Navazos Niepoort 2018 in Coalla Madrid

Aperitivo o’clock in a bustling Coalla Madrid and nothing better to wash down your berberechos than a glug or two of this white wine from pago Macharnudo.

One of the first unfortified white wines from Jerez – the first vintage was back in 2008 – this project by Equipo Navazos with one of the story of Jerez’s unsung heroes, Dirk Niepoort aims at recreating the wines of Jerez in centuries past. From 100% palomino fino from the famous albariza of macharnudo, fermented in bota and no fortification, with only a few months of spontaneous flor.

It is delicious stuff – fresh, saline and aromatic, with a suggestion of white fruit and a touch of the old esparto grass. Fruit, mineral, herb in a lovely balance, and very elegant. The berberechos were also top class it must be said and a better pairing I cannot think of.

Marvellous – with wines like this by the glass no wonder Don Ramon is enjoying Madrid!

Pandorga 2016 and roquefort

This summer I had one of the top pairings of this cracking pedro ximenez by Cota 45 – with a roasted and caramelized peach in Bagá, Jaen. It was sensational, with the apricot flavours and sweetness of the pedro ximenez combining and contrasting superbly with the similar but higher register sweetness of the peach.

But this one above wasn’t far behind either – a completely different pairing, with a creamy, salty roquefort balancing the acidity and sweetness of the wine, and the two sharing a wonderfully rich texture. You don’t want crackers here – a nice soft white bread, good butter and a do not disturb sign.

Socaire Oxidativo 2015

Unquestionably the wine of a pretty good summer. In fact Mrs Undertheflor even asked me earlier this evening, knowing we had bagged a few unicorns over the course of the vacations, and it was gratifying that there was at least some interest in my opinion on this occasion so I thought I might share it more widely.

You see I knew Socaire Oxidativo 2015 was excellent but last week I had one of those rare opportunities to explore the wine from every angle – and it was one of those even rarer moments when a wine thus explored got better the more I explored.

I was fortunate enough to be in Chiclana for my holidays – beautiful beaches and climate, some really top class restaurants -, even more fortunate in that Primitivo Collantes himself was kind enough to show myself and some good friends around his vineyards and bodega, and even even more fortunate that he was generous enough to let us taste the oxidativos from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 (and of course the other Socaire, the Arroyuelo en Rama and the Fossi, not to mention the new sensation, “Tivo”).

Now Primitivo Collantes SA is one of the few bodegas I have actually visited, and probably a principal cause of my recommendation to anyone really interested in a wine to go and visit the makers. It is a special organization lead by a special individual. It is the only bodega in Chiclana – aside from the coop – to grow and harvest grapes in Chiclana and make its own wine, and the last survivor of a once very proud tradition in these parts. And it plays its part in that tradition too, withe some venerable wines and styles: Arroyuelo is a great fino, Fossi a superb amontillado.

But its great wines, for me, are those that go by name of Socaire. The first Socaire was revolutionary in its day – a barrel fermented, bota aged unfortified palomino from the sheer white soils of Finca Matalian that blazed with zest and expression in its first vintage, and subsequently has shown with power, complexity, elegance and every combination thereof year after year. Really one of the great modern wines from the region.

And now this. The difference between the two is one of age – this is what happens when Socaire gets more than two years of bota age, and starts to show its fondness for the oxygen that surrounds us.

And what a transformation that time brings. The 2019 was a refined mosto – fuzzy and rampant, for all that it had nearly 11 months in the bota. The 2018 was finer, a real wine now, but still spiky and up for it. 2017 was finer and more elegant, losing those spikes and almost holding itself in. And then 2016 had grown again: aromatic, full of flavour and character, a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. In terms of barrel tasting (well, not really, 2016 was going into the bottle already) it was as good as I have experienced – a real anatomy of the creation of a wine. And then of course we tasted it next to the 2015, with its year in the bottle and its polish.

It was an outstanding introduction to the wine, and was soon followed by the horizontal dimension, as we tasted it next to the other wines from the same exceptional vineyard (Finca Matalian, now you ask), including the upstart “Tivo” from the traditional Chiclana Uva Rey. If the vertical gave us an anatomy of a wine in the making the horizontal gave us its geography – it was like looking at old family portraits of a dear friend and spotting all the familiar features of sisters and brothers.

