in the background of the painting.

This fino is just such a classic. Possibly the most traditional, old school fino on the market and one that nevertheless ticks modern boxes: single pago and fermented in oak, it may be from one of the big producers but it is the antithesis of industrial.

And if you are going to be single pago, this is the one to be: Macharnudo. The most famous real estate in Jerez, and the fount of some of the best wines ever made in el marco. Of which, let’s be honest this is one.

Because it has everything you could ask of a fino. An aromatic nose of sea breeze, fresh baked bread and almond, then a palate of all those things but edged around with zingy salinity and a long, fresh, sea breeze and mineral finish.

Really top class.

Tio Pepe en rama 2019

The tenth edition of Gonzalez Byass’s en rama bottling of the legendary fino and that moment of every year when a fella has to stop and salute the behemoth that is Gonzalez Byass.

They don’t get much airtime on this blog for a few reasons – one being that the kind of restaurants and winebars I go to don’t, with a few exceptions, seem to have them on their wine list. Even their very high end wines – the Palmas – cannot easily be found, and I sometimes wonder why.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am the number one fan of all the little bodegas, the new kids on the block, the guys that are subverting the norms of which Tio Pepe is a symbol. Neither am I a fan of making wines in the millions of barrels (I just don’t see how it is possible to be honest) and in Jerez in particular there is a special kind of opprobrium attached to any suggestion of industrialization.

But I can’t find it in my heart to blame Tio Pepe for all the world’s ills. They may make a lot of wine, but there is plenty on the plus side of the ledger. They may not have been the first, but these en ramas, the Palmas, and the promotional weight they throw behind them have also played their part in the “sherry revolution” we all embrace. They also do their bit at the very top end with their superb olorosos and palo cortados de añada.

And even before that, by having their wines on the shelves all over the world and all the time they did as much as anyone to keep the flame alive. I may not go looking for their wines but I don’t know how many times I have been happy to see a little green bottle on a supermarket shelf, in a fridge, in an exotic wine bar, in a barrow full of beach refreshments. I remember being almost overcome with emotion when a steward on an airline was able to find not just a bottle of Tio Pepe but also a bottle of Alfonso oloroso.

As a result, the almonds in this wine are one of the most familiar flavours I, and probably the majority of the world’s sherry drinkers, associate with the dry ones. I well remember doing a blind tasting of Tio Pepe in its standard and en rama versions and I was able to spot them mainly because the good old Tio Pepe was so unmistakable (and lighter in color, let’s be honest).

And here is that flavour, baked almonds, and zing, and mouthwatering freshness. More juice, more herbs here, with umami depth. Like grelos in a rich Galician stew, this is delicious and familiar.

Big isn’t bad, not bad at all.

 

Fino Arroyuelo

Back at the place where this blog was born (the Malaga coast) and a nice surprise to find this visitor from Cadiz on the supermarket shelf. Chiclana’s finest – the Arroyuelo fino by Primitivo Collantes and his fields of albariza.

This one seems to have been in the bottle a little while – this is not an en rama wine but showing a nice blush of color. Superb on the nose – lovely haybales, chamomile and almonds -, really fragrant and aromatic. And then the full monty on the palate: sharp, zingy start, then flavours that go from fresh to nutty to herby, and a fiery, mouth watering saline finish. Was really cracking with an espeto of sardines I can tell you.

Not as famous as some of the bodega’s wines but all the hallmarks of a class fino.

Tres en Rama 2019

The black swallows may or may not return to build their nests under my balcony but I am not going to miss much sleep over it while these three little beauties keep turning up on my doorstep. Another year and another edition of the Tres en Rama – Lustau’s great little boxed set showcasing the “terroir of the cellar”. A manzanilla de Sanlucar (cellared in Sanlucar), a fino de Jerez (cellared in Jerez) and a fino del Puerto (Puerto de Santa Maria), the three corners of the so-called sherry triangle.

First up, the manzanilla de Sanlucar. A nice rich en rama colour – no filtering here – a lovely apple, chamomile, sea breeze and haybale nose and the same punchy flavours on the palate before a saline, mouthwatering finish. Really opens the appetite.

Then second up (for me, but you can do as you please etc.) is the Fino de Jerez. This takes the haybales and sticks them in a farmyard, maybe with a bakery attached – all mulchy straw and yeasty bread on the nose and a sharper, zingier, more potent palate with a stinging hot, salty and watering end.

And last but by no means least, the fino del puerto. Here the sea breeze is full of the smells of rockpools and salty seaweed drying in the sun. The palate is again full of yeasty juice and bite, with a rich, juicy and mineral finish.

Superb stuff once again.

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.