To finish with sherry, or at least the sherries on my list, let me note a wonderful Pedro Ximenes, stamped `Sherry`, and furnished to me with the ticket `very old in 1860`, by my constant friend in these ways, the late Mr.John Harvey, of Bristol, respecting whose cellars and those of his successors it may certainly be said:- `There`s nothing rotten in the street of Denmark.` It was not a wine for babes; but as curiously interesting to grown-ups in wine-lore. (G. Saintsbury, July 1920)
This may sound like a malapropism, but! when was the last time you swallowed a good glass of Sherry? Si señor y senores, a splash of the olde Hairedth, Xeres, Jerez or Sherry (depending on which side of Ganges you come from), yes that filthy old fortified commercial rubbish that anyone born between 1100AD and 1995AD can pretty much remember, if you are English that is, to avoid. San Patricio Fino was the preferred top stuff back in my day. There was always a bottle in the fridge ready to cook with and sip on whilst on the job of preparing a Paella (no chicken please), or stiring a sauce to go with a fresh Trout or Dover Sole. Even a rabbit stew would be bathed in the stuff. However, since, when I was last told of the famous Brexit date (31 Oct.19) that never happened, I have been not only to one Sherry tasting but also to a Port tasting, both well organised and all the fortifieds showing qualities that I have never come across before. This must be a good omen of historically good manners for Great Britain when it finally does leave the EU goverment-handcuffs. Normally I would run a mile away from both events, as I am a wine drinker and not a fortified man. But as one gets a little older here I guess I am not frein from doing my duty to try new styles of wine, even though they may actually be ancient in soul, and yet have been reinvented and repositioned in the wine market (not mine) for the latest trendy restaurant, bar or sommelier ‘workshop’ of which I have, of course, all the respect for. It’s just not my bag. So when a spontaneous invitation arrives to join Paul Symington and his family to taste their latest Pinhao offerings and at the same time listen to some amusing anecdotes of Douro life, I had to go along.
We tasted, after a good glass or two of very good Charles Heidsieck Extra fizzy Brut palate-cleanser, and a first for me here, a Plombal do Vesuvio 2016, which if I still lived in England I would definitely have as my new house red. Tremendous dark red concentrated and fully loaded. Mineral and fruity aromas. Dark cherries, ripe plum, blackcurrant and a real man’s red wine, if real man is still alive and kicking.
My scrawl during the evening becomes totally incomprehensible as I became spellbound by Mister Symington and his tales. So I will not try and bumfluff my way through the notes infront of me. But I can tell you that what followed where these wines, and then the Tawnies and then the Vintage Ports. I can remember the 2014 P+S Chryseia which is a joint venture of the Pratts Family (Bordeaux) and the Symington Family (Douro). Paul told us that this was easily the best red to come out of Portugal since the first vintage produced in 2000. His brother just tried the 2003 and apparently it is to die for, as maybe the price will be also one day. The 2014 Chryseia had a powerful and concentrated nose of kirsch, red plum and baker’s chocolate, balanced by tarragon, slate and violet details. Elegant, with supple tannins framing the long finish, which is laced with hot stone, olive and licorice accents. There are no more than 2000 cases made a year, and one to look out for. 2015 Quinta do Vesuvio, I have no clue about this one, sorry, pure scrawl! The Tawnies kicked off with their Graham’s 20 Year Old Aged Tawny, my favorite Tawny of the three, and then 1994 Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny. I sat up for the 1963 Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny as we were told that there were only around 60 bottles left of this one worldwide. Well now 59 bottles of course. It is a bit younger than I am and as intense as I am, with a deep amber colour. Exquisite multi-layered wine reveals delicate citrus aromas with hints of honeysuckle, black tea and fennel. It is smooth as silk on the palate, showing hints of almonds and walnuts, fruitcake and a soft toffee undertone with a slight minty edge. The finish is unctuous and long with a lingering, exquisite aftertaste. I will now go and look for a bottle or two in the market place.
Now, on more familiar territory for me, some 1985 Dow’s was poured followed by 2000 Graham’s Vintage Port. Again no notes sorry, but both delicious of course. My head was in the Oporto clouds just simply enjoying the event.
The Dow’s 2011 and Graham’s 2017 Vintage Ports where the backdoor of the evening, and not a drop of each passed my esophagus. The former Port being so tannic and dry, and then the 2017 vintage I have noted as being a blend of 35% Touriga Nacional, 47% Touriga Franca and various others, including a blend from older vines. It came in with 113 grams of residual sugar. This bottle had been bottled about a month or two before this tasting and even in my varied experience of wine and port tastings, I just had to splash both into the spitoon, and look for more Charly Heidsieck Extra Brut.
