Translated from a fascinating article in El Mundo Vino by Jose Angel Dianes (May 2007)
Sometimes we wine lovers have the good fortune that some of the many butts which, containing very fine or sometimes old wine and lying there in obscurity separate from the traditional andaluz bodega come out from the shadows and transcend their imposed silence and let themselves be known to connoisseurs. Such initiatives usually allow timely bottlings which a chosen few can enjoy, but after which these wines run the risk of falling back into obscurity.
So what should be done? Ideally, this is the opportunity to create a solera which would allow the regular bottling of this wine, thus retaining its quality and hopefully assuring its future. Thanks to the initiative of Jesus Barquin and Eduardo Ojeda, we have been able to enjoy just such occasions recently with some real treasures from the Sanlucar bodega of Sanchez Ayala, founded in 1789.
Wines like Navazos, NPI or Las Cañas and others which are yet to see the light of day. The bodegas of Sanlucar, which have for so long have played the role of almacenistas for the Jerez brands, have accumulated large quantities of wine which hasn’t had a market, but thanks to the patient and responsible work of the capataces has been kept alive for ageing. Because of the negligible releases of these wines, in most cases they end up becoming part of some blend.
This is what had happened to the already known Navazos or NPI, but also to other Sanchez Ayala wines like Don Paco or Arizon. Let’s examine each one according to what we can establish of their origins and historical antecedents. Once we have a clearer vision, we will reveal the plans, which from inside the bodega and guided by the forerunners of La Bota de.. can be considered as the basis for a solera line which will ensure future consumption of these enological jewels.
The starter’s pistol was fired by the Amontillado Navazos. It is a singular wine, which distances itself from what is usually considered the archetypical Amontillado. The principal organoleptic reason for that is the lack of dominance of the oxidative profile – we could be talking about a very old Manzanilla Pasada. Yet, if we do the sums, the wine in all probability averages over 30 years old. But how can a wine of this age not have been more affected by oxidation? To answer that, we must submerge ourselves in the past of the butts which form the Navazos solera.
Let’s go back. When our 2 friends, accompanied by the great connoisseur Alvaro Giron, came across the 60 butts from which Navazos was selected, in the bodega Sanchez Ayala in the lower quarter of Sanlucar, they met an old wine but one with a marked crianza biologica character on the nose and a concentrated dryness in the mouth. From what could be established with help from the last 2 capataces of the bodega, these butts came from a larger number of butts of a natural Amontillado, a wine which had stopped supporting flor and which had begun to oxidise, and which had been bought by the previous owners of Sanchez Ayala, before the bodega was acquired by Jose Luis Barrero.
During the time of Jose Luis’ predecessors the solera’s scales were almost certainly run, but since its acquisition by JLB in 1986, they were not, except for small rackings to reduce the number of butts where content had evaporated over time. These losses, of course, augmented the alcohol content to 20%. There never took place a second fortification, and the flor died off naturally as the yeast nutrients decreased.
This is a key factor. There were no sacas, and therefore no air to replenish the flor or to oxidise the wine as in an active Amontillado solera. Furthermore, each butt followed its own path as there was no horizontal blending either. And the wine has remained in the perfect atmosphere for Manzanilla – low temperature and high humidity, rather than being moved to a warmer, drier bodega for oxidative crianza. These conditions have slowed down the oxidation. What we have is a Manzanilla Pasada Amontillada which could normally be produced in say 10 years, which, after a productive period, stopped for 21 years, and is now over 30 years of average age.
Don Paco, NPI & Arizon
Somewhat older than Navazos is the Amontillado Don Paco. From references to its origins and its organoleptic profile, it is an Amontillado with an average age of around 40 years. It is a very old wine, more concentrated by age than Navazos, and in a more oxidised state than its “predecessor”. The solera has no scales, just 13 butts, plus another two, called “las botas del abuelo y de la abuela” which are in an intermediate state, in a sort of organoleptic no-man’s-land with their own character which is between the best butts of Navazos and the most fino of those of Don Paco. Again we have butts which have been here forever, probably as a result of acquisitions and the ownership passing through the generations of the previous owners.
The NPI is a very salty wine – more than saline, a concentrated monster created by age. It was already in the bodega 40 years ago marked as NPI, possibly by one of the Sanchez Portales, past owners of the bodega. There is no record of sacas between 1968 and 2007, and nobody is certain when a saca was last done. No-one knows the wine’s history, and its story probably died with some past capataz.
