Bodega y Viñedos Balbaínas – Part II

Went to a sensational tasting this week organized by the Union Española de Catadores. Peter Sisseck and his wines, including two vintages from each of Chateau Rocheyron, Flor de Pingus and Pingus itself. And of course, wines from each of his soleras in Jerez (I am not sure how many of us were there for the fino.)

You don’t need me to tell you that these wines are top drawer. The 2009 Pingus in particular is one of those wines that I can still feel on the palate the best part of a week later – superb richness and a solid, elegant structure to it, like a sculpted and polished block of fruit and spice. But the 2015 Pingus was also a beauty – similar elegance, a bit more brooding power and just a little bit less polished. As for the Flor de Pingus and Rocheyrons, well, it is a pretty good tasting where these wines are not the pick of the bunch.

Neither will it be any surprise to you to learn that Peter Sisseck is a winemaker with both a wide field of vision and a very clear idea of what he likes. It was fascinating to hear him on the relevance of ph, the types of soil (he enjoys a bit of calcium down in the rootstock) and the methods of replanting – his thoughts on training vineyards as far afield as Saint-Emilion and Balbaina, and vines as distinct as palomino and merlot.

But what struck me was his vision of the wines of Jerez. Because when he spoke about Jerez he didn’t speak in the same way about the vineyards, where they were, how they were planted and tended. Neither did this winemaker’s winemaker talk about unfortified white wines or fermentation temperatures or deposits. Rather, he spoke with something like veneration about what makes a fino, – and in his words, Spain’s great gift to the world’s wine heritage – the truly unique wine from Jerez. His thoughts were surprisingly classical but with an interesting twist, and resolved for me one of the great recent mysteries.

You see after acquiring a solera making one of the great finos – Camborio – Peter and his colleagues decided not to continue Camborio as such but to make two different wines, and I must admit being puzzled as to why you would buy Camborio if what you wanted to make were new wines (other than the fact that Camborio was for sale and would give you a pretty handy headstart of course).

The answer is the fascinating part, because your man explained that for him the top finos of Jerez gain their unique character and structure from one of the less glamourous sources: las cabezuelas. The dead lipids, the remains of the flor, tiny proteins that having given their all fighting off the oxygen and eating alcohol, sugar and glycerol from the wine but then die and sink to the bottom where they create a bed of madre that, much like lees in a white wine, gives the old finos and manzanilla pasadas a silky, buttery mouthfeel. Camborio and the other botas in the bodega had, in addition to some high class wines, a treasure trove of character and personality settled on the bottom of the barrels that would otherwise take years to accumulate.

He is certainly onto something. There is no question in my mind that those old solera finos have a fatness, solidity and clarity of profile that the single vintage wines, without those years of accumulation, lack. (In fact I was struck later by his comments on the importance of ph in his merlot and tempranillo because, as I understood it, he was thinking on the same lines – the importance for mouth feel and the sensations that the wines could give you.)

And the wines are good too. The Balbaina is a haybale heavy fino, plenty of aromatics and benefits from that age it has – the Macharnudo wine is also aromatic but raw by comparison – if the Balbaina is a swimming pool the Macharnudo had a touch of incontinent feline about it. But both are seriously interesting finos already with that structure to them. I cannot wait for next year’s first release.

But those Pingus, good grief …

Miracles in the mountains

I have in the past used the expression “miracle” when referring to wine making but the more wine makers I meet the clearer it seems that it is a miracle in the same way that Lee Trevino was “lucky”: the miracles are the result of a lot of very hard work.

This week I was treated to a staggering vineyard visit by Sabino and Isabel of Orujo de Liebana S.A. and was able to see first hand, from the back of a fifty year old jeep, pottering along on a track that most mountain goats would have simply refused to contemplate (and at an angle of almost 45 degrees), the sheer amount of work and passion that can go into making wine in the mountains.

As we made our way up to the vineyards we passed field after field of vines that had been lost to some ailment or other, and learned that 2018 had been quite literally a wash: so much rain in July that 2 hectares produced only 300 liters of wine. It felt like a miracle to find any grapes at all up there – but there they were, bracing themselves for the final assaults by birds and boars as they tried to make it the last week of September.

It was really humbling stuff, no surprise that this was officially recognized “heroic winemaking” (to be honest it was pretty intrepid just visiting) and although you could not find a friendlier, sunnier or more cheerful bloke than Sabino to show you around there was no mistaking that serious hard work was involved – red flag phrases like “by hand”, “14 hours” and “before dawn” were slipped in with alarming regularity (and considerable relish – to be fair your man Sabino seemed to genuinely love it).