And those features are the features of an outstanding white wine. Lower in register than some of those appearing further North, this is mountain flowers and sweet herbs on the nose, aromatic and rich, then a lovely elegant profile delivering those same flavours on a steely frame of salinity, which leaves your mouth watering as you finish.

An outstanding wine from an excellent producer, a beautiful place and thoroughly good family. My wine of the summer 2020 is Socaire Oxidativo!

The Didactic Selection, Part III: deeper under

After a wallpapering induced hiatus the Cuatrogatos Wine Club Didactic Selection is back, and after Part I and Part II, it could only be Part III. And Part III is the manzanilla pasada. Because when you have a manzanilla pasada, an amontillado and an oloroso, one of the three wines is not as the others.

The manzanilla “pasada” is a manzanilla subjected to the intense, voracious attention of the “beticus” flor of Sanlucar for quite literally as long as it takes. In fact a true manzanilla pasada is a manzanilla that has reached the point where the flor-feeding nutrients in the wine have been so depleted that the flor, deprived of fuel, is outgunned by more elemental forces, and concentration from evaporation means the wine increases in concentration quicker than the enervated flor can nibble away the alcohol.

But what it is not, most definitely not, is an oxidated wine (ok, there may be a touch at the edges – sometimes the flor needs a holiday). With this imaginative clear glass bottle, that fact is visible at first glance, and on drinking it you will not find any caramel or brandy.

Rather, the result of that process (and here unfortunately I have to warn that not all manzanilla pasadas are indeed such a creature) is a wine that is maybe not as ethereal on the nose as a top manzanilla can be, but on the palate a step up in intensity, concentration and expression, even compared to manzanillas that have been as long in the making and chiselled as Maruja. But there is more to it than that even.

The cultured folks that read this blog will know all about sake. How the rice is milled to take away the coarse outside husk of the grain, and how that grinding allows the brewing to unleash the flavour of the core of the rice. Fruits that you could never imagine in a grain of rice.

I always feel like something similar happens with manzanilla pasadas (and the superannuated finos of Jerez). All that attention from the flor mills the wine down to its inner core and reveals what is in the heart of the wine.

The transformation is not as surprising as the rice into tropical fruit of sake but the resulting wines can be quite outstanding. The unlayering of flavours can reveal so many different kernels: in this case, the Blanquito to me is green apple, but there are manzanilla pasadas that have so much spice and savour, or ripe melony fruit, that you can’t quite believe the word manzanilla on the label.

And of course the flor doesn’t just eat the wine: the cabezuelas feed it from below, enriching it and polishing over the sanded corners. The result is something that is dry and drying but full in body and as elegant a wine as any you will try.

This wine is not a lineal descendant, or even a cousin, of the Maruja, but comes from the Blanco Brothers of Callejuela vinos (the guys behind la Choza, from Part I) and forms part of a quite majestic selection of older sherries that they have – with la Casilla (amontillado) and El Cerro (oloroso). But I thought it would fit well because of the green apple at its core – some of the freshness I sometimes find in the Maruja too – although curiously the Maruja when pasada becomes an altogether more serious beast, and one that is also worth tracking down. In fact this wine is maybe a little bit atypical for a manzanilla pasada in its freshness, but for me all the better.

So here you have it. The expression of biological age and concentration. Next stop, oxidation!

The Didactic Selection, Part I – blancos de albariza


A little while ago a colleague mentioned that he was keen to learn a little bit more about the wines of Jerez and wondered if I could recommend anything. As it happens, I could indeed, and thanks to the good offices of Federico Ferrer and his association of wine loving felines just days later my colleague had been furnished with the first edition of the Undertheflor/Cuatrogatos Wine Club Didactic Selection (trademark pending).

