Wines for all seasons

I am a big fan of en rama wines. I no longer have a category for them on the blog because almost all the wines I drink are en rama one way or the other, and I am not averse to filtered wines either, but on the whole if you offer me a filtered and an unfiltered wine I generally find the latter more interesting, more expressive and more likely to evolve in interesting ways.

I also like the fact that en rama wines have dates on them, even if only the date of the saca. It helps create a notion of scarcity, it gives wine writers a reason to try the wine again, and it also allows you to sell the wines as either very fresh (you see marketing along the lines of “straight from the barrel” and “raw”) or as very old (you see more and more “bottle aged” wines around). And most importantly, it gives you an excuse to announce the “launch” of the new saca, which has lead to people talking about a supposed “en rama season” in spring each year. It coincides with a couple of the bigger “launches” of en rama wines: the Tio Pepe en rama and the excellent Lustau “tres en rama”, and makes perfect commercial sense in terms of facilitating a big launch event/world tour and maximizing the impact generated.

Not all brands feel the same way. The longest running series of en rama bottlings is the Solear en rama by Barbadillo, which started a full 18 years ago, and one of the many things I admire about the series (in addition to the wine itself, which is cracking, and the labels, which are worth collecting in their own right) is that they produce a saca every season – spring, summer, autumn and winter. And they are not alone in releasing multiple sacas. Antonio Barbadillo’s excellent Sacristia AB releases two sacas of manzanilla a year, as do Tradición with their fino en rama. Maybe the most extreme case is Primitivo Collantes with his Arroyuelo en rama – the sacas are bottled to order – and the list could go on.

Of course, the season in which the saca takes place is of course highly relevant, and leads to very different wines. Generalizations are difficult but wines that are released in spring have been wintering under a vigorous veil of flor and tend to have a more marked biological influence, have a more incisive salinity and more green vegetation in aromas and flavours. It is easy to see why these are sold as “full of life”. Autumn sacas, by comparison, have been under a veil of flor that has groaned and sweated its way through the hot summer, the salinity is not quite as piercing and there is more oxidation of the wine, resulting in aromas and flavours that tend a little bit more to baked apples and roast nuts than fresh ones. (Probably the most complete account of the comparison is this one, from a vertical tasting of the Tradición finos, although I have also done a couple of side to sides with the Solear en rama here and elsewhere.)

But those very differences tell me that it makes no sense to focus on a single season for en rama wines. Looking back, two of my very favourite wines from the Solear series were the Dormouse and the Razorbill, from Autumn and Winter of 2015 (a very hot summer indeed), and it would be a great shame to have missed out on those or any of the autumn and winter sacas down the years. Indeed, the only saca of La Guita en rama so far was in October 2015 (and it is now drinking beautifully, by the way), and from memory I think I have only ever had winter sacas of the Fernando de Castilla en rama.

So whatever the marketing rationale, and despite the calls from some respected critics to do away with multiple releases per year in order to conform to the global standard of one vintage per vintage, I am not a believer in a single “en rama season”. Quite apart from anything else, winter is already depressing enough without depriving ourselves of these cracking wines.

 

 

A lesson in expression

I have a lot to write up, some of it even related to Jerez, but wanted to share some thoughts from tasting these five quite magnificent Chateau Neuf du Pape with David Martinez at el Mostrador de Vila Viniteca last night. 

They were all at the very top level, but for  me two stood out – the very first, Domaine de Marcoux Vielles Vignes 2009, which had a concentrated jammy fruit and liqueur that shouted out Chateauneuf; and the second, the amazing Chateau Rayas 2008, which had aromatics and a kind of ethereal strength that could only be, well, Chateau Rayas, which famously has cool terroir soil in a hot place. Talk about wines with personality. 

I am not saying that this level of expression is possible in Jerez, but surely we ought to be at least trying?

