Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Some Sherry grapes of the past

Currently, there are three grape varieties authorised for the production of Sherry: Palomino Fino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, and it is incredible how many styles of wine can be produced from them. But once there were many more, dozens of them. In fact 40 were catalogued by the great ampelographer Simón Rojas Clemente during his visit to Andalucía in 1807 and they were not all white.

Simon de Rojas Clemente

Their fall into disuse, and in many cases near disappearance, can be blamed principally on economic viability and Phylloxera. The latter arrived in 1894, wiping out those vines not planted in sandy soils. It was already known that the only hope was grafting vitis vinifera scions onto resistant American rootstocks, but some rootstocks were unsuited to the soils or the scions, and many varieties were all but lost.

Sherry, like all wines has evolved considerably over its long history, and it is only comparatively recently that a more complete understanding of it has been achieved. In the past, each butt of wine developed slightly differently (they still do, but not so markedly), giving a huge variety of styles with little uniformity, starting myths about whether wine styles “happened” or were “made to happen” which have persisted to these days in the case of Palo Cortado – doing no harm to its sales. The solera system was introduced as a way of controlling this, but even then, wine spent up to three years in sobretablas before its style was regarded as having been “fixed”. There was a limit to the number of soleras one could reasonably have, and inevitably some unique and wayward wines would be lost in the mix.

Esteban Boutelou

Many think the loss of these old varieties has changed the character of the wines. Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Oloroso are all now 100% Palomino, while in the past they often contained considerable proportions of other grapes. The Palomino was beginning its expansion into the vineyards beyond Sanlúcar long before Phylloxera because it was more productive and disease resistant than other varieties, and because it more easily produced the lighter styles of wine which were becoming more popular. Botanist Esteban Boutelou noted this preference as early as 1807.

Grape varieties are enormously complicated as they have so many names in so many places and often apparently quite different names account for the same grape. Also the same variety can give different results in different places, but here is a modest attempt to list and describe some of those all but lost varieties.

Albillo “The little white one” has many names such as Albillo Castellano, Cagalón, Albilla and Albuela. It was authorised by the Consejo regulador until quite recently. Simón de Rojas Clemente felt that Albillo should be the name of a family of grapes rather than an individual variety. It has numerous bunches of large greeny-yellow grapes which are juicy and good to eat. It buds and flowers early and can thus suffer from poor spring weather, which has led to its decline, but musts are both sweeter and more acid than Palomino. Albillo is also found in Castilla and the Canaries.

Albillo Castellano

Calona Rojas Clemente likens the red grape Calona Negra of Trebujena, Sanlúcar and Jerez to the Carchuna of Motril and describes it as exquisite both as a table grape and as a wine grape. This variety has yellowy leaves, a fairly thin skin, plenty of sugar and ripens early.

Calona Negra

Garrido Fino Native to Huelva, where most of it now grows, it was once permitted in small quantities by the Consejo Regulador, this white variety also bears the name Palomino Garrio. A vigorous and reliable vine, it produces numerous compact bunches of plump, greeny-gold spherical grapes. It ripens fairly late and its must is reasonably resistant to oxidation, possibly because of its higher acidity and lower sugar than Palomino. It was therefore useful for must correction, now done more scientifically.

Garrido Fino

Jaén Native to Andalucía and La Mancha, there is also a red version of Jaén. The earliest reference to it is in 1513 by Alonso de Herrera. It buds early making it susceptible to a poor spring as well as oidium and botrytis but resists drought and yields well, especially when trained on wires. It is sometimes confused with Palomino, with which it shares low acidity and sugars. It has traditionally been used in Sherry, and once also in Brandy de Jerez.

Jaen Blanco

Mantúo There are various versions, or at least names, of this white grape which was once quite common in the Sherry area and indeed authorised by the Consejo Regulador until quite recently: Mantúo de Pilas, Mantúo Gordo, Uva Rey, Uva del Puerto Real, Gabriela, Mantúo Castellano, and Mantúo Vijiriego. A late ripening fairly tasty greeny-golden coloured grape with a fairly thin skin and average levels of sugar and acidity. According to Eduardo Abela in his “El Libro del Viticultor” (1885) its wine was an intense gold with a strawy flavour, good body and aroma and was ideal for Palo Cortado. Mantúo was also a popular variety for “uva de cuelga”, the practice of hanging up choice bunches inside, away from the sun, to preserve them for eating during winter.

Mantuo Castellano

Mollar Mollar is thought to originate in the Canary Islands where there are red and white versions. The Mollar Blanco used in Jerez is also known as Cañocazo and was permitted until fairly recently for Sherry production, but its low disease resistance, especially to mildew, has caused it to decline. It is a vigorous vine with plentiful bunches of large freckled golden grapes which give a very sweet tasty juice and a fine aroma, and was used sometimes to augment the aroma of PX. Interestingly it takes its name from traditionally being grown with the support of a branch of the Molle or Aguaribay (false pepper tree). It is a minor ingredient in Chile for Pisco production. There is a red version known as Mollar Cano (Listán Negro in the Canaries).

Cañocazo-Mollar Blanco

Perruño has been around in the Sherry area since at least XVIII century, and was once permitted by the Consejo Regulador. Other names are Perruño de Arcos, Perruño Fino, Perruño Tierno and Perruño Común. It offers plenty of tight conical bunches of grapes which grow ever more golden with the sun’s rays. It is regarded as difficult to ripen and therefore can be a bit acid with a low sugar content. Its small, thin skinned berries are bitter to eat, so comparatively late harvesting is required, end of September at least, into October. It has decent pest resistance but is prone to cryptogamic attack. Julian Pemartín says it is best for Olorosos of average quality, but Lagar Ambrosio is making successful white table wine from it in Olvera. There are barely 5 hectares of Perruño left.


Zalema Thought to have originated in Grazalema (Cádiz) or indeed from the arabic "assalam alik" (peace go with you), it was once found in the Sanlúcar area. It is a vigorous, late ripening vine with good drought resistance but sensitive to mildew and produces thick skinned grapes which can have a faint bitterness and the must is easily oxidised. It is used to make table wines and generosos in DO Huelva, where 95% of it is now grown.


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