This is a translation of a thought-provoking article published 18/5/16 by Paz Ivison in El Mundo Vino.
“Back to the Future”: a paradox of great significance. Apart from being a film produced by Steven Spielberg in the 1980s, it is an interesting reflexion of the state of sherry today. If we could go back in time and look toward the future, surely things would be better, but it would not necessarily be easy, let alone profitable. Because nobody with any common sense or financial interest – like me - could begin to understand the complexity of a simple question: Why was the excess production of years ago, when there were far more vineyards than now, not distilled?
The uprooting of excess vines was subsidised, and considering the price the growers were receiving for their grapes, they chose to grub them up. I always remember my good friend, academic and bodeguero, Luís Pérez. Years ago now, I heard him on local television, and he said “If they took away the Giralda Tower from the people of Sevilla there would be a revolution, but they took away the vineyards from the Jerezanos and nobody did a thing.”
Talking about Luís Pérez, his bodega (Bodegas Luís Pérez) has a new project which is to distil brandy from only the best grapes from their Viña El Corregidor in the Pago Carrascal opposite the Pago Macharnudo. Here the vines are the old clone 84 of Palomino, planted before the invasion of the California clone which is more productive. In a previous report I spoke of Fino La Barajuela which is now a reality and furthermore accepted by the Consejo Regulador. Willy Pérez, Luís’ son and oenologist for the family bodega, worked hard to produce a Fino and Oloroso Sherry without fortification, made only from grapes ripe enough to give an alcohol level of at least 15.5ᴼ naturally, and after much grape sorting he achieved this.
The rejected grapes were not wasted however. They were simply sunned to achieve more ripeness, pressed in a vertical press and the first pressing was fermented in butts seasoned with La Barajuela. The wine was then sent to Tomelloso for distillation into Holandas of 65ᴼ. The first Holandas were distilled from the 2014 harvest, and after their return to Jerez they are now ageing in a couple of butts in a separate bodega, since they do not yet have the right documentation to be permitted to age it in their own bodega. The 2015 will be distilled shortly. Ageing is static, as opposed to the normal solera system, and anyway they have not decided yet how much ageing will be necessary or desirable, nor what exactly the end product will be, so long as it is 100% Jerez.
In the XIX century local grapes were distilled to make what you might call brandy, though the name Brandy de Jerez as such had not appeared yet. The first brandies distilled and aged in Jerez were sold in England by my great uncle, Francisco Ivison O’Neale, considered a great chemist in those times, and a bodeguero too– there were many bodegas then. He was restless, well -travelled and wise, with great knowledge of distillation thanks to his visits to Cognac.
He bottled them in 1880 under the brand name La Marque Spéciale and sent them to his agent in England without going into much detail. Although he was the first to export and the first to bottle, other much bigger bodegas were already ageing brandies, but Tio Paco Ivison, as everybody knew him, was also the first to dare take the risk – and deserve the merit - of bottling and exporting.
Holandas 100% from Jerez
Most people have heard of the prestigious Brandy de Jerez Lepanto from González Byass, which is distilled in spectacular old Charente-style copper pot stills in Jerez. While they are now using Jerez grapes, it will take a while for the older spirit in the criaderas and solera, distilled in Tomelloso from Airén grapes, to work its way through. Until that happens it cannot call itself 100% Jerez, but it will happen over the coming years.
Another firm which has begun to make brandy from their own Jerez-grown grapes distilled in Tomelloso is Grupo Estévez. The brandy could possibly reach the market by the end of this year, but I don’t know under which brand it will be (the firm owns several: Valdespino, Real Tesoro, Tio Mateo, La Guita..). Whatever happens, it will be released as a Solera Reserva.
It was Grupo Estévez who had the idea – now reality as of the 2015 harvest – of fortifying Sherry with spirit distilled from theirown Jerez grapes. It aroused quite a lot of controversy at the time since fortification alcohol has a strength of 96ᴼ and there are very few aromas left to distinguish Palomino from Airén. While this will make very little difference to the quality of the final Sherry but if all the raw materials come from the Marco de Jerez it will increase traceability enormously. Wine and alcohol from the same origin sounds good. It is a truth that is hard to argue with. It will, however, increase the price since alcohol distilled from Palomino costs more than that of the higher-yielding Airén, but Estévez are set on this idea.