Ramiro Ibañez and the History of Palo Cortados 

3682b0b9-b89a-4940-a2b4-608eae56c654-1

A quite outstanding masterclass, by the Master himself, appropriately enough in Taberna Palo Cortado. Many of the points were not new, but it was an excellent presentation bringing some much needed factual clarity to an area too often given to folklore while at the same time deftly comparing the industrial present to a past that was more respectful of the vines and the wines. My own retelling is going to be painfully inadequate by comparison, but I feel compelled to try.

History, not mystery

I particularly like the asymmetry in the title: “History” contrasting with the “Mystery” you get told about in 9 out of 10 tastings of palo cortados. With Ramiro the story usually begins back in the mists of time with the formation of the continents – or at least the Iberian peninsular – but here we pick up the story a mere 250 years ago at the back end of the 18th Century.

Until then the guilds in Jerez had prohibited the ageing of wines in el marco and the wines produced were young wines differentiated by style. The wines were not monovarietal: although palomino fino was largely dominant in Sanlucar, in Jerez less than fifty percent of vines were palomino, and many of them later ripening varieties that gave heavier wines. In practice, the growers would ferment the wine in botas fed with all the varieties in their vineyards, harvesting in several passes to account for the differing maturities of the distinct varieties, but the varieties were not kept separate. The wines produced in this way were then classified according to their characteristics – palma for the finest wines, and palo and raya for the heavier wines.

Ageing and classification

As the Century drew to a close the great Juan Haurie brought and won a historic lawsuit against the prohibition of storage and ageing, making possible the development of all manner of cellaring. Bodegas that previously had classified young wines by style also started selling wines that were a year, two years and three or more years old using classifications, adapted to reflect how the wines had developed in bota with “cortados” (palma cortado and palo cortado). (Confusingly, at first there were in fact different classifications corresponding to different stages of the wines: raya, raya/dot and two rayas at fermentation and then as the wine developed palma and cortado (for the finest wines, destined for biological ageing) and raya.)

Plurivarietal, vintage specific, and unfortified

But the wines of Jerez would have been fundamentally different to those we know today. First, they were vintage specific “añada” wines. Second, there was no fortification. Third, the wines were not monovarietal.

We were treated to three examples of wines from this “pre-industrial” age: a Palma from palomino fino on Miraflores Alta, and a Raya, also from palomino fino on Miraflores Baja, that had been harvested later, and a plurivarietal wine, the Encrucijado 2014, 40% uva rey, 40% perruno and 20% palomino fino. There was a notable difference in weight, girth and punch between the palma and the raya – an excellent illustration – and a massive difference between the palomino finos and the other varieties. And the Encrucijado was excellent on the night, with its overripe melon start, delicate structure, sharpness and zip.

The plurivarietal vineyards met their end thanks to the gradual adoption of palomino fino in Jerez and, in particular, tiny little sap suckers: the phylloxera crisis laid waste to the many indigenous varieties of the region. As a result, vineyards that had previously been plurivarietal or of varieties other than palomino were not replaced, and one of the key variations between the wines was lost.

However, wines continued to be statically aged as “añadas” in many cases, and even those wines that were used to refresh soleras were generally only introduced to the solera after three or four (or in some cases even six) years of static ageing. As a result, only a limited percentage of such wines went on to be finos, since nothing but the finest, first press mosto would survive four years of static ageing under flor (finos that incidentally being used to refresh the soleras of the most highly valued wines of them all, the amontillados).

Monovarietal, but still vintage specific

We were once again treated to wines that would have corresponded to those of this early-industrial age (end of the 19th to early 20th Century), specifically the Oloroso la Barajuela 2013 and the Williams & Humbert Oloroso de Añada 2001.

The Oloroso la Barajuela was fantastic. Probably my favourite wine of the night, it had bright acidity and potent fruit with just a hint of nuts and caramel. The Williams & Humbert also had a bright acidity to it, fruity nuts like hazelnuts and a velvety texture (there was a mention of residual sugar), but a lot more concentration as you would expect – a revealing comparison in that respect.