Now if that tasting is not being at the heart of a European consciousness, held in England`s capital I do not what is, and really what a treat to have the head of a highly respected Portuguese wine family, albeit educated in England, to share his thoughts and opinions on these wines and Ports. Bravo to all, and a great Brexit evening was had by the gathered, except Boris of course.
On the other side of the world, and just a few days later an even more spontaneous invitation arrived on the doormat to what I understood to be a wine tasting, and a first in Buenos Aires. It was put on by two lovelies, Eli Fernandez and Mercedes (her cousin) who go by the locally and newly formed wine importer synonym of ‘Morocho Group’ (or for those of you PC inclined, people with dark hair and dark skin). Now these girls have gone to great lengths to register and import to Argentina a bunch of top names from Spain. Mainly from Rioja, Priorat, Rias Baixas, Penedes and Jerez de la Fontera. This was the evening of the latter and much to my surprise we kicked off with two white wines. Navazos OVNI 2018 Palomono Fino and Navazos Pedro Ximenex from 2017 vintage. The PX had a gorgeous nose of Jazmin, honey and white fruit, both pear and grapefruit. On the palate showing a wonderful walnuttyness and flor aroma. The Palomino showed off super fresh apple quince and a chalky salinity that I absolutely adore.
We then entered a world, which I can only describe as both a pleasure and pure hell. The former is due to their expertise, and of the showing the wines and explaining in great detail, the geography and everything that went with the production of these Jerez jewels. The latter (hell) is because the next day, and most of the following day, I simply felt like Don Quixote whilst he was still pinned to the sails on one of those Manchurian windmills. But then again when wine glasses are nearly half filled to the brim with sherry to taste, and not using my favorite WSET/ISO tasting glasses (ideal for sherry with it’s 25ml bulge) one can only be lead astray. The tasting was also tutored as if it was a wine tasting, so there was a lot glugging going on. Staying on course with Equipo Navazos, and closer to the river Guadalquivir, La Bota 71 de Manzanilla was the first up. Chamomile and wild yellow flowers. Over time it evolves towards hazelnuts. A much bigger salinity than you’ll get from commercial manzanillas, the girls tell me. Green olives. Slight yeasty notes, with hints of wet bodega floor and oak. A touch of (dried) fruitiness as well. Surprisingly full-bodied palate. Dried fruits but also a good degree of acidity (lemon). Cashew nuts. Quite some salt. A hint of iodine but very much in the background. Quite a long finish, with the same sweet / sour / salty balance.
Next to it, another non-thimble portion of La Bota 68 (Fino) waited analysis, and showed a rather complex mix of leathery notes and plastic. It may sound funny but it’s quite delicious and intriguing. Also wet beaches and all sorts of oily notes (olive oil, linseed oil, almond oil). Goes towards plain fat, but without the typical bacon fat notes of some other Finos. Lots of flor influence and hints of humid cellars. But fruity notes as well, which is quite extraordinary for such an old wine. Lime, yellow apple, dried orange peel. Almonds. Even a soft hint of caramel sweetness, although it is entirely dry of course. Not at all your typical Fino. The usual briny acidity is there, but there’s more oak to be found and obviously also traces of an Amontillado profile. Almonds and hazelnuts, toasted bread. A bit of fruity roundness as well. Mineral notes. Energetic yet elegant, with an excellent weight. Long finish, with nutty notes, soft spices and just a hint of brine.
We then followed it with La Bota 58, this was an Amontillado (with no mention of walnuttyness here) that had a fragrant nose with brown candy sugar, baked banana and maple syrup up front. Fresh figs and toffee. Also beautiful notes of polished oak and a little turpentine / iodine, I love that. Leather and tobacco. Evolves on herbs (rosemary bread), olives and blood oranges. Indeed the coastal notes are in the background here, but there are chamomile notes and chalky notes that give away its origins. Hints of ponzu sauce. Just great, very smooth and complex. A very good grip in the mouth with dry and rich nutty aromas as well as a powerful, refreshing acidity. Fading on cashew nuts. Very long finish with an excellent sour edge.
