Socaire 2017

One of the fine wines of an exciting new era. Chateau Matalian Grand Cru, a lovely white-fruit flavoured white wine

And when I say flavour I really mean it because when you become accustomed to the range of flavours in these white wines from Andalucia you miss half of the graph when you step outside the bubble. Not just the salinity but stewy, vegetable and herb flavours.

This, as you can see, is the 2017 – these latest vintages have the year on the label as our man Primitivo chips away at the wall of resistance that is the Consejo Regulador with two powerful arguments: quality and sales.

This wine is an argument in itself. Not as ferocious as the first vintage I tried and maybe not as spicey as last year’s, this is ripe and elegant and frankly excellent. In fact to me this wine shows just how the Socaire wines have matured: no longer a curiosity or an experiment in a sherry barrel, but a high quality white wine in its own right.

I love it and I strongly recommend that you find some, buy it and enjoy it, or if you prefer, keep it a few years – it will almost certainly improve (for some reason the bottles in my cellar keep disappearing).

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 II: under the flor

Part II of the Cuatrogatos Wine Club Didactic Selection of Vinos Galacticos y Didacticos: la Charanga, la Choza, la Maruja, Camborio (or the special bottling thereof by Mr Alex Jules), Blanquito, Origen and el Cerro.

Galacticos because they are all world class and Didacticos because they all tell a story that I believe is relevant to understanding Jerez as it is today. That they all come from small independent and pretty likeable producers is also a big part of it – the official history this is not.

Part I was top class – two lovely palomino wines that went down a treat – but with a bit of luck you still have a glass or two of those to sup alongside these two lads in Part II as we explore under the flor.

By that I mean two examples of biological ageing: ageing of a wine under the veil of flor. Probably the most distinctive single feature of winemaking in Jerez (and, let’s be fair, a number of other less famous regions), biological ageing is where butts are left two thirds full (or more, but with at least a bit of a gap between wind and water) so that the native yeasts of the region – and particularly the saccaromyces beticus that thrives in Sanlucar and the montuliensis up in Jerez – form a living, lipid barrier on the surface of the wine.

That barrier protects the wine from oxidation but does so much more: the flor eats away at the sugar, alcohol and glycerol in the wine, making it dryer, sleeker, finer and sharper, exposing its saline and mineral skeleton, and in return juicing it up with the acetaldehyde output of its synthesis. New flavours and aromas develop – all yeasty bakery, chamomile and nuts – and the already more white fruit and herbal than average flavours of the palomino are sharpened and concentrated into really punchy, compact profiles.

And that isn’t all, because the flor, a tiny organism that lives on the surface of a butt of wine, well, it came for a good time, not a long time. It lives fast, on alcohol, sugar and glycerol, and dies (predictably) young. When it does, it falls to the bottom of the butt where it finally settles down and gently decomposes, creating what we call the “cabezuelas” – a kind of elephants graveyard of rockstar flor molecules that pretty much does the job of the lees in less interesting wines. The cabezuelas give the wines body and structure, from a slippy oil in the younger wines to a thick buttery mouthfeel in the wines that have been a while in the barrel. It is an often overlooked but very important factor in the winemaking of Jerez.

But anyway, enough with the intro already, here we have two top class examples of what a lipid can do when it puts its mind to it: a manzanilla de Sanlucar and a fino de Jerez (or is it?)

First up is La Maruja, a manzanilla de Sanlucar. (Maybe it is an appropriate moment to remind everyone that only wines “criados” in Sanlucar can be called manzanilla – a name derived from the characteristic chamomile aromas of the wines in the olden days, when the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar were probably more distinct than they are today.) This is wine that has been produced over around 8-9 years in a solera with 8 “classes” (what the bodegas in Jerez call a criadera) – young wine and vigorous flor at the top, and you can guess what happens as they blend their way down to the solera.