But what was really interesting about these two wines became more obvious as we moved on to the “modern” palo cortados: the Williams & Humbert “Dos Cortados” and the Barbadillo “Obispo Gascon“.

Monovarietal, solera and fortified 

These wines from the modern age of soleras are monovarietal palomino finos subjected to the bare minimum of static ageing: selected and fortified at the sobretablas stage after only a few months, rather than the several years of earlier times. This is one of the less well known but really important changes in the development of dynamic ageing over the years: whereas once wines were classified after several years of static ageing, they are now classified young.

They also offered examples of the two dominant styles of modern palo cortado. Palo Cortados are famously defined by the Consejo Regulador organoleptically  – wines that are as fine as an amontillado in aroma and as structured as an oloroso on the palate. And since there is no definition stipulating how it should be made producers tend to play up the “mystery” of how they make it (is it made, or is it born, etc?)

But with all due respect to the hype, it is all a load of bunk. As figures as illustrious as Jesus Barquin, Alvaro Giron and others have already pointed out, in the modern winemaking of single varieties and temperature controlled inox mystery is in short supply. While the name may derive from wines that once truly were accidental, today’s palo cortados are made by simply producing a slightly lighter oloroso – either selecting a lighter mosto than used for the oloroso (if the house oloroso is made from the second press, the palo cortado would be primera yema), or by subjecting the mosto to a little biological ageing.

Of these methods, the Dos Cortados would be an example of the former, and the Obispo Gascon the latter. They both showed the solidity and power of solera bred wines:  although the añada olorosos were potent and flavourful in their own way, they were noticeably finer and more elegant. The solera wines were impressive though, no doubt (and maybe the Obispo Gascon had a touch more salinity).

And there a great evening came to an end, but not before some delicious tapas and a cheeky glass of Encrucijado – in many ways the star of the evening and a delicious throwback to the time when these wines really were a mystery. I for one hope that it isn’t the last of its kind, and that the history of palo cortados has not yet been fully written.

The wide world of wine (67 Pall Mall)

One of those lunches that was highly enjoyable, alcoholic, and sobering. Coming face to face with the wide world of wine and not meeting many sherries. Wonderful place this – and the world of sherry needs to do more to be here.

67 Pall Mall is a (the) private members club in a (the) prime location in London: if the window was open a practised arm could lob an empty wine bottle into the garden at St James’ palace. It is an absolutely top class neighbourhood – I won’t go through the full list of local establishments but suffice to say that it is just down the hill from Economist Towers and around the corner from Lock’s hatters.

More importantly once you get inside you have the world of wine at your feet. The wines displayed above represent only about 75% of the wine list (if you include the stuff on the lower level that you can’t see). Literally hundreds of bottles, and even more impressively they have an outstanding range of wines by the glass. I was unable to count them because the list comes on an ipad, complete with short cuts, and I am hopeless at counting and scrolling. Our lunch was based around the wines of burgundy and there was a frankly stunning selection of St Aubin, Corton Charlemagne, Meursault, and Volnay by the glass, so just imagine the possibilities if you choose to range more widely.

There was also the definition of expert guidance on hand: a top team of sommeliers lead by top man and madrileño Roberto Duran – a top bloke and one of the very few to have passed the Advanced exam of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

And the sherry presence? I must admit I didn’t study in much detail but it was good alright – some very solid wines from Equipo Navazos, Tradición and Hidalgo la Gitana by the glass, probably a few more by the bottle.

But it was another of these occasions where I was struck by how much the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar lose by not paying more attention to terroir and vintage. The sherries there were good alright, but some of the burgundies and clarets, and indeed many others, cost more by the glass than the finest sherries did by the bottle. Now I may spend my life swigging down sherries, and have got through a ridiculous number in the last couple of yeards, but even I was just struck by how many more possibilities there were elsewhere on the list: there were multiple vintages of some wines by the glass, for a start.