But after a couple of hours of near vertical mountainside we were back down in the distillery. Sabino and Isabel’s main business is the Orujo distillery they inherited from Isabel’s grandmother – Justina de Liébana. It is widely considered to be Spain’s top distillery of orujo or anything else, with a beautiful array of 24 copper stills that slowly bubble away to allow for the most artisan distillation you could think of. (It really is as if they had just brought all the stills in the village under one roof.)

It would have been rude not to have a little tipple and while a fella is occasionally misunderstood he has never been known to be so rude as to refuse high class booze. And this was really high class.

To start with the wine – Pum de Pumareña – was as fresh, aromatic and fruitful as you would hope and had a lovely feel to it – we only had a snifter but it was enough to produce sadness at the cruelly curtailed production (only three hundred litres!) There were a good few more litres of orujo and good news there: wonderful lightness to the aromas and a smooth, straight to the chest heat in the orujos, along with beautifully integrated flavors in the liqueurs and cream.

Best of all for the parishioners of this blog were two little barrels of top quality orujo aged in sherry barrels – pedro ximenez and oloroso – in which those sherry characteristics really shone through on the nose and palate – deliciously dangerous stuff.

They told us they were in thirty Michelin starred restaurants that they knew of and it is absolutely no surprise. It was superb stuff, and the few bottles we bought didn’t make it back even to Madrid.

But the lasting memory will be of the kindness of Sabino and Isabel, inviting us into their home (and in Sabino’s case driving us up the mountain) to share what is clearly a passion for them. They could not have been better hosts and it could not have been a greater pleasure. I would raise a glass of orujo to them, but since I am temporarily out of stock this fino will have to do!

Encrucijado 2015

This is fantastic. A year in the bottle has really brought it on – cleaner lines and a sharper profile.

A rich buttery gold in colour on the nose you have dried apricots and just a hint of almonds, then on the palate it has a sharp, acidic start, and buzzy acidity all the way through, with a lovely middle palate of almonds and apricots and a fresh, mouth watering finish.

Lovely stuff and a little bit different than your standard palomino fino. Which is as it should be – this is perruno, uva rey and just a small dollop of palomino – a blend of varieties from the days of yore that make this the only true palo cortado.

You often hear that a wine from Jerez is “history in a bottle” but it generally only means it has been in the bottle – or the barrel – a long time. This really is history.

Bull Fight Sparkling Wine, by Manuel Gil Luque in Angelita Madrid

There are so many reasons to go to Angelita Madrid, and one of them is the chance to try your hand at blind tasting. I would challenge anyone, however, to identify this thing blind – was dark in color and had the pine resin aroma I associate with some old pxs, but a touch watery on the palate and a bit of burnt barrel in flavour – like the old burnt bread “tea” sailors apparently used to drink. I was thinking some kind of medium but it turned out to be an ancient sparkler of all things.

Once I saw the bottle I was only more curious. Cracking name – “Bull-Fight” – and it is by a bodega I had never heard of, Manuel Gil Luque, which the magic of internet informs me has been around as a brand since 1912. No sign of any new wines and certainly not much Bull Fight currently on sale. If anyone does have any information would be very interesting to hear from them.

Atamán Vermouth

In Jerez old is now the new new. Just missed out in the unveiling of this in Madrid this week. A newly relaunched vermouth under an old Barbadillo brand resurrected in 2017 after 40 odd years.

As I say, I missed the unveiling, and indeed I only made it to La Fisna before closing by the skin of my teeth and as a result have next to no actual information, other than that it is an old recipe with a manzanilla base and an amped up dosage of quinine.

The resulting potion is powerful stuff and not at all what springs to mind when someone says “vermouth”. The manzanilla base is dry as dry can be and there is no hint of sweetness. For me it is more reminiscent of an amaro, with burnt caramel bitterness, but saline. (You get the feeling that a martini made with this would be filthy rather than dirty.)

Serious, grown up, drinking.

Terrazze dell’Imperiese Bianco 2013

If you are only interested in sherries, look away now, because as its moniker suggests this is not a sherry. It is not even a palomino, or a vine grown on albariza. Unlike an increasing number of wines from around Spain it hasn’t had any flor, or spent any time in an old oloroso barrel. On the contrary, it is a 100% vermentino that has spent 19 months on its lees.

But it is slightly oxidized and doesn’t half smell and act like some of the palomino wines – it was suggested to me by Victoria in La Piperna (Madrid’s premier Italian restaurant) for precisely that reason and I am very glad she suggested it because the similarities and differences are very interesting. (After all, what do they know of sherry, who only sherry know? As a great man nearly said.)

Aromatically it is very similar – on nose alone I would have called this palomino, without question. As you would expect, the flavours on the palate are not dissimilar – maybe a bit more towards ripe fruit and plums than white fruit – like a palomino there isn’t much acidity and there is that touch of oxidation, to which palomino seems very prone. Having said all that, it lacks the distinctive salinity of the albariza wines, which leaves it feeling a little blunt at both ends, and for me the palate over all is less defined – less discernible herb.