I say the first because since then some further colleagues have joined in and at one stage there were even hopes that we would get ourselves organized for an online tasting. Unfortunately it was not to be – irreconcilable agendas and differing levels of self control tore up any such plans, and instead the guys asked me where they could read about the wines instead.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where you can read about them. The boxed set includes seven wines whose characteristics and stories show off all that is best about the wines of the region and what is going on down there: La Charanga, La Choza, La Maruja, Camborio, Blanquito, Origen and El Cerro. But unfortunately far too little is written about these wines – there certainly aren’t many books that will explain them to you in anything like adequate detail, so I thought I would give it a go.

If I were a recipient of one of these boxes I have no doubt where I would start: La Charanga, by Corta y Raspa (the brandname of the Mayeteria Sanluqueña) and La Choza, by Bodegas Callejuela. These two are white wines from the named palomino vineyards – la Charanga in Pago Maina in Sanlucar and La Choza from the famous Pago Macharnudo in Jerez.

The idea here is to appreciate how expressive palomino can be when treated well, by no means the neutral vessel you may have been made to believe. I would recommend having these open a while and observing how they grow in aroma and flavor as the minutes tick by – they may even be better the day after if you can exercise more self control than I am.

Beautiful colour – a touch more copper in La Charanga – and aromatic on the nose, with that white fruit and chamomile – a touch sweeter in La Choza – they are truly appetizing. Then on the palate there is that salinity and savoury, peppery range – perhaps the defining feature of albariza wines.

And of course the reason for opening them both at once is to get an appreciation of the second dimension of what these wines are expressing: the “terroir”, or neighborhood where they come from. In this respect these wines are lineal descendants of one of the most important projects in winemaking in recent years – the Pitijopos, two sets of mostos from selected vineyards across the sherry region which made the argument for terroir in the most persuasive way possible.

Here we have a wine from Maina in Sanlucar, known for producing sapid, aromatic and “horizontal” profiled wines. In fact if my only goal had been terroir I could arguably have chosen a wine that is more characteristic of Sanlucar – your more famous Miraflores and its freshness and “verticality” but personally I love the expressive, aromatic nature of the wines from Maina, where the albariza soils are rich in diatoms and mineral variety.

On the other hand I couldn’t have chosen a more characteristic pago to represent Jerez. Macharnudo is unarguably the most well known of all the pagos, made famous by the legendary wines of Domecq, a flame that is kept alive by Valdespino and its famous single vintage fino, Inocente. Here you have a very high calcium content in the famous albariza and it gives you wines with a lot more structure – a really boxy, mineral wine that is so punchy and pungent. La Choza is, frankly, a bit of a beast.

But another reason for this choice of wines is their fourth dimension – aside from the vintage, variety and terroir one of the things that makes these wines special are the people that are behind them (and the people behind the people behind them). La Choza is by Antonio Bernal Ortega, a fourth generation mayeto and member of the “Mayeteria Sanluqueña”.

Mayeto is the traditional name given to a small scale grower in the Jerez region, and typically these guys tend a vineyard but do not make wine – they sell their harvest to the cooperative or the big bodegas around the region. But the Mayeteria Sanluqueña do not: under a shared brand “Corta y Raspa”, these guys (there are at least four of them that I know of) are instead keeping part of their harvest and making their own wines. It is a fantastic project and a chance to pick up artisan wines from different vineyards across Sanlucar and Jerez that are nicely made and cheap as chips – this La Charanga is, in particular, a beauty, but it would be even better to get a few of them together and go on a voyage.

La Choza, too, is the creation of mayetos, but on a much bigger scale. It is from Bodegas Callejuela which is run by the Blanco brothers, who I can tell you are a couple of big old lads and good ones too. You could not meet a friendlier, more congenial pair of blokes, and in recent years they have created one of the most interesting bodegas anywhere in Spain, producing a range of imaginative wines and some really ground breaking projects. This la Choza was one such – a few years ago now they started releasing single vineyard white wines and since then they have developed the project, also making single vineyard manzanillas – which really adds up to an unbeatable opportunity to observe the effect of fortification and biological ageing on a wine. They may be big, friendly blokes but the fellas know what they are doing alright.

And the people behind the people? One of the most important names in the recent history not just of Jerez and Sanlucar but in winemaking in Spain, and probably the most important single figure in the rebirth of this historic winemaking region: Ramiro Ibañez. He was the author of the Pitijopos, is the unifying, guiding force behind the Mayeteria Sanluqueña, and has also played an outsize role in helping the Blanco brothers develop their fantastic projects. He is by no means the only hero, but no one has done more, and at least in part these first two wines are a tribute to him.