But those are really just symptoms of a broader issue. The wines on this list reflect, to an extent, the tastes of the members of this club, and whatever else is true that is a group of highly sophisticated wine lovers. The fact that there were relatively few sherries suggests to me that for all their quality and qualities, the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar have a bit more to do if they are to get back to the place they deserve.

 

Pitijopos: Lessons in the terroir of Jerez and Sanlucar

 

This week I finally got around to tasting Volume II of the “Pitijopos”.

Pitijopos is literally the Jerez/Sanlucar word for mayflies but here it is the name given to a boxed set of six “mostos”, or palomino wines (even if, confusingly it is also a term given to unfermented grape juice elsewhere in Spain ) from different vineyards in the Jerez region.

The vines are all tended and harvested, by hand, by Ramiro Ibañez of Cota 45. Then each of the six wines is fermented at ambient temperature in wooden “butts”, where they stay for a good few months (unless I am mistaken 9 or 10) before being released as part of a set of six. The whole exercise is designed to show the influence that the terroir can have on the wines, and in doing so also demonstrate that far from being “neutral” as many suppose, palomino can be as expressive as any other great white grape.

It really is a fantastic project and just a small part of the work that Ramiro Ibañez is doing on behalf of winemaking in Jerez and, his hometown, Sanlucar (amongst other things, he is writing a winemakers history of the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar, which looks like being a fascinating retake on the traditional, bodega centric vision).

The first Volume of the Pitijopos, “From North to South”, was produced in 2015 and involved mostos from six different locations right across the Jerez region, from Northwest to Southeast: Trebujena, Sanlúcar, Rota, Jerez (Añina and Macharnudo) and Chiclana. The wines were strikingly different and fascinatingly so (you can see my reports on the initial tasting in this note – and then on the same wines after further study in this one).

In fact, even without the chance to taste six at a time there is a clear benefit to tasting these mostos, since it can give you a look at characteristics of the base wines that the biological and other ageing processes obscure – the difference between Añina and Macharnudo, two pagos (vineyard clusters) that face each other across the Sanlucar road – is memorable.

So I was really looking forward to Volume II. “Atlantico vs Guadalquivir”, and it didn’t disappoint. This time all six wines are from pagos around Sanlucar. As a result there was a more evident unifying style to the wines, and if I had to choose I would say Volume II had the edge on Volume I in overall quality, but again the differences, even between wines from only a few kilometres apart, were striking. I posted a full note of this week’s tasting (from my heavily hungover state) on Thursday (although I still have a little bit left and don’t rule out writing a bit more at a later date).

Overall it really is a fantastic effort by the winemaker (and the word here is effort, just think of the work involved in making six different wines like this) and two of the most educational, instructive tastings of my life (can you imagine having the opportunity to taste something similar from Pomerol or the Còte D’Or?).

I am told that Volume III is in the works (in the botas even), and I can’t wait to see what Ramiro has in store, but for me the key argument has already been settled conclusively. Namely, if Jerez and Sanlucar are to regain the prominence they had, the historic soleras will not be enough on their own: the traditional virtues of terroir and winemaking have an important role to play. And if and when it does happen, we will all owe a big debt to Ramiro Ibañez.

The Acid Test

It is funny how the world works – last week there was a tasting at the UEC of natural wines marked by their volatile acid content and for a while all anyone tweeted or wassaped about here in Madrid was volatile – the new cool. Then the next thing I know I am at the bar of Angelita for a light and liquid lunch and by coincidence I hit a rich stream of the new cool.

Three extraordinary wines here – Irakere is a macabeo and garnacha wine made in the North by some guys from Valencia and, as you probably gathered from the introduction, the volatile is just extraordinary (makes the wine seem lighter than air, if a bit stingy). Then the Las Moradas Albillo Real “Bajo Velo” (not much velo, it was only six months in the barrel and velo of what, you might ask) and, while not as extreme as the Irakere, that also had a solventish edge to it – slight lift at the edges on the nose and palate.