The result is a wine that when compared to the white wines is noticeably more aromatic (that acetaldehyde), sharper and zingier from the salinity, more pungent on the palate and fresher, more mouthwatering on the finish (again from the salinity). This one is no relation to the white wines in vineyard terms – all the wine these days comes from Pago del Hornillo in Sanlucar – and of course it is probably at least 8 years older on average (while it cannot have a vintage, the label on mine tells me it was drawn in June 2019 (the L number tells you year and day – 19174 is June 23, 2019)) but still you can see the similarities and the differences and get an appreciation for the magic of the flor.

That aromatic nose, zingy start and fresh finish are what make manzanilla such a famous aperitif of course but there is so much more to this wine – for a start it has had much more than the mandatory three years of crianza and the concentration of flavours and the body and depth speak to a much older, more serious wine.

The first of the similarities with its brother in arms in this Part II: the fino en rama Camborio, a 10 year old wine from a saca also in June 2019.

Now Camborio as a wine has a fair bit of history, some of it pretty recent. This is the name of the wine that was made by Juan Piñero in a solera and bodega at Calle San Francisco Javier in Jerez until a couple of years ago, when said bodega and solera were acquired by no less a winemaker than the legendary Peter Sisseck, who picked it up together with his long time partner in Spain Carlos del Rio as the foundation of what is one of the most exciting projects in Jerez – Bodegas y Viñedos Balbainas. The new owners of the solera and bodega didn’t acquire the brand and probably didn’t count on the existing management taking 5,000 litres of the wine with them to create a new solera elsewhere (not that they were concerned – their interest in the solera, fascinatingly, was in those under rated cabezuelas) and so the Camborio really never went away, with these new sacas resurfacing in 2019.

So this wine is not the magical stuff from 2016 or 2017, but it is a pretty remarkable effort, with the solera built up again with wine sourced from some top producers. Neither is it, strictly speaking, a “fino de Jerez” but rather something altogether more remarkable – a fino de Sanlucar (and therefore should be your first choice in Bar La Manzanilla in Jerez).

And what about the contrast with the manzanilla? The difference in structure and concentration is impressive. In part that is a function of how these wines are made. Whereas the manzanilla hot foots it through eight classes in eight years and is bottled 8 or 9 times per annum, the Camborio takes a full decade to dawdle through three criaderas to the solera, where it mooches about before being bottled twice a year. Different strains of flor are at play too – a beticus is a sprinter, this requires the stately montuliensis. And of course the wine is different – here we have some wine from pago Añina and a lot from pago Macharnudo – higher altitude, higher concentration pagos that Hornillo.

But good grief it is a great wine – so concentrated, so serious on the nose, so saline, so sizzling on the salt and pepper finish. The thing is a beast. Gone are the high, sweet notes of la Choza – the structure is there but it has gone down in register and up in bite. A verse of Lorca springs to mind – “Camborio de dura crin” – top stuff.

And the fourth dimension, once again, comes from the people behind the wines. Here we have a single name: Juan Piñero, again a small producer but one who has built up a sensational range of wines of a very high class. La Maruja is 8/9 years old and if you like it trust me you will not believe la Maruja Pasada – one of the truly great wines. As for Camborio, well not much to add to the above, and on top of these there are some old old wines – including a cream – that deserve some serious attention. And I probably don’t need to tell you who advises the bodega on winemaking matters – there was a clue in Part I.

And here endeth lesson II – my iphone is out of battery and a siesta beckons. Hope you are enjoying these wines as much as I am – I can’t wait for lesson three.

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 …

Undertheflor confined

Been a couple of months now and I still don’t know what to say or where to start.

First there are all the victims. Far far too many people have been taken by this terrible virus. The numbers are unimaginable. Today over a hundred had died in Spain and by comparison that was considered good news. 496 deaths on one day in England only made page 4 of one egregious newspaper. And the totals, even manipulated as they have been by governments more concerned with public opinion than public safety, are staggering. What is worse, every one of those too easily spun numbers is a person, a parent or a grandparent, a husband, wife, brother and sister, son or daughter, and perhaps most tragically doctor, nurse, hospital porter, ambulance driver, policeman, fireman, bus driver or other public servant. It is hard to imagine their suffering or that of their families, and it is just heartbreaking that there are so many.

