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.

 

 

 

La Corte de Pelayo, Oviedo

Your correspondent has been enjoying a much needed break travelling across the North of Spain, greatly enjoying the local hostelry along the way. And despite some big names, none have impressed me more than Restaurante La Corte de Pelayo, here in Oviedo.

It was recommended by a reliable trencherman and good friend as having a “good list of generosos” and if anything he sold them short – it is a superb list, of generosos (and wines of every kind) and once Hector, co-owner and Jefe de Sala spotted our interest, he revealed that that superb list only scratched the surface.

The restaurant itself is beautifully located and right up this blogger’s alley style-wise – friendly and unfussy but classy and elegant – and the food too was a great balance of hearty Asturian fare with a touch of class. We had two grand prix level dishes – fabada (ranked 4th in the world in 2019) and cachopo (the all Asturias champion) – and with no disrespect to the cider we have been swigging away the wines here were the perfect accompaniment.

Superb stuff and many many thanks for a cracking lunch.

La Bota 68 de Fino – Macharnudo Alto

This is the fino from Macharnudo Alto by Equipo Navazos that is a near relation of the all time classic Inocente by Valdespino and a comparison of the two – particularly if you could get a bottling of Inocente from the same date – would be very interesting.

Every time I try this wine I am reminded of the tremendous impact it had on me when I first tried it in January 2017 – it had such amazing zip and pizzazz and seemed to jump out of the glass at me. Since then I have found that it mellowed in July 2017, was hanging on in November 2017 and this time, in February 2019 had become fine and mellow to an extent that was unrecognizable from its original vigour. (It had also changed color noticeably, something I also noted in November 2017.

Of course the three later bottles might not have been stored in identical circumstances, the latter ones may even have been open a few days and these are living wines – you can never guarantee that they age the same way. But despite that all my experiences tend to point me to the conclusion that the explosive aromatics and flavour profile when first released – when you could accurately have described this wine as Inocente on steroids – are not sustained over the years in the bottle. In fact you get the impression that the wine is almost exhausted by all that early exertion – something I have never come across in an Inocente. (I will have to search one out with a December 2016 bottling to see if I am right.)

This wine is still a lovely drop: sweet, floral and herbal nose, soft palate with yeast, nuts and bitter almonds, and a fresh, mouth watering finish. But it is hard not to hanker after that younger, more effervescent incarnation.

Por debajo de la flor

Me han dicho que eso de escribir un blog sobre vinos que forman parte de la historia, patrimonio y cultura de España esta muy bien, y que se entiende porque lo hago en ingles, pero por otro lado seria un guiño al personal que vive en el antes aludido territorio traducir los posts de forma que se pueden leer en cristiano. (Estoy resumiendo un poco, porque me lo han dicho de una forma muy insistente, con muchos argumentos y no poca persuasion.)

Y la verdad es que tenían razón. No porque me puede traer mas lectores, o porque permitiría mi (muy querida) suegra seguir mis movimientos, sino por respeto a los aficionados españoles de undertheflor.

Mas de la mitad de los lectores accedan al blog desde este maravilloso pais y dentro de poco “celebraremos” el cuarto aniversario del blog, pero en todo este tiempo no he tenido la minima consideración con los castellano-hablantes (por no hablar de la gente de Jerez y Sanlucar).

De hecho, por si escribir en ingles fuera poco, he utilizado en todo momento un verbeaje de lo mas rebuscado, imposibilitando el trabajo del traductor automático mas asiduo. Esparto grass es poco, soy consciente.

Pero, por favor, no me lo tomáis mal. No es que no os quiero. Después de 16 años, 11 meses y 22 dias Madrid ya es la ciudad donde mas tiempo he pasado en mi vida (y los mejores tiempos ademas) y sois muchos los amigos que he hecho a través de este blog.

El mundo del vino, y especialmente del vino de Jerez, es una cosa muy especial, pero sobre todo por la gente que tiene dentro. Muchas gracias a todos por compartir tantas cosas conmigo. No me salen tan fácilmente los chistes en español pero vaya, lo intentaremos de vez en cuando.

Three years under the flor – a birthday wish

Back on the Costa where this blog was born three years ago now and it has been another fun year. More than 900 posts , thousands of hits and visitors and the rest (from over 120 countries, not including Iceland), some enjoyable lunches, sneaky glasses, fascinating tastings and riotous dinners, but most importantly, a few pennies are starting to drop and I am beginning to think I am getting a handle on what is what where these wines are concerned.

The first thing I learned is the incredible range of wines that can be achieved in the cellar: whether through concentration, oxidation, reduction and barrel and biological aging, blending with sweet wines and in soleras at variable speeds, all with the benefit of timescales that shame other regions, there is a sense of possibility that is quite amazing.

But the second thing you discover is that those possibilities bring great responsibilities, and mean great discipline is needed. With so many dimensions it is all too easy for your wine to end up unbalanced and misshapen, and if you get it just slightly wrong for thirty years you will finish up quite a long way off the path.

And the third thing you learn is that the biggest mistake that has been made is one of the most common, and it has been made for a lot longer than thirty years. Simply, that many bodegas have forgotten that underneath all those effects there should be a wine, a wine with a personality given it by vine, vineyard, and vintage. Too many of the wines in the region are being made with high yield, low concentration, low personality palomino clones that could and indeed are sourced from anywhere across the region. They are often still delicious – crisp, mineral, punchy and full of yeasty or caramel goodness – but they could be so much more.

Because once you have discovered the unique personality that palomino can have when produced with low yields, in different vineyards and in different vintages it is impossible to forget and difficult to go back. The resulting wines not only have added dimensions, they are unique. However majestic the bodega, however great the skill of the capataz, bigger bodegas can be built and techniques can be copied, but vines, vineyards and vintages cannot be replicated.

Don’t get me wrong, I never say no to a glass from one of the great soleras (and the Solear above was absolutely delicious at sundown yesterday), but if this blog gets a birthday wish it would be for the region as a whole to rediscover the miracles of its vines, vineyards and vintages. (And if I were allowed a second wish, it would be for the great “gurus” of terroir and vine to finally give el marco de Jerez the credit it deserves.)