But more importantly an excellent place to start to explore the wines of La Mayeteria, Bodegas Callejuela, and el Marco de Jerez …

La Bota de Fino 91 – Saca of February 2019

Never has there been a better argument for smellovision than these cracking finos by Equipo Navazos.

The latest iteration of a wine that previously gave us Botas number 2, 32, 54 and 68, this is right up there with the most spectacular finos on the market. The wine here was originally sourced from probably the most important fino solera around – Inocente by Valdespino – but has been in the capable hands of Messrs Ojeda and Barquin a goodly time by now.

It really has a fantastic nose. I find these Equipo Navazos finos even more explosive when new released but even after a year in the bottle this is one of the most fragrant wines on the market – loads of hay bales and verging towards chamomile and herbs.

But it isn’t just the nose – has a lovely full body to it – whichever bota they liberated had a good bed of cabezuelas – and almost as much expression on the palate, with nuts in there but also sweet herbs and bakery.

Superb stuff from start to finish. But I am not going to finish it just yet …

Solear en Rama Summer 2016 – the Marbled Teal

Difficult to top this, one of my favourite sacas of one of the best manzanillas around, in a magnum, and thanks to social distancing, none of those annoying close range socializers wanting to share it.

When reviewing my flock of Solear en Rama for repeats it struck me that I had seen this marbled teal somewhere before and indeed I have another. Faced with the decision of whether to drink the magnum or half bottle well, I thought about it for nearly a quarter of a second …

Almost too good to drink. Now a manzanilla pasada, but more manzanilla than pasada. It is not as fruity oxidized or as heavy as many, really fresh with a wonderful piercing nose and just a solid slab of manzanilla flavour: flavours of sea air and spicey, peppery rocket salad with a fresh finish.

There is a saying here that a good salad should be well salted (una buena ensalada sera bien salada) and this is certainly that. The biological is there at start and finish – zing to begin and swish to end – and in between you have those oily, peppery sensations on bready flavours – cobs of bread you use to mop up the dressing.  

A living legend. And by living, I mean the solera, because you won’t be seeing this bottle no more.

Lunch with Pepe Blandino and the wines of Bodegas Tradición

A traditional Spanish lunch

Bodegas Tradicion were founded in 1998 but the majority of the superb wines they sell are even older. So old, in fact, that their enologist once told me that they have the opposite problem to many wineries in Jerez. Rather than seeking to make their wines seem ever older more concentrated or extreme, the challenge is to how to keep the wines fresh and balanced.

I can confirm that they achieve exactly that after yet another fantastic lunch featuring their wines in Taberna Palo Cortado earlier this week. We tasted the full range – from a really cracking saca of the fino from last November (just delicious) to a little bottle of incredibly potent very old amontillado and everything in between, and they were just superb from start to finish. (We didn’t have time for the cream or a cigar, but the occasion merited just that kind of finish.)

And of course it was no ordinary lunch. A lot of the credit for the consistent excellence of the wines is due to a fantastic team in the cellar lead by Pepe Blandino, capataz de bodega and one of the top cellermen in the business, so it was both a pleasure and an honour to be able to share a table and taste the wines with the man himself.

Autumn 19 – a superb saca from a long line of top finos

First up was that fino, and it was a belter. A magnum of the autumn saca for 2019 it was singing, with a lovely, only slightly bitter almond nose and a nice rounded palate – zingy on the front and fresh on the finish. Really excellent fino and a high class start.

Palo cortado de añada, 1998

But it was only just the start. Next up was the 1998 palo cortado de añada. A really fine, quite serious bitter almond nose and then an even more pronounced roundedness to the palate. Surprisingly balanced wine – older añada wines can often be quite spirity but here the acidity was in a nice proportion. Very nice, elegant wine.