Would be a good one to sneak into a blind tasting for all the new sherry experts (unless of course they read this blog).

De Alberto Dorado

You know that the guys in Jerez are doing something right by the number of would-be Jereces that are appearing. These days it doesn’t matter what region you are making wine in, you aren’t anyone if you aren’t making something under “flor”, something oxidated, something does with palo cortado or at the very least something aged in a barrel that was once used for fino, manzanilla, oloroso or similar.

Now the guys in Rueda have an answer to this. Their “dorados” are oxidated and are in some cases from soleras, but are no recent invention: if you know your history you will know that they are in fact backed by a long tradition.

Even so, it is surely no coincidence that after fifteen years in Spain I only start to see them now, with the “sherryrevolution” at full steam. And indeed in just a couple of weeks I had my first during a spectacular lunch at Alabaster and this, my second, during a cheekier lunch at Angelita. (Unless we include Beatriz Herranz’s Bruto, but that is 100% palomino so doesn’t seem to fit the bill.) Since then I haven’t stopped seeing them all over twitter, and although you never know whether it is the same 6 bottles in all the pictures it certainly seems like they are making a splash.

This one is 100% verdejo (it says here) and was very interesting if not to say quite curious. As you would imagine there is fruit in the nose but whereas your oxidated sherries give you an impression of sweetness on the nose here it came across as bitter fruitiness, like an orange marmalade. Then on the palate it had a bite of acidity and then again that fruity bitterness. To be honest I found it difficult to get into, but if twitter is anything to go by it won’t be long until my next opportunity.

Dorado Carrasviñas

Was given this blind by Fran, the sommelier at Alabaster, at the beginning of what turned into one of the all-time great lunches, and didn’t get anywhere near identifying it. To be fair, while I had read about “Dorados” from Rueda, until now hadn’t had my hands on one. (The nearest was probably For this is the verdejo and palomino answer to the solera aged wines of the South and it was very interesting indeed.

You can find a ficha here in Spanish and as you will see that it is an unfortified blend of palomino and verdejo (proportion not revealed but order of varietals suggests more verdejo) that have been separately fermented in inox before coupage. Then it is stored in 16L glass demijuanas for 18 months and subjected to the extremes of the Castilian summer – which leads to the oxidation – before being finished in oak barrels. (Although it all sounds like a single vintage process I couldn’t find a date on the label or bottle.)

The resulting wine is pretty interesting. As you can see it has a deep old straw color to it, which in my mental processes it had me heading manzanilla pasada or old fino. Then the nose had fruit – much more like a manzanilla pasada than fino, but even more fruit than that, very bright nose. On the palate it had quite an acidic start, which on top of all the fruit had the alarm bells ringing, and then that fruit, then a turn to sour fruit bitterness and a deepish groove of salinity. Quite a long, fiery and mouthwatering finish.

I might get pelters for this from the guys down in el marco but I really enjoyed it – tasty and complex, and a reminder of how much fun it is to taste wines blind. May have been a bit of the element of surprise involved but will have to see if I can get some to try against the real thing at my leisure. Nice one Fran!

Bruto 2014

Now here is an interesting wine: 100% palomino from a single vineyard, spontaneous fermentation in the butt, then 12 months “under flor” and 4 months in inox. 948 bottle in total. And from Rueda of all places. 

Quite a geographic shift (about 600 km north as the urraca flies) but I am told it is less of an innovation than a throwback to the times when a lot of palomino was grown and aged in the North. It is also from an impeccable maker – Beatriz Herranz of Barco de la Corneta – who has a cult following for making serious wine from a grape (verdejo) and in a region that are too often synonymous with egregious mass production. 

Most importantly it is pretty tasty stuff. I wouldn’t have said it had 12 months under flor – if anything I would have said a good few months oxidation – and neither was it the most expressive, but there is pungency, solidity and salinity there. 

As experts in Madrid bar tops will know from the picture, I tried it in Angelita, where this month all the wines are from female winemakers, but you can find interesting wines by the glass all year around. 

Lacum Listán Dulce 2014


A sweet wine from palomino fino (listán Sanluqueño) that I was first told had been aged in Sanlucar in old oloroso barrels but I have since been corrected – inox all the way.

I have only ever had a couple of sweet palomino wines and haven’t really warmed to them. (In fact to be honest I am not the biggest fan of sweet wines in general.)

This has a nose of sweet tomatoes and a nice mineral, sweet herb sweetness on the palate. It has a nice texture and isn’t over the top in sugar or alcohol, but for me lacks a bit of acidity up-front and has a slightly sticky bitterness – like biting tomato seeds – on the finish. Comes across as a bit heavy and a bit two ended – no real shape to it. 

File this one under interesting.