The wine pro of the 21st Century has to know a lot more than their Bordeaux and their Burgundy these days, but ironically a Master of Wine would, in the past, have known a lot more about his Sherry (I say “his” because they didn’t let in a lot of ladies back then) than many do today. Every time we think that this star among alcoholic beverages will break back into the limelight its moment is snatched away…by craft beer, craft gin, the New Beaujolais and whatever comes along next.
Yet to be fair, Sherry has made something of a comeback. Even in the 1990s, when Lustau started to market the Almacenista concept, there were tiny signs of a revival for a wine genre which had been pretty much destroyed by the commercial decisions and takeovers of the 60s and 70s. This century has seen a more concrete revival. Equipos Navazos deserves a very large medal, and the undying thanks of all Sherry lovers, for showing the world what vinous treasures, wines of world class finesse and complexity, still lie in the bodegas of Jerez, Sanlucar and the other regions producing sherry styles in the rest of Andalucía, in Southern Spain.
The Equipo Navazos bottlings are of necessity fairly low production, and as a consequence, expensive. But their undoubted success has led to others reevaluating their stocks, and the opportunities they might have to market such high quality wines. At the same time, we must not forget that there have always been gems, often selling for ridiculously meagre prices, lurking unloved on the dusty racks underneath some old fashioned wine shops, or in traditional Spanish bars and on Spanish restaurant wine lists.
This week has been International Sherry Week 2016 (7-13 November), though it may have passed you by. At least once a year a group of us get together to celebrate sherry in the convivial surroundings of Masters Superfish, one of London’s finest fish n chip restaurants, just down the road from Waterloo rail terminus. It seemed fitting that we were able to mark this week for celebrating all things Sherry with a very fine array of Fino and Manzanilla styles, plus one table wine made from Palomino Fino. It was wholly expected, but unlike many a wine tasting, every wine below was a star.
Within these fairly anonymous four walls you’ll find some of the best battered fried fish in London
Navazos-Niepoort Vino Blanco 2014
This is a Palomino table wine coming in at 13% alcohol. This partnership with Niepoort is now in its sixth vintage and this wine, with its precision, delicacy and steely backbone yet soft finish, is drinking wