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?

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Ramiro Ibañez and the History of Palo Cortados 

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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 joy of blind tasting 

Was very fortunate to take part in an absolutely top class event organized by Vila Viniteca here in Madrid this weekend – The 10th Premio de Cata por Parejas (Tasting in Pairs competition).

I was blown away by the scale of it – 120 pairs of contestants in the contest itself but on top of that 50 top drawer bodegas showing off their wines to around 2,500 people in total, and all in the stunning surroundings of Madrid’s original Casino (not currently a casino, confusingly).  If you don’t believe me you can see some TV highlights from three of Spain’s national broadcasters and Madrid’ local news (all in Spanish and untainted by my presence) here, here, here and here.

I was also surprised by the quality of the wines – first up was a lovely old Salon, with the tightest, creamiest bubbles you can imagine, followed by a wine given no fewer than the perfect 100 points by you know who – the 1986 Castillo y Gay. (I got the regions, DOs, grapes and approximate ages of both, but never imagined they would be that generous so duffed the makers.) In fact all the way down the line the wines were excellent, and my favourites were in fact a Barbera by Voerzio (I said Sangiovese) and a Malvasia from Tenerife (Sauternes). (Again, accurate details will be available on the Vila Viniteca Blog.)

And it was enjoyable for a lot of other reasons. First, my “pair” was Ana, formerly of the Chula de Chamberi and we spent most of the 90 minutes laughing, teasing and generally enjoying ourselves. Second, there were an awful lot of good friends and big names around the room and the place generally – it was a pleasure to compete against and chat to Jesus Barquin, no less. Third, the wines downstairs were as good as those upstairs – the new Riberas from Dominio del Aguila and the classic Riojas by Finca Allende stood out for me, and Jerez was fantastically represented by Lustau and all their almacenistas, but there was top drawer liquid everywhere to be honest.

But most importantly I have discovered I really enjoy tasting wines blind. Not because I am any good at identifying them (although I was pleased with the effort on the day) but because it strikes me that you focus on and enjoy the wine that little bit more. On the day itself they were top wines, but in the last few weeks people like David at Angelita, David at Era and David at Santceloni (different people) have been trying me out and wines I previously  thought I didn’t like were surprisingly enjoyable. In fact I reckon that from now on I am going to tell sommeliers I am training for next year.

So a great day, and bravo both to Vila Viniteca for an outstanding event, and to the winners – Luis Gutierrez and Ignacio Villalgordo – winning this thing for the second time no less. A brilliant performance from them and the other podium dwellers and I clearly need to drink a lot more Salon in future.

 

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.

What to get your favourite sherryblogger for Christmas …

What does one get for a sherry blogger who already drinks and owns far too much sherry as it is but you just can’t stop yourself because you admire his prose and dedication and want to show your appreciation …?

I know that many of you will be pondering this very question so here are some suggestions. As always, I focus here on the new wines I have not yet tried (marketing departments: note how this favours añadas) but I certainly won’t be sending back any bottles of La Panesa, Privilegio, Tresillo, Gran Barquero, 3 en rama, or anything from Finca Matalian etc. (If I get too many of each thing next year I will do a longer list but this risk seems remote …)

  1. Fino La Barajuela 2014 – I was lucky enough to try the wine then in the bota six months ago and it was absolutely epic. Fino La Barajuela 2013 was my favourite wine of 2016 and I cannot wait to meet its successor (and see the Oloroso too if it is ever released)
  2. Volume III of the Pitijopos, and of course the time and opportunity to drink the Pitijopos II that I already have.
  3. Manzanilla de Añada Callejuela 2012, Bota 3/11 – episode III of this fascinating experiment in static ageing.
  4. La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada 20, 40, 50 or 60 – I just love these noughty manzanilla pasadas (and already have some 70, thankyou)
  5. Amontillado Sacristia AB, Saca de 2016 – have had a cheeky preview and can’t wait to get my hands on a full bottle.
  6. Encrucijado 2014 – a more refined, focussed successor to the 2012 or so I am told.
  7. Golpe Maestro – the revolutionary wine by Federico Ferrer of the Cuatrogatos Wine Club
  8. Pandorga 2015 and UBE 2015  – and indeed anything else that comes out of the little goldmine that is Cota 45.
  9. The Juan Piñero VORS wines – which for whatever reason have managed to elude me so far.
  10. The Valdespino Añadas – single vintage wines that were glimpsed at Vinoble but haven’t been seen since (or did I imagine it)

As always, I am convinced I have forgotten something and may have to come back to this – I would be surprised in fact if it was only one thing. In any event, a fella would be pretty happy if the chap in red and/or the other three chaps and their various camels and reindeer could round up the above.

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!