Sunday, 6 December 2015

Types of Sherry: Manzanilla, The Wine of Sanlúcar

Of all the different styles of Sherry, Manzanilla is the only wine with its own separate Denominación de Origen within the overall Sherry DO of Jerez-Xeres-Sherry: Manzanilla Sanlúcar de Barrameda, granted in 1964. The reason is that it is different despite being made from the same grapes and by the same process. Oddly, according to the regulations Fino can be produced in Sanlúcar but Manzanilla can’t be produced anywhere else, though the grapes for Manzanilla can come from anywhere in the Sherry production zone. But as someone once said, "Manzanilla is born of a romance between the sea and the west wind."

This delightful style of Sherry could be defined as a wine always aged biologically under a film of flor yeast and bottled at various stages of ageing from very young to very old. It is fresh, bone dry and has pungent saline almondy yeasty notes like sea breezes with a hint of dried flowers in its youth, up to tangier, savoury, nutty autolysed yeast notes when older. Manzanilla is the style of Sherry most profoundly affected by the flor yeast since the moist coastal atmosphere promotes its growth.

Sanlucar at the mouth of the Guadalquivir looking roughly north
Once the powerful climatic effect was understood, bodegas were built in the best possible locations and oriented to get the most from the humid Atlantic breezes. Furthermore, esparto grass “curtains” on the windows and the earth floors are often sprayed with water to accentuate the coolness and humidity, anything to keep the flor happy.

Because of this, Manzanillas can age for long periods without losing their freshness, as long as the butts are refreshed regularly. In Sanlúcar therefore, soleras have many more criaderas (or “clases” as they are called locally) than in Jerez, and the butts are refreshed more frequently. In Sanlúcar it is not uncommon for this to happen monthly, while it would be more likely quarterly in Jerez.

Sanlúcar de Barrameda is in a unique situation at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir with direct access to the Atlantic. The town lies on the south bank opposite the extensive UNESCO protected marshlands of the Coto Doñana. This geographical position provides a unique fresh, humid microclimate for the production of Manzanilla, as well as providing plenty of the chalky white “albariza” soil which is ideal for the growing of the Palomino grape. The main local vineyard areas or pagos are  Miraflores and El Hornillo.

There is ample evidence that wine has been produced here for some 3,000 years, pre-dating the arrival of the Greeks and the Phoenicians. Successive colonists realised the quality of the wines and production and export grew. But it was not until the XIII century, after the re-conquest from the Moors in 1264, when wine became the principal source of wealth to the town. The lord of Sanlúcar, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán “El Bueno” was awarded privileges by the grateful Catholic Monarchs, one of which was to hold open fairs each year, and these began to attract foreign traders such as the Bretons, English and Flemish. He was also granted the right to load and unload cargo in port, and Sanlúcar grew to be one of the most important ports of the late middle ages.

In 1492 the Americas were discovered, and soon a new seafaring route was opened to “Las Indias”, with Sevilla, further upstream, granted the commercial monopoly of the American trade. This made Sanlúcar an important port for the provisioning of shipping, as some ships were too big to reach Seville, and there were many “Cargadores a Indias” (“provisioners for the Indies”) loading ships with both export goods and provisions for the journey (including the local wine naturally) or transferring arriving goods onto smaller vessels for delivery in Sevilla.

Sanlucar from the river XVI century
With foreign trade increasing, especially in wine, traders were given further privileges as an encouragement. Many, especially the English settled in the area and founded the trading company Compañía de Andalucía in 1530, based at the Church of St. George which was built on land given to them by the Duke. By now the vineyard area had increased massively and many traders were vineyard owners and wine producers, but life soon deteriorated due to the unstable political situation between England and Spain.

With a protestant Queen Elizabeth reigning in England and the great wealth being brought back to Spain by sea, English raiders such as Hawkins and Drake posed a constant threat, leading to the Spanish Armada of 1588. The Spanish Inquisition made life difficult for English traders in Sanlúcar, but though wine exports slowed, they by no means stopped.

The wines of Sanlúcar really took off in the second half of the XVIII century. By the time of the census of 1777 the town had a population of 15,000 of whom 116 were foreign. At this time agriculture and viticulture were the most important activities, followed closely by maritime trade with 26 cargadores a Indias. The main exports were wines, spirits and salt, while the most important imports were sugar and cacao. By the end of the century some cargadores had moved their business to Cádiz yet still lived in Sanlúcar, where many diversified into the wine trade, looking north rather than west for business.