Vintage and vintager: Olorosos de Añada 1970 and 1975

Then we kicked on in style with two beautiful, contrasting olorosos. The 1970, fine, dry and sharp, with sawdust on the nose and a regal, rapier old palate, and the 1975, with its brighter chestnut colour, juicier, more spirity nose and slightly chunkier oloroso palate. Two absolute beauties and another demonstration of the difference a few years can make (even if we can’t be sure we are comparing the same vineyards).

The full monty, and the fuller monty

After the olorosos, the amontillados. First up, the superb amontillado VORS – one of the best in its class and a gem of a wine, with a zingy start, elegant flavourful profile and a long but fresh finish. Really lovely in its own right, but on this occasion slightly outmuscled by the small bottle to its right – the amontillado viejisimo.

The viejisimo is worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon its slender shoulders. It is incredibly potent and concentrated while maintaining that balance and elegance that seems to be the bodega’s trademark. Flavours that go all the way from nutty caramel to burnt barrel, chocolate and tobacco and seem to elegantly fade over an eternity. Too good, too special a wine for the likes of me or a lunch like this – the kind of wine that deserves an afternoon to itself.

And after that we tucked into some callos and garbanzos with the quite excellent VORS oloroso and palo cortado, which in any other company might themselves have been the highlight. On this occasion there was a suggestion of after the Lord Mayor’s show – how can you follow an act like the viejisimo – and in fact after that awesome amontillado even the venerable wines on the table tasted a bit like mostos.

And there it came to an end, a fantastic lunch in great company and with a really unbelievable selection of wines. Many many thanks once again to all at Bodegas Tradicion and to our hosts at Taberna Palo Cortado for an inspiring day.

The 7 i(T) Gastrolab

A couple of weeks ago I had one of the very best meals I can remember in the intriguingly monikered 7 i(T) Gastrolab .

The Gastrolab is the creation of two of the brightest lights of the Madrid restaurant scene: Narciso Bermejo and Xabi Guitart, and the evolution of their project of the last two years, the 7 Islands Craft Bar.

The driving force behind it is Narciso Bermejo, one of the most impressive, most original individuals around. Trained as a chef but a genius with a cocktail shaker (or stirrer, or any other implement) and almost more importantly one of the most uncompromisingly thoughtful and innovative guys you could hope to meet, an unstoppable force striving to bring balance to the insane business of bars and restaurants. In only a few years he has been behind several top class, highly original projects, including Macera, the 7 Islands Craft Bar, Nada365 and now the Gastrolab.

For his part, Xabi Guitart is a phenomenally talented young chef who despite his tender years has experience in kitchens of the stature of Lera, Kabuki, and Diverxo and now, with nearly two years of his own creations under his belt, has really come into his own. It sounds like a cliché but there was a real maturity to the menu he gave us the other night, with dishes that were superbly executed and in equal parts delicious and surprising, and a clear leap forward even from the high standards of the last two years.

I will not discuss the individual dishes because the guys want the menus to be surprising, but I can tell you it is a really nicely constructed menu with the dishes bound together with arguments that were consistent and appealing – again no spoilers but this was no rag tag or allsorts. There are in fact two menus: a short menu at €45 and a long one at €75, and both are outstanding value, as good as anything you will find in Madrid for a ticket way below the average.

It wouldn’t be fair not to mention the third member of the team. Luis, another young chef, with experience in Copenhagen’s Geranium and until recently Xabi’s right hand man in the kitchen, but working here in the front of house as sommelier and maitre, with an engaging, friendly enthusiasm and a pretty handy wine list at his disposal. The wine list has a cracking variety of wines and some really nice stuff on it (some quality sherries as you can see, but also some top class bubbles and some lovely wines from all over Europe). It resolves one of the only weaknesses of the 7 Islas Craft Bar, and allows them to offer some nice, original pairings, which were excellent on the night.

There is no doubt that the 7i(T) Gastrolab is a phenomenon, but sadly it is only a temporary one: until the end of this month in fact. After that, Narciso at least will be striking out for a new project, although I believe that Xabi and Luis hope to stay on at the 7 Islas in one guise or another and, who knows, if enough of us get in there in the next couple of weeks …

So it is time to bring and end to dry January, veganuary, or any other atonement you may be planning for your festive excesses. Please take my advice and get yourselves a table before the chance has gone. You will not regret it.