And then finally the Santa Petronila oloroso.  Now the first time I tried this back in October I found it lighter and finer than your regular oloroso and to be honest even on that occasion there were mutterings about volatile, but today it really seemed to come across very clearly  – even compared to the Irakere. It was also pretty turbid and it was pretty interesting to see if from this natural wine angle.

Very interesting indeed. Fortunately the other thing that Angelita does exceptionally well is cheese, which helped take the razor edge off the liquid!

Callejuela Manzanilla de Añada 2012 – the Story so Far

Wanted to write something about one of the more interesting projects to have come out of the sherry triangle in recent years – something that was apparently almost accidental in its conception but I believe may prove to be historically important for the sector.

The Callejuela manzanilla de “añada”, or vintage manzanilla, comes from old vine palomino fino in a vineyard called “El Hornillo”. The soil is albariza of the “tosca cerrada” variety – the classic and most widely found soil type and the pago is to the North of Sanlucar along the Guadalquivir, on Pago “Callejuela”, from which the bodega takes its name, and as such you would say it has a “continental” influence. It is not one of the most highly rated pagos historically – I think in the classifications from the 19th Century they would have had it a notch or two below the top pagos – but recently the wines from this unthought of corner of the world have been raising eyebrows.

This 2012 vintage was top class and the harvest was even better. As such, the Blanco brothers, the genial owners of Callejuela, and Ramiro Ibañez, the genius who works as technical director, decided that 11 butts were good enough to be bottled as vintage manzanillas. Those 11 butts have been set aside and are being “statically aged” – ie under flor but not in a solera, which is why we can talk about a “vintage” in the true sense. Also, there is no mixing, even between these 11 butts (unlike, for example, the vintage wines from Montilla Moriles).

What is really fun about the project is that each year Ramiro and the Blanco brothers select one of the butts for bottling: the first bottling, in 2015, was Butt 1/11 of 2012, a manzanilla with three years under flor, while 2/11, bottled in 2016 had four years under flor and future years will clearly be different, with more biological ageing in the first few years and the effects of the death of the flor and resulting oxidation later (although time will tell). The last butt will be bottled, if all goes well, in 2025. There isn’t a lot of it on the market as you can guess – less than 800 bottles each year.

Most importantly, the first two wines have been absolutely cracking. The first time I tried Bota 1/11 I loved it, and even accounting for my enthusiasm going in there is a lot to love about this wine. In general I really like biological wines with a little less time under flor – there is more influence from the fruit and a little more body to the wine – I found the same with the vintage Williams Fino from 2012 and the vintage Barajuela Fino 2013 (although there is even more to like about that one). The second time I opened a bottle it came across even better and even got a spontaneous round of applause from the guys I shared it with. Really a special wine and I am having to resist hard to preserve the couple of bottles I have left.

A year later the second wine (the 2/11) seemed to have taken a clear step forward in terms of biological ageing – it seemed that bit sharper and more saline, more vertical and direct. Absolutely brilliant though (and as I drank it it even seemed to make the golf better, as Mickelson and Stenson slugged it out in the most amazing final round at the Open). Then coming to another bottle a little while ago I got more fruit again, in fact it really came across as a brilliant little wine in its own right.

I realize even as I write this that by giving airtime to the joy of these tiny releases I may be shooting myself in the foot in terms of acquiring later releases but this is one of those projects that, to my mind, deserves to be rewarded, and I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about what is possible for the wines of Sanlucar to get interested. I know of three places where it can be acquired – from Federico of the Cuatrogatos Wine Club, from Armando Guerra at Der Guerrita, and from Ezequiel of Reserva y Cata in Madrid. Hopefully they will save me a couple of bottles!