The commitment of Estévez to the vineyards, of which they are the biggest owner with almost 800 hectares, is praiseworthy. We could say they have gone from silica to albariza, since it was the profits from a silica mine and the obsession of the founder José Estévez which recuperated many pagos of albariza and preserved the perfect condition of others, such as the Macharnudo, one of the best pagos in the Marco de Jerez.
Going back to the Vineyard
Juan Carlos Estévez is one of the heirs of the “Silica King” and is in charge of the vineyards of the bodega group which was founded in the 1980s with the purchase of the small bodega Félix Ruiz. He did not want to study and went straight to work with his father in the silica and sand business near Arcos de la Frontera. Wandering through the vineyards with him he tells me the first vineyard his father bought was 50 hectares from Félix Ruiz in 1985; the second, Lomo del Álamo in the pago Lomopardo; the third came with the purchase of the wines, brands and vineyards of Valdespino – 40 hectares in the mythical Macharnudo. Then five years ago they bought 400 hectares, originally Domecq, from Beam Global.
Even with approaching 800 hectares now, they do not have nearly enough as they sell huge quantities to big stores such as Mercadona (which has over 1,500 branches) for whom they are the main suppliers. In fact the 800 hectares covers only 15% of their needs and they are always on the lookout for more. Like any successful business, they are loved and loathed but their commitment to the vineyards is impressive. They are even restoring the ruins of some beautiful old casas de viña.
Juan Carlos is a great enthusiast for the vineyards, the countryside and the local vegetation to the extent that they also plant wild olive trees and cork oaks among many other trees and plants between the slopes of some of the vineyards. Although they are short of vineyard they still allow themselves the luxury of fortifying their wines with alcohol from their own grapes, all classified for DO Sherry, as confirmed to me by group technical director, Eduardo Ojeda who goes on to say that this way all the main brands such as La Guita, La Guita en rama, Inocente, Tio Mateo, Deliciosa, Deliciosa en rama, Fino Real Tesoro, La Bailaora, even Tio Diego are becoming more and more authentic being 100% Palomino from the Marco de Jerez. To achieve this we sent wine from our 2015 harvest to Tomelloso for distillation under the supervision of our technical department.
To raise the wine’s alcohol content by one degree 5 or 6 litres of alcohol per butt containing 500 litres are needed. Estévez has created new soleras, one in Sanlúcar and the other in Jerez, both based on the 2015 harvest fortified with Palomino spirit. This experiment is being conducted by the firm’s research and development department.
Figures and Words
The DOs of Jerez and Manzanilla sold jointly in 2015 35.5 million litres of wine, equivalent to 71,000 butts. The production of the 2015 harvest was 93,900 butts of DO qualified wine and 29,375 butts of unqualified wine. It could be said that if Estévez’ idea had been applied to the entire qualified harvest of 2015, nearly all the alcohol needed could have been distilled from the unqualified wine.
According to Grupo Estévez president, José Ramón Estévez, “This idea has a plus. It improves Sherry’s prestige and its image in the eye of the consumer, but in the longer term it will benefit the profitability of the whole production system of Sherry, starting in the vineyard, and it will put an end to the nonsense of disqualifying Jerez grapes while “importing” alcohol from somewhere else.
It is logical to imagine that there should have been a distillery in Jerez, above all when there was so much overproduction. Now paradoxically there is a shortage of grapes: the seasoning of whisky barrels and the distillation of Palomino for holandas and fortification alcohol leaves nothing left. José Ramón is quite clear: “We are happy to help, but it is really up to the cooperatives to organise a distillery, an initiative which would create wealth, satisfy the demand which I hope will grow for Jerez-made alcohol, and even lead to the planting of more vineyard specifically for distillation.”