Towards the end of the XVIII century much had been invested in the vineyards, and a wine they called Manzanilla first appeared. The first recorded reference to it is in 1781 at a Cádiz council meeting. It won great popularity especially in Cádiz being lighter than the usual oxidised more Oloroso styles of a single year which had been the norm. There is no written evidence, but it is thought that the idea of the solera came from the taverns, often run by “montañeses” or people from the north of Spain. They noticed that when a barrel of Manzanilla was not regularly topped up the flor yeast which developed on the surface made the wine more interesting, and producers experimented with ways to do this on a bigger scale. The development of Manzanilla and the solera went hand in hand.

With the XIX century came war with Napoleon and French occupation during which 1,700 butts of wine disappeared and in the 1830s the loss of the American colonies. Yet Sanlúcar was on the verge of its golden age as wealthy expats returned in the second half of the century. The bourgeois class was emerging and the wine business was growing with increased investment in vineyards and the construction of bigger bodegas. The railway arrived in 1877 facilitating sales further afield within Spain. Phylloxera in France helped increase exports. Manzanilla became the most popular wine in Spain and beyond. Bodegas in Jerez and El Puerto all listed Manzanilla. But it all crashed to a halt when Phylloxera arrived in Sanlúcar in 1894 wiping out many vineyards and smaller bodegas.

The XX century saw gradual recuperation but was very quiet until after the 1940s when sales began to increase again through till the end of the 1970s when sales of Sherry in general began to plummet. Currently Manzanilla is extremely popular especially at the ferias, but Fino sales are currently ahead.

Etymologically speaking the word Manzanilla is tricky. If you order it outside Andalucía you will get a cup of camomile (Sp. Manzanilla) tea. Both will do you good but one is much more fun than the other. It could be named after a town called Manzanilla in the province of Huelva. Academics have argued about the word’s origin for years as there is no historical documentation. In the days before accurate records and Denominaciónes de Origen it was quite common for wines to go from one area to another either for blending or for export from a suitable port – such as Sanlúcar. The wine from Sanlúcar could have been named for its similarity to the other (ie “like Manzanilla wine”). After all, Amontillado is named as being “like Montilla wine”. Certainly many wines are named after the place they come from. Other possibilities are that it is named after the occasional floral camomile-like aroma found in some Manzanillas or after the slight apple (Sp. manzana) aroma. Then there are Manzanilla Olives, the briny aroma of which can often be detected in the wine. Whatever the case, the word Manzanilla has meant Fino-style wine from Sanlúcar for well over 200 years. Another curiosity is the fact that while wine is a masculine word in Spanish (el vino), Manzanilla is feminine, and many labels reflect that eg: Gabriela, La Guita, Aurora, La Goya, La Gitana etc. There have certainly been a few prominent women producing Manzanilla over the years.

Javier Hidalgo of La Gitana with typical Sanlucar cane venencia
This wonderful liquid is bottled in various forms. Manzanilla Fina is a young wine heavily filtered for the everyday market, the bread and butter of the bodegas. Wine labelled simply Manzanilla can vary from Fina to some quite old wine, say 3 – 9 years old. Then comes Manzanilla Pasada, a wine which has spent longer in solera and is usually sold at well over 8 years old. This has much more complexity thanks to longer flor contact and some autolytic flavours from the dead yeast cells at the bottom of the butt. It is similar to a Jerez Fino-Amontillado, but in Sanlúcar a wine can be very old before they want to use the word Amontillado. For instance La Guita has a “Manzanilla Pasada Vieja” which is about 22 years old and an even older Viejísima. They used to use terms like Manzanilla Amontillada and Manzanilla Olorosa (fragrant rather than an Oloroso) but they were deemed too confusing. Now labels must have one descriptor of the wine so an old Manzanilla Pasada will probably have to say Amontillado. La Guita’s Manzanilla Pasada Vieja mentioned above is labelled by Equipo Navazos as Amontillado yet it still has strong zippy Manzanilla characteristics.

Finally there are the En Rama wines, a style pioneered in Sanlúcar, which are usually selected for their good character and bottled with minimal “stabilisation” (or excessive filtration). They have lost much less of their colour and solera flavour and are quite delicious. We are told to drink them as fresh as possible, but they will happily age in bottle – some are even bottled in magnum for that specific purpose.

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