The Palo Cortado Arizon is a wine which still hasn’t come out, a parallel product to these other soleras. The solera consists of two butts from the “little Altar” of the Don Paco solera which have evolved slightly differently to the others. Organoleptically they are not Amontillado but Palo Cortado, and have been marked as such after the experience of Navazos and all the classification that that entailed. Although its origin is the Don Paco solera, and probably topped up occasionally from Navazos, it’s future is not yet clear, since its particular profile needs to be maintained and developed.
Las Canas y Gabriela
Gabriela, along with Pipiola is the Sanchez Ayala Manzanilla, well known locally and often sold in bulk. It is the firm’s main solera as much for its quantity (a total of 750 butts/toneles) as for its reputation. The butts are really old and many undoubtedly go back 200 years to the firm’s founding. It is a very authentic Manzanilla, with lots of flor character and good acidity, Its freshness and quality are already evident in sobretablas and it has a lot of extract, guaranteeing that it will provide the necessary nourishment for the flor for the long life of the wine. The solera has 12 scales-11 criaderas, the 6th of which is triple and is only run alternately:
11 Criadera – 48 butts, refreshed from sobretablas from finca Las Canas, a white wine full of character and extract
10 Criadera – 50 butts
9 Criadera – 48 butts
8 Criadera – 91 butts
7 Criadera – 51 toneles (bigger than butts) wine beginning to age by now
6 Criadera – 51,53,55 butts (159) run alternately allowing the wine to rest, arriving at the 5th criadera more mature
5 Criadera – 66 butts
4 Criadera – 55 butts
3.criadera – 46 toneles
2 Criadera – 40 butts
1 Criadera – 44 butts
Solera – Total of 46 butts and toneles, the butts in one row above the toneles.
In some of these we can see that despite the ideal microclimatic conditions of the bodega, the flor disappears partially at certain times of year, having virtually run out of nutrition from the wine. It will now easily be 6 years old.
The dynamics of this solera are complicated. A small saca is done every 20-30 days, but all the scales are not run each time. Instead the scales are run up to the 3rd criadera which is left unrefreshed. Once the 3rd has gone through 2 sacas, it is refreshed from the 4th and the scales above are run.
8 of the toneles in the solera were selected for bottling as Las Canas in the 4th “La Bota de”. Las Canas is a finca whose vineyards are situated in the Jerez area of Balbaina, and whose grapes provide the wine for the house’s Manzanilla. The bodega has owned the brand for a long time, despite not bottling it as such regularly.
Like Gabriela, this is a very traditional and authentic Manzanilla with an absolute biological character. This has been achieved, as it always has, by situating the butts in the places in the Barrio Bajo bodega which have the most perfect microclimate for this kind of wine. A place which benefits from a freshwater aquifer close to the albero, as well as Atlantic humidity brought by the west winds. Furthermore the high number of scales in the Manzanilla solera means the scales are run more, providing oxygen to the flor. It is the purest selection of the Gabriela solera.
Tracing the life cycle
For the last 20 years or so, the mermas and sacas of NPI have been replaced with Don Paco, and its own by Navazos. But Navazos has never been refreshed, and so the number of butts has diminished.
We should note here an interesting detail, pointed out by the capataz, Luis Gallego. It is very probable that these butts from Gabriela which are definitively amontillado-ing could easily have gone to stop the Navazos butts, but which in all probability happened sporadically.
So the obvious question was how to refresh the Navazos butts; how to secure the future of these old soleras. The answer was naturally an old Manzanilla. The reactivation of the connection between a Manzanilla solera and Navazos is effectively planned with Las Canas/Gabriela. But in general the idea with this solera structure is not to establish a continuous cycle of running the scales, but to make some blends where necessary and to leave each stopped butt to follow its course. This is the most practical way to deal with the sporadic bottling of this kind of wine, producing a wine with a different personality each time. This is, of course, the opposite of what the traditional solera system is supposed to do, but things here are different, and not always as written in text books, which usually express the general practice, but lack the details which make it really authentic.
So here we are at the birth of a solera, putting things in order for the rebirth of a world class wine. It is the happy recuperation of an important fragment of the cultural patrimony of a town and its people who must – and do – give a great part of their lives to their wine.