Feeling already the Don Quixote effect we plughed on with La Bota 75, a Palo cortado de Sanlúcar which was a rather delicate Sherry and light-headed, with plenty of toffee sweetness, candied orange peel and honey coated almonds. Dried fruits. Nice hints of waxed oak and some toasted chips in the background. Sweetish, but also very umami, with soft hints of broth. Interestingly, even without the clear influence of flor, there are also maritime notes and the minerality of biological sherry. Not a mature nose, but with an almost impossible complexity. A lot of bite on the palate, both very refreshing and very warm. A lot of nutty notes (almonds, walnuts), dry and slightly salty (clearly Sanlúcarish!), balanced by soft bitter herbs and a good deal of caramel sweetness.
Being the importer of Zalto glasses to South America, Argentina, Brasil and Uruguay, which I am thoroughly enjoying by the way, one of the fellow Sherry tasters came up to me, with no introduction and having spent most of the evening being the protagonist, bombastic, bulbous taster at the table and over enjoying his own voice and opinions without challenge, and I guess not for the first time. He said in a gruff voice to me, and with no introduction, ”I want to buy some of your wine glasses and I want a big discount’. Now, totally out of character and on this occasion I can only blame the 15%+ of alcohol in the delicious sherries we tasted. I said clearly ‘Sir, yes I have the glasses but if you are looking for a discount, I can tell you where to find it. Go stick your head up your ass and look for it in there somewhere. When you have found what you are looking for, please do not contact me, I am not interested’ CiaO! Fortunately for me a lovely dinner followed in Resto with two local wine men, and shared good wine and good conversation, and until writing all this now I had forgotten the horrible moment apres-taste! I am of course apologizing to myself.
Even Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra had some vinous wisdom to share with us here: “It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine. This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You can imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.” (pp.234-5)
On the Jerez theme, which played a huge role in the future and past of the Sherry business, I can just about remember what was then called the Rumasa scandal (in 1970s/80s). For those of you who have no idea, most people do not, I can enlighten you to the fact that a local Andalusian, who went by the name of José-Maria Ruiz-Mateos signed a contract with what was then one the largest brands of Sherry booze in the world, based in Bristol, England. The Harvey’s of Bristol needed buckets of material to bottle their famous Bristol Cream. It was a huge success of a sweet alcoholic drink and needed trillions of liters of Jerez grape juice and local brandy to fortify it with, in order to keep to the contract Ruiz-Mateos had signed with Harvey`s and to keep up with world demand. It involved this José-Maria buying everything from Bodegas, grape farms, hotels and even banks to secure the stock of juice needed, and of course to increase his empire and ruin the reputation of sherry for decades after. Enough said really on this as it not only put several generations of Sherry drinker off Sherry, but it left the market in a dire position for years and years afterwards. The qualities and practices of the Rumasa boss where unparalleled since the Austrian Gruner Veltliner scandal, and for that matter the more recent Brunellogate of 2008. Mickey mouses in comparison. So now our Greta Thunderbird world is full of lovely Sommeliers of all cuts and persuasions, sizes and knowledge. These new style Sherries are right up there street. It is all essentially the same product that has been made since the Phoenicians planted the vine on the Peninsular back in their day, but as one of the girls mentioned during the tasting, and to my amusement, the other night. She said that back in those olden days (I guess she means pre-2008) they did not have the technology to make a good wine like they do today, 2019. I chuckled as I thought to myself, well in those old days (1100AD +) they probably made a wine of immensely high quality and of interest to the gastronomic world of the 12 century+, they just did not need to sell it to anyone like we do these days. Over sell on just about everything as you well know dear reader. And as a refresher can I remind you why Sherry is a fortified wine and not a simple 11 or 12% table wine (please do not use it as such unless you want to feel out of odds with yourself) made to be quaffed. It has the addition of small amounts of alcohol that is added to the fermented wine in the case of the dry wines and to partially fermented wine in the case of PX and Moscatel. A new word for me here in the Spanish. The word for fortification is “encabezado”! Some of you of course know already that Sherry has been a fortified wine, at least for export purposes, since the Middle Ages. The Moors introduced the art of distillation sometime before 900 AD and it was found that adding a little alcohol to the wine gave it better stability. There are two reasons for this fortification: firstly it was an effective technique employed to ensure the arrival in sound condition of wine subjected to long sea