Second, those front-line workers. Hard to put words to the respect, admiration and gratitude felt for all the workers putting themselves in harm’s way for our sake. One hopes that their contribution will not be forgotten and that they will get their reward at the end of this – it is absolutely clear that they deserve so much more than they get now.

And just behind the doctors and nurses are untold numbers of anonymous heroes: shelf stackers, checkout girls and guys, truck drivers, delivery men and women, bus drivers, police officers and so many others that have not stopped and whose efforts have meant that life could go on even when the world was falling on our heads. In particular I cannot but remember the tech team, the messenger and repro departments, cleaners and security that have kept my own office ticking over and made it possible for me, my own team, and the whole firm to work from home.

But as grateful as I am to those that have kept working my heart also goes out to those that have not been able to, and in particular all those restaurants, taverns, bars of all shapes and sizes, and all their suppliers, the distributors and bodegas. A lot of sectors have been hammered in the last several months and I spend a lot of my time speaking to companies that are fighting daily to hold things together, but I really just don’t know what to say to my many friends in the restaurant and wine businesses.

Possibly closest to my heart are the winemakers and their distributors and there is no over estimating the challenge that they face. It is heartening to see that off-licence sales of wine have increased more rapidly than sales of beer in the period everything has been closed but even if they had tripled, cuadrupled, they would not make up for the loss of sales through restaurants. Forget your plans for a beach body – summer is cancelled this year. Instead, keep buying wine, enjoying wine at dinner and lunch, and breakfast and afternoon tea if necessary – a glass of bubbles with your cucumber sandwiches, Fortnum’s style.

Because for restaurants, well I cannot imagine what it must be like to see a thriving business, that you have spent years building up in the most competitive market possible taken to the cleaners by a natural phenomenon on this scale. I cannot imagine how hard it must be, when you have spent years in the business of making people feel at home, to have to get on your motorbike and take them the food there. And I cannot imagine how it must feel right now to all those friends who have made a career in table service, making a connection with customers and helping create the unforgettable experiences that are the real objective of the restaurant business. It must be simply heartbreaking, and I wish I could offer some kind of solace.

I am lost in admiration for the many businesses that are fighting it out and making huge changes to their lives. My neighbour, Pepe Moran of de la Riva, has been an inspiration, my good friends at Zalamero Taberna sent us a sensational dinner home on their first day back and the other day I ordered a takeaway from Trifiker and, when I went to give the rider a couple of euros tip discovered it was Trifón himself! (And there are many more – I only have one stomach but will get myself sorted with a post soon.)

And the impact on the wine business is also severe. Wine is one of the great ingredients of the great experience of dining out, and one where restaurants, taverns, bars and the rest, and most importantly the sommeliers, waiters and maitres d’ play an outsized role in educating us and encouraging us to find those wines, those pairings that can make a good dinner great, and a lovely evening special.

My enjoyment of wine is so bound up with epic lunches and dinners in the many outstanding restaurants in Madrid that at times I find it hard to distinguish one from the other. This blog would not exist and would not make sense without Madrid’s restaurants, bars, taverns, vinotecas and botellerias, and so many wines – particularly sherry wines – are only accessible in the special venues that feature on these pages.

But way upstream from the urbane sommelier who opens our eyes and wallets are the growers – the people that plant, tend, and harvest the magic bushes of vitis vinifera that are the heart of the whole business. For some of them, the decrease in sales caused by this virus can mean a loss of a year’s, or even a lifetime’s work.

It is vital that we keep drinking, keep buying wine, that we order food (and wine) from our favourite restaurants, and that we do everything in our power to keep these wonderful flames alive. All our lives would be so much the poorer without them.

