Friday, 5 September 2014

In Search of Lost Sherry

This is my humble translation of a very interesting article written by Paz Ivison in El Mundo Vino 28.8.14

Young winemakers in the Jerez area are on a hunting-gathering mission for Sherry. It might be considered a contradiction – young people looking into the past, but no, quite the contrary. The best vanguard is tradition, as was once famously said by the famous French writer, essayist, poet and philosopher, Paul Valery. His brilliant mind had nothing to do with oenology or wine, but his reflections are perfect on this occasion as on many others. Among these young winemakers whom I met in my home town, Jerez, I must highlight the sublime if difficult work which two of them, Ramiro Ibañez and Willy Perez, are doing. Both have worked in California, Australia… and gained considerable experience, ideas and knowledge travelling in the New World, and are applying their knowledge and fascination to one of the most historic and traditional of all the wine making regions in Spain, Jerez.

Happily, Sherry is beginning to awaken interest among Spanish people, long forgotten by the producers – let it be said in passing – and is beginning to experience what we could call a slightly better period, and this is down to its own singular unique and complex essence and the work of certain journalists, sommeliers and great aficionados, rather than the producing and exporting bodegas who looked at the domestic market as an afterthought. Export was all.

Exporting wine is the solution nowadays for nearly every bodega in the country, after all the years of crisis and huge competition. But we need to look back 50 years, when the panorama was quite different. There were few quality bodegas in Spain and Sherry, with not the slightest competition in terms of style was never really promoted at home, making its understanding and consumption among Spaniards of any age more difficult, let alone for the young folk.

These young winemakers are searching for the lost times and the lost Sherry. It is never too late. Films such as The Mystery of Palo Cortado, currently being shot in Jerez, great tastings, Gonzalez Byass Sherrymasters,  the Consejo’s Sherry Educators course, congresses, fairs and the naming of Jerez as European City of Wine have without doubt helped to recuperate some lost time. The vineyard area has been reduced to a third of what it once was – in line with falling sales – but there is no overproduction now, and quality is much better.

Ramiro Ibanez (foto
The oenologist Ramiro Ibañez Espinar, from Sanlucar, came back to the Sherry area after a few years of experience abroad, and took up a solo career as a freelance oenologist and viticulturist as well as producing his own experimental wines. It is to him we owe the seriously interesting wine which he made for Bodegas Ximenez Spinola, Original Exceptional Harvest. A vintage Pedro Ximenez, ripened on the vine, late harvested, macerated and fermented on the skins and aged for four months in American oak on its lees which were carefully stirred.

Its release onto the market was quite a surprise, though very little was available in Spain itself. I was able to try it thanks to the inexhaustible generosity of my good friend Armando Guerra of the Sacristia of the Taberna El Guerrita in Sanlucar, an example of a cult taberna and totally committed to the region and its wines. I strongly recommend you to visit it. (*See Paula’s tasting notes on this wine).

Despite the quality, modernity and novelty of this wine, the philosophy of the young proprietor of this bodega was still traditional: export. He thought nobody in Spain would understand it.  So we don’t have points of reference, and without them we’re not going to shake up the world, as Archimedes would have said if he had been here. Ramiro Ibañez no longer makes this wine, and the following vintage which I tried, again thanks to Armando Guerra, was a pale imitation of the glorious 2011.

In search of lost grape varieties
Ramiro Ibañez and Willy Perez are a certain type of winemakers. They share interests, research and knowledge. They are committed to the recuperation of the Jerez pagos (groups of individual vineyards), the first vineyards to be considered as such in Spain, but which for many years have done little more than serve as material for institutional texts.

Willy Perez (foto cosasdecomer)
Willy, thanks to his family’s recent purchase, has had access to one of the older vineyards, El Corregidor in the pago Carrascal and opposite the pago Macharnudo. Here there are 30 hectares of old Palomino (clone 84) planted before the arrival of the California clone. Willy was allowed 6 hectares in which to experiment and see if he could realise his dream, a vintage Fino, 2013 in this case, without fortification. He threw away many grapes and harvested two or three weeks later than usual. The grapes achieved 16.3% alc/vol without fortification. Some of the must was fermented in stainless steel tanks and part in butts of American oak, but for 2014 he has fermented it all in butts.

At the beginning of last November the wine was run into empty 500 litre butts which had been seasoned with Fino but had no remaining yeast sediment, and these are being kept aside in his father, Luis Perez’ underground bodega, which is mostly dedicated to red wines. So there it is, the vintage Fino, under a veil of flor, like a virgin bride approaching the altar under the expectant gaze of the loving young oenologist. Willy personally looks after this wine’s 20 butts which he has filled fuller than normal to avoid excess flor as it devours alcohol and could dangerously reduce the alcohol level over the 2 year minimum ageing period.

Late last November I had the opportunity to try the wine from the butts, and it was very long with an extraordinary minerality and well balanced acidity, dry with a marked bitter almond note. Then, the wine has 16.3%, but I have just tasted it again at 15.6% still with flor and with a few months still to age. All this without a drop of added alcohol, a really emotional experience, hanging by a natural thread, but we still need to wait.

2 year old vintage Palo Cortado
But Willy’s friend Ramiro doesn’t need to wait much longer. Soon he will bottle his Encruzijado 2012, a 2 year-old Palo Cortado – yes you read that right. This is a completely new wine, made from 50% grapes from old vine varieties which he moved heaven and earth to find, but managed to obtain from growers here and there in the Sherry area. These old varieties are: Mantuo Pilas, Mantuo Castellano, Beba, Perruno and Cañocazo, all with their rustic sounding names, and 50% selected Palomino with the bunches taken from the centre of the vine to retain a little more malic acidity.

Canocazo grapes on albariza soil (foto elmundovino)
His objective is to be able to offer the curious or interested consumer the possibility of trying and enjoying a wine aged biologically (under flor) but which has the right characteristics to be fortified and age oxidatively. But just before fortification to 18%, just at that moment when the capataz set aside one of “those” butts and said “This Fino is “Gordo” (fat), it is no use for Fino, it needs to be fortified”, and picked up the chalk and marked the butt with a line and a cut (palo cortado). The secret here is those old grape varieties which had a lot of malic acid and the artisanal fermentation in butts with natural local yeasts.

Ramiro trod his grapes with his own feet, he made only one butt of his 2012 which is now 20 months old, 10 under flor in the months of spring and autumn and 10 without flor in summer and winter. Encruzijado 2012 will come to market as Vino Generoso de Licor and without a DO. Nevertheless it is quite an experience - and one with a big future because the wine shows a surprising maturity on the palate with structure and lactic, buttery notes. (*See also Paula’s notes on Equipo Navazos No.52)

So as to our young hunter-gatherers, are they going backwards or forwards? We’ll keep you informed.

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