journeys to the export markets. In the days when Sherry was shipped in butt on sailing ships, bacterial spoilage, acetification and oxidation were serious risks. Wines were sometimes dispatched while still fermenting in an attempt to prevent this. The second reason, and why it is done today, is that by varying the amount, and the timing, of added alcohol, different styles of wine can be produced efficiently and predictably. Welcome Sommelier World! And yes while it is possible to produce unfortified Sherry, and there are indeed now one or two with the DO, it is more difficult and hit-and-miss. Flor is happy at lower strengths but requires great care to manage its stability. In the old days the grapes were often harvested later and/or sunned for a few days to raise their sugar, and therefore alcohol content, but that can give the wine a slightly richer more glyceric character than may be desired. It is generally agreed that a strength of about 15ᴼ is required to combat undesired microflora while still allowing the desired microflora to do their work. EU (oh yeah baby) rules covering “Vinos Generosos” require a minimum of 15ᴼ and that the wine is fortified, but on 1 February 2017 the Consejo Regulador asked Europe for a relaxation of the need to fortify in the case of Finos and Manzanillas which reach 15% naturally. Many modern oenologists prefer the flexibility and precision offered by careful use of fortification. In this commercial world there is unfortunately little room for the often sporadic nature of Sherry’s development. There is no longer time to wait until a Fino decides to become an Amontillado by itself; it is simply re-fortified to over 17ᴼ to kill off the flor and start the oxidation process. The same happens with Palo Cortado but sooner. In the past most bodegas distilled some brandy, generally for personal use, but when Jerez Brandy took off in the late XIX century it soon became apparent that the vineyards of the Marco de Jerez could not supply nearly enough grapes to produce the volumes required, so distilleries were built in Tomelloso, La Mancha, where there was a plentiful supply of suitable grapes. Wines for the best brandy were distilled in pot stills producing “holandas”, but using column stills, the wine could be distilled to 95ᴼ stripping any flavour and producing what was effectively neutral spirit or “aguardiente” which would not change the Sherry’s flavour profile. All spirit must originate from grapes, but those grapes are normally the Airen of La Mancha. This tiny addition of spirit which is not from Jerez is allowed by the Consejo, but there are moves to produce that spirit locally so that Sherry is 100% Jerez. Grupo Estévez send Palomino from Jerez to La Mancha for distillation. The method employed is known as “miteado” or “mitad y mitad” (half and half). Adding such strong spirit to young wine upsets its constitution and would surely damage any flor, so some similar but as yet unfortified mosto is mixed with a measured quantity of spirit and then added to the young wine. Even using this method the wine is out of sorts for a few months, tasting rather dumb, but it does recover. This is one reason that the wine must have a minimum average age of two years before sale. After my 48 hour strange Don Quixotic feeling I decided to double check the amount of Brandy that add and by the rule of thumb it is 5-6 litres per degree. After normal alcoholic fermentation Sherry wine will, depending on vintage, harvest dates and vineyard location, contain between 11.0ᴼ and 12.5ᴼ. So as an example a butt containing 500 litres of wine at 12ᴼ will require about 18 litres of spirit to be added to bring it up to 15ᴼ, while a butt with 500 litres of Oloroso at 12ᴼ will need around 38 litres of spirit to raise it to 18ᴼ. There are other factors to take into account, however. For example, flor yeast consumes alcohol, so it is possible that a Manzanilla, say, could lose up to 1½ᴼ, leaving the solera wine as low as 14ᴼ and may need further fortification before bottling simply to comply with the regulations. In the past Finos and Manzanillas for export tended to be fortified to about 17 or 18%, but with better stabilisation and faster transport facilities that is no longer necessary and the wines are correspondingly more elegant. Oxidatively aged wines, on the other hand, can gain up to 5ᴼ alcohol as water content is lost through transpiration and there is no flor involved. Actual quantities lost or gained naturally depend on the ageing period and the microclimate of the individual bodega. It should be remembered that under EU law alcohol statements on labels are allowed a tolerance of +/- 0.5% by volume, however Finos and Manzanillas must have at least 15% at bottling. Vamos Boris!!!!
I am now almost done here, thanks for bearing with me, and I will now take this opportunity, as it may be the last moment I can of 2019, to wish you all the very very best for next year – 2020!
Don’t believe everything you read on Twitter or whatever it’s called. The Vinus-porno-Instagram world is probably with us for a bit longer. I know what it is, but do not have the time to join in, thank goodness, so will keep in touch with you all here on this bugger bloggy as and when I can and of course a big thanks to Julian and the team at Sokada and to our sponsors @ the www dot World Wine Consultants dot com.