Do sherries get better in the bottle?

Been an interesting debate here the last few days about the merits or not of bottle ageing for the wines of el marco, brought about by this interesting piece by Jorge Capel in El Pais.

Where do I come out? Well I have been tracking my own experiences with bottle aged wines and while the results have been mixed, and some wines have surprised me very pleasantly, I have never met an old bottle I wouldn’t have like to meet a few years ago. (And I feel a heel for saying this, because I appreciate that the many times I have tried these wines have been due to the enormous kindness of friends.)

Of course when people get into the bottle aged sherries it isn’t always a case of drinking a wine from today that has spent thirty years in the bottle. There are brands that have disappeared in the last few decades, and famous wines from today that forty years ago were still made in batches of tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. (The two phenomena are of course related but not uniformly.) More importantly, there are wines made from the original, lower production, clones in the olden days (but for that your bottle probably has to be from the 60s or before).

On the other hand, just as some of the wines from olden days were better, some were not better. If you think about it, just as the glory days of production in the region were in the 1950s, the glory days of sales were in the 1970s and 1980s, and if you get yourself a wine that is thirty of forty years in the bottle then supply economics indicate that it is likely to have spent less time in the butt one way or another.

But it isn’t a simple better/worse equation. I have found that whatever the overall quality of the wine how it evolves in the bottle will depend on its characteristics, as a general rule: the finer and more aromatic the wine (or the more given to acetaldehides) the more it is prone, in my experience, to degenerate; and the fatter, or more concentrated, or more acidic, or extreme in general the original wine, the more likely it is to improve. (It made me laugh when someone told me their opinion of a 100 year old amontillado (approx) – “could do with 20 years in the bottle”). The wines that tend to stay truest to themselves, again in my experience, are the Sanlúcar wines, while the wines that can benefit most are the Jerez wines, which is probably due to a combination of the above. More generally there are also things that can be learned from drinking the older wines, whether from Jerez or anywhere else. The best ones get finer, and for all that the signal gets weaker and more tenuous, they show their profiles very clearly. And the bad ones, believe me, just become badder.

But I guess the most important thing of all is that these old bottles bring joy to people. Sure, I like the new ones, but a while ago I witnessed the opening of a bottle of a classic fino from the 1970s and the excitement was fantastic, contagious, and worthy of seeking out for its own sake. Was really fun to share in that moment.

So if you come across any old bottles, the email is at the bottom on the left – I owe a few of the lads a few already!

Advertisements

Whose wine is it anyway?

A lot of nice sherries around these days: the sherry lists in restaurants are getting longer and longer and it sometimes feels as if there is a never ending supply line of new labels and brands. Some of them are from smaller bodegas and almacenistas that have decided, given the increased interest of the public, to sell their own wine rather than sell it to bigger houses. But others are, quite literally, old wines in new bottles.

It all started, of course, with Equipo Navazos, who in just over 12 years since December 2005 have released no less than 80 such wines. Since then though the marketplace for this kind of “marquista” wine (wine from one origin and sold under a different brand, or “marca”) has become crowded indeed. Names that spring to mind include Antonio Barbadillo’s Sacristia AB, Roberto Amillo’s Selección, the wines bottled by Alexander Jules, and most recently Las Botas.

And those are just the “marquistas”. There are more and more “selections” in general and the latest trend is for restaurants: Lustau and Aponiente have teamed up to release wines under the “Yodo” brand, Albert Adría and Gonzalez Byass have come up with “la Cala” while I was told on a recent trip up North that Nerua and Mugaritz also have their very own manzanillas, finos and all sorts. A recent high point was when I tried a manzanilla in Madrid that had been barrel selected for a wine bar … in San Sebastian!

Some of these guys – Equipo Navazos in particular – have done a grand job selling these wines around the world and educating critics and collectors in the English speaking world in particular. It is no surprise that they are highly thought of: they have quite literally created a market, and in my view have been instrumental in reviving international interest in the wines of the region. Neither do I see any problem in principle with using successful brands – be it Mugaritz or Aponiente, or Essencia or whoever, to boost the sales and awareness of these wines.

There are some drawbacks with the sheer number of selections you find around the place. It makes things tricky for the critics, who have been known to score the “marquista” selections higher than the original wines (by as many as three points in the familiar 80-100 scale) to widespread chagrin, incredulity, and elevation of eyebrows. More worryingly, the marquista wines may be crowding out the “real wines” when it comes to international recognition or even at those same tastings (I recently saw a lineup of a tasting that had been organized where no fewer than four of the eight wines were marquistas). Also on the negative side, these special selection wines tend to be candidates for the more “imaginative” kind of marketing and can feed into a “stamp collecting” mindset.

And maybe the glory years of the marquistas are over to an extent: with the pick up in interest for these wines there are not as many forgotten botas or bodegas that don’t have their own route to market. But neither are they going away any time soon, and if the bodegas don’t want to live permanently in their shadow maybe the solution is to learn from them.