But more importantly, their lives have already been turned upside down, and obstacles we cannot imagine have been put in the way of people who had already overcome enough barriers for several lifetimes.

I promise that I will do what I can to keep consuming, and to keep encouraging consumption, and I hope that the many friends that have done so much to contribute to my enjoyment and passion over the years know that if I can help in any way – any way at all – they only need to contact me. Stand by me.

Callejuela Manzanillas de Añada 2015 – all three

In current circumstances if you are after a hat trick you could do worse than come to – a fella is fair punishing the bottlebank lately. And never in a better cause than here, with these three single vineyard (Callejuela, Añina and Macharnudo, respectively) and single vintage manzanillas by two of the bright lights of the “Cherrirevolooshun”: the Blanco Brothers of Viña Callejuela.

And I don’t say that lightly – the half dozen occasional readers of this blog may have observed seen the name Callejuela associated with the very first single vintage manzanilla that hoved into view, the now legendary 2012. That one was from the Callejuela vineyard itself but a seed was planted. It was followed by the manzanilla en rama from the same vineyard – a bigger boned cracker – and then by the single vineyard wines from Callejuela, Añina and Macharnudo – also three little beauties.

But these are probably the best of the lot so far. Zippy manzanillas – and there is no doubting their profile wherever the grapes come from – with the added elegance of single vintage wines and just enough fruit still in them to lift them above your standard manzanilla profile.

They were harvested in 2015 and bottled in May, 2019, which would put them in the ballpark of Volume II of the 2012 manzanilla in terms of development in bota, but in addition they have the added dimension of the different vineyards.

Because they couldn’t be more different. Since I have been working on these three bottles I have changed my mind half a dozen times as to which is my favourite – although almost certainly between the Callejuela and the Añina.

Callejuela is Sanlúcar of course and is stylistically the most familiar manzanilla – but this version is just about as good as it gets -zingy, concentrated chamomile. Añina is a Jerez pago, but one of the favoured pagos of the manzanilla men, and while it doesn’t seem as compact as the Callejuela it is more floral and has that little bit of hazelnut deliciousness. The Macharnudo was my favourite of the white wines and there is no doubt it has a bit of beast about it, with a really piercing aroma and zingy back end – but maybe doesn’t quite hold up in the middle like the other two.

So Callejuela it is, or maybe Añina. Frankly, you should get all three because the only thing wrong with them is that the bottle is too small.

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 …

Ube Carrascal 2015

I only have two bottles of this (vintage) left but couldn’t resist it.

I don’t know what it is about Ube but every time I have a bottle another one soon follows, and after that, well, one thing generally leads to another.

It is a class old vine palomino from a typically vertical, Atlantic Sanlucar, and this one from a warm year has a touch more fruit heft to balance the savoury, stewy herbs.

Superb – really world class white wine.

Fino El Aljibe

One of the newer labels in Jerez but an old school wine. A compact, solid fino with a lot of time in the barrel.

It comes from a compact, solid project with 16 hectares of vines on Pago de Añina in three vineyards: San Cristobal, El Aljibe and San José. Under new ownership but with old vines, a lot of varieties and clones in each vineyard but also a lot of new thinking. They have had them in ownership since 2015 and have produced wine since 2016. Those wines are used to rociar acquired soleras with a long history.

The fino is from a solera with four criaderas and the 2500 or so bottles a year have had an average of 8 years under flor.  The result is that compact, solid fino I mentioned earlier. Almond, yeasty dough and haybale aromatics and then a solid palate with a nice zingy start, bitter almond and slightly undercooked bread and then a mineral finish.

And it has a solidity to it that makes you feel like it is one of those unbeatable finos. The spanish have a frankly mystifying word: impepinable. Literally it means “uncucumberable” but after eighteen years in Spain it seems to me that it means you can’t fault it. 

And you really can’t fault it. Uncucumberable.