Tuesday, 30 June 2015

An Interview with Beltrán Domecq

The president of the Consejo Regulador has been in Edinburgh for the first screening of El Misterio del Palo Cortado. I was lucky enough to spend an hour or two with him discussing all things Sherry and tasting some Palos Cortados, no fewer than eight in fact. He is a most delightful man and knows more about Sherry than one could imagine there is to know, so you can guess what an honour it was to sip fine Palo Cortado and talk about Sherry. 

We covered a wide range of subjects, far too many to cover here, but here are the main ones:

Finos and Manzanillas en rama and whether bottle age is good or not. Most labels will urge you to drink them super fresh, but Jesús Barquín of Equipo Navazos is convinced that they, like any other fine wine, will age well in bottle. Certainly I have enjoyed many which have spent some years in bottle, and their development seems to impart more oxidative and olive brine notes, but I (and friends in the trade)still enjoyed them – as much out of interest as for the flavour. Beltrán felt that they were over oxidised, and that they were already much older than most wines before they even went into bottle, and that was enough. As to the oxidation, I wondered where it came from, given that recent tastings of I Think were from dark bottles correctly stored out of the light in a cool cellar with Stelvin screwcaps. He reckoned that it partly depended how they were bottled, whether or not inert gas was used on the bottling line, and partly the effect of bottle age. We may have to beg to differ on this one, but the more Sherry one drinks, the more one appreciates the amazing nuances of flavour these wines offer. Many people might say the wine is quite simply “off”, but to some of us it simply getting more interesting.

Then we discussed the work of Willi Pérez who is experimenting in a serious way with unfortified vintage Fino from the Corregidor vineyard. This reaches its alcoholic strength naturally as the grapes are picked later. Another experimenter is Ramiro Ibáñez who has been making Palo Cortado to sell at 2 years of age called “Encrucijado” using about 50% grapes no longer authorised. Neither wine can carry the DO label, but the Consejo is interested and pleased that young winemakers like these are in the area. Who knows yet what will come of it.

The “Presupuesto” or the Consejo budget. I ventured how impressed I was by the achievements of the Consejo with such a small budget, one eighth of that of Rioja. Sherry has tripled its media presence, the Consejo has opened an excellent visitor centre, Sherryfest, The Big Sherry Tasting, the Copa Jerez and much more is going on, not to mention the lovely Palo Cortado film and all the tastings which accompany it. Given that Sherry is a much more complex and multi-faceted wine than any other, with a tradition of elderly drinkers, it needs much more promotional work than most wines. It needs a larger budget but how can it be increased?

At the moment, the contributions from the sector come from the growers paying per kilo and the bodegas paying per litre. Beltrán felt that the (very low) price paid by the bodegas to the growers per kilo should increase so that it was profitable to grow grapes, and thus provide an incentive to grow better grapes. The bodegas could pay more, and while some spend considerable amounts on their own promotion, more should be encouraged to do so, ideally advertising generically in the process. More bodegas could involve themselves in promotion abroad with a presence at international tastings, which should increase sales and therefore budget contributions. It is not that González Byass (for example) are ubiquitous, but more that they make a real effort, and many more should be doing that – given their budgets.

Next we discussed “balance”. There is a positive air in the trade as sales of “proper Sherry” are beginning to take pride of place, especially in gastronomic circles. Slowly people are beginning to see how good and how versatile Sherry really is. Overstocks are reducing as the balance of supply and demand is now restored to where it was before the last boom. Stocks are maturing nicely and new styles have been introduced successfully over the last 20 years or so, such as En Rama, VOS, VORS, 12 Years Old and 15 Years Old which offer a prestige wine and attract connoisseurs.

The vineyards. Now that the excess vineyards have been grubbed up, the Consejo has undertaken a huge project to map and identify all the pagos within the Denominación de Origen giving more precision than before. Beltrán was cagey about the notion of introducing something along the lines of “Grand Cru” vineyards, at least for the moment.  He did, however support the idea of single vineyard Sherry, pointing out that even now, one or two genuinely are.

On the subject of Manzanilla and its legendary saltiness, we talked about the research of a couple of years ago undertaken by Aecovi which showed that there was more salt in Sanlúcar vineyards. Beltrán pointed out that this would only be the case in vineyards very close to the sea, and many are not. Besides, grapes for Manzanilla can come from anywhere in the zone, they just have to AGE in Sanlúcar. In the end it must come from the moist winds blowing through the bodegas.

There are more Women in the Sherry business now, and we agreed it is a good thing. There are some important winemakers like Montse Molina (Barbadillo), Paola Medina (Williams & Humbert), Ana Cabestrero (Maestro Sierra), Maribel Estévez (Grupo Estévez) and Carmen Romero (Aecovi).

Beltrán had brought some Palos Cortados to taste: (Tasting notes are already posted)

Palo Cortado Pedro’s Almacenista Selection (Cayetano del Pino for Majestic)
Antique Palo Cortado (Fernando de Castilla)
Palo Cortado Leonor (González Byass)
Palo Cortado Wellington VOS (Hidalgo La Gitana)
Palo Cortado Obispo Gascón (Barbadillo)
Dos Cortados VOS (Williams & Humbert)
Palo Cortado VORS (Bodegas Tradición)
Very Old Palo Cortado Blend Medium VORS (Harveys)

The evening was spent at Drinkmonger Edinburgh, where Beltrán very kindly gave an excellent general Sherry tasting after having given the staff a tutorial during the afternoon. He must have been exhausted, but everyone in Edinburgh, not least myself,  is extremely grateful to him for all he did, for us and for Sherry, and I am certain the “Beltrán effect” will have more people drinking and enjoying this wonderful wine: Sherry.

PS: His book, "Sherry Uncovered" is an essential title in a Sherry lover's library, and is available at Amazon and the Consejo Regulador. It is a revised version of the Spanish original "El Jerez y sus Misterios".

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