Most fundamentally, it may be time to recognize that not all the botas in the solera are the same, and for the bodegas to take advantage of that fact for themselves. I have often said that one of the secrets to the Equipo Navazos success story is the limited edition nature of their wines, and you can see now how different bodegas are trying to emulate that, with “single cask” and special “bota NO” releases. Also, the marquistas, and again Equipo Navazos are the leading example, are often better at explaining what makes their wines special than the bodegas are and that too can be learned from.

But neither is it true that these special selections are always better than the original. I am the sort of contrary soul that orders the selection and the standard side by side and can tell you that the standard often wins. And let’s not forget that there would be nothing to select, and bottle, and explain, and market around the world if it weren’t for the bodegas. The bodegas are the true keepers of the flame, they are the ones making the wines and the people that, ultimately, are paying for the party with their massive investment in the productive “assets” that are their soleras and cellars.

So enjoy the special selections by all means, but never forget where they came from.

 

 

Authenticity and the wines of the Sherry region

I get asked quite often what my favourite sherries are and find it very hard to narrow it down to less than twenty or so. But in a few words, the wines that interest me most are the wines that are authentic both in the sense of expressing their time, their place, or their upbringing, and, most importantly, in the sense of being what they say they are.

Because, unfortunately, the more you learn about the wines of el marco the harder it can be to keep believing everything you are told.

First, and whether it is biological or oxidative ageing, there is a tendency to exaggerate the amount of the ageing. The Consejo Regulador do a great job with the VOS and VORS classification, but 30 years now seems to have become the minimum age for an old sherry. In fact if your wine isn’t 50 years old (not certified by anyone) you aren’t anyone, and it seems like every year the wines get older. I was told recently that a wine was an average age of 83 years (which seemed suspiciously specific) and there is more than one wine out there the given age of which is a straight-up fairy tale.

A lot of this ties in with the blarney and the poetry that abounds in the region (it can often seem people are more interested in drinking “history” than drinking wine) but it is a bit unedifying when you keep getting told ever higher ages for the same wines. And neither is it a problem that is unique to the old olorosos and amontillados (let’s not get into the “mystery” of the palo cortados). The number of amazingly youthful-tasting 10+ year old finos and manzanilla pasadas is remarkable, and some of them are getting older as we speak. In one particularly egregious example I was given a new bottling taken from a classic solera I know well, and even asked for a glass of the original alongside to appreciate if there were any differences (not that I could tell). Up to there I was quite happy, but then I was told that the first criadera had four more years under flor than the original wine from the solera, which made my head hurt a little bit.

On the other hand, and more recently, as interest in pagos and vineyards begins to take hold there is more and more talk of long-established wines being from X pago or Y pago, in prime terroir and harvested by hand, when only a couple of years ago the same bodegas had told me that the wine had come from a variety of sources or even the cooperative (a cooperative, moreover, that does not source its wine from the afore-mentioned prime terroir). Now in fairness I have also learned that there are bodegas out there – more than you would think – that do source from a single vineyard and have every right to put the name of the pago on the label. I certainly wouldn’t discourage them from doing so or suggest that all new labellings of this kind are misleading, but I worry sometimes that we may end up with more asparagus than Tudela.

And these are only two of the more harmless worries. Under the foggy miasma of blarney and poetry there are whispers of darker deeds: wines being secretly touched up with something sweet to make them a little more amenable on the palate (pedro ximenez or moscatel if you are lucky), or having something very old/concentrated added to make them seem older, or something very dark to make them look as if they have been longer in the barrel. You even hear of wines from bodegas in less fashionable areas of el marco being sold as remnants of cellars with much swankier addresses. The worst of it is that you hear the whispers so often: one very respected maker told me that he believed his to be the only bodega in the region that did not spice up the wines (I don’t believe him, but he seemed to believe it).

And when you think about the recent history of the region it is really not surprising. The fortification, the solera, selection, roceo and cabeceo, all seem designed to correct nature’s variations, while all too scant attention has been paid to the raw materials. It is a philosophy geared more towards manufacturing wines than growing them. One of the more telling comments I have heard recently was the reaction of a very high profile wine maker to the suggestion that single vintage, single vineyard wines were the way forward: “the problem is that you have to be careful right from the being to the end”. The implication, of course, is that you don’t with the solera wines because the solera is much more forgiving (and of course it is).

This isn’t to say that the cellar produced wines cannot be great. Some of my very favourite producers do not own vineyards, buying wine in and doing absolute wonders in the cellar. Neither do I believe for a moment that all these wines are adulterated. But even if they aren’t juiced up, the cellar produced wines can almost be programmed to have certain characteristics: acetaldehide in the biological wines, volatile and other acidity in the oxidated wines, old barrel effects across the board. As one brilliant maker puts it, flor is the oak of the sherry region, and when overdone it becomes the oak chips.

Biological and oxidative ageing can produce wines of stunning beauty and complexity but with the great power that these processes give the winemakers comes great responsibility. And while every wine making region in the world has its issues, and the sherry region is probably no worse than anywhere else, in a region where wines are continually being mixed and processed, it is crucial to be disciplined and transparent in those mixes and processes.

So these days I am less interested in the hay bales or the zing “effects” that once moved me, and although it is great to see new faces, I am increasingly suspicious of the new kid on the block labels with implausibly perfect back stories. (I would really rather that the barrel selectors and new labels, in particular, were up-front about where they sourced their wines from.) I am also put off by the long lost botas of eye wateringly strong liquids that are frequently found and marketed. They can be remarkable wines, but at the moment the marketing seems more imaginative than transparent.

Rather, I am increasingly drawn to wines that express their time and place, whether that be vintage and terroir specific, or the really classic soleras, and rather than effects what I am looking for is the balance and the profile of the wines – more than anything the mark of a quality wine maker. At the very least I like to know what I am drinking and where it came from. And then I really do enjoy drinking it.

Underthetree

It is that time of year again. You are wondering what to get for that special sherry blogger in your life. Well worry no longer for I have the answers.

There is a school of thought that the old standards are the best, and there is no doubt you can’t go wrong with a bottle (or two) of La Panesa, Solear en rama, Maruja pasada, el Fossi or Tresillo. You certainly cannot go wrong with the white Sanlucar wines of Ube, the unique Encrucijado or the awesome Pandorga, and I must be doing something right if wines like this are such a regular part of my diet.

On the other hand and since it is Christmas you might be thinking bubbles. If so, just go with it. The palomino bubbles of Mr Angulo, the sherry dosed chardonnay or xarel-lo of Colet Navazos, or even just some Salon or Selosse from a decent year: there is room for all chez Sharquillo.

But if you are looking for something extra special, there are a few things I would relish in particular:

10.  First, I am curious to see what Peter Sisseck does with Fino Camborio. One of the big names of the “new Spain” has acquired one of the great old soleras – the last release of which was an absolute belter – and the combination is fascinating. Part of me hopes he doesn’t change anything (and it’s not exactly as if I need an excuse to get another bottle or two) but the possibilities are there.

9.  Las Viñas de Callejuela 2014 – to be honest I would settle for more of the 2015s (and I bet they will be better for a year in the bottle) and I look forward to the 2016s but from the little I have seen/sniffed/swallowed of the 2014s they are going to be absolute corkers. In fact as I write this I can imagine the Blanco brothers in red suits with big white beards – merry Christmas fellas!

8.  That brings me on to the new crop of Mayeteria Sanluqueña. There were some little gems this year and this is a project that if there is any justice is set to grow and grow.

7.  Beyond a picture on twitter I have absolutely no idea what they are doing but even so I am intrigued to the point of anxiety by the potential fruit of the fruit of the Leclapart Muchada union. (Sisseck, Leclapart – it looks like something really is changing down there.)

6.  I am almost ashamed to have to include Las Tres Miradas in this list. There is really no excuse for not having tried them yet. The guys at Alvear have kept me informed of the numerous tastings and there is no doubt in my mind of the potential either: the lads at Envinate know a few things about distinctive and approachable wines.

5.  Back onto more familiar terrain and I personally cannot wait for the Fino and Oloroso la Barajuela 2014 (and frankly anything from La Barajuela). I have been lucky enough to try the fino twice already and it was awesome but if Willy thinks it wasn’t ready for the bottle then who is going to argue with him? All I can say is when it is ready it looks like being a monster fino, and if that is the fino …

4.  And still I want more. Having been up and had a look at the vineyards nearly 18 months ago a chap is getting impatient with regard to Willy Perez’s wines from la Esperanza and El Caribe whatever they are. Come on Willy, get on with it!

3. And that Christmas carol line about King of Kings brings to mind Primitivo Collantes’ UVA Rey – wine of an unspecified nature from a vineyard of this regal old variety planted by the unsung hero of Chiclana. Once again all I know is that I saw a bottle on twitter alongside some of those cryptic descriptors that experts use, but knowing the man I reckon it is going to be tasty.

2. As I write this list I am getting more and more excited about the year ahead and one of the reasons is the relaunch of La Riva, one of the famous names absorbed by Domecq in the boom years and recently acquired by Ramiro Ibañez and Willy Perez. They have a white wine and a fino from the original vineyards and some little cellar dinosaurs in the pipeline and they will find me lying under the tap with my mouth open.

1. But what I am most looking forward to is Pitijopos Vol III, which this time around – possibly the last – is due to cover some of the legendary vineyards, and the old way South is watering at the very thought of it. But it almost doesn’t matter what the wines are like: if anyone ever does anything as important as the Pitijopos in Jerez again I will be very surprised, and there will probably never be another box of wines created with more genuine passion.

I appreciate it is a long list, but just think of my little eyes lighting up on Christmas morning …

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.

 

 

 

 

Be careful what you wish for 

Having spent my lunchtime perusing the shelves of a few local wine retailing establishments there is good and bad news. On the one hand, if the prices are anything to go by things are looking up for the wines of Jerez, Sanlucar, Montilla Moriles and elsewhere in Andalucia. On the other hand, I can probably no longer afford to blog as often as before. (I will let you decide which of the two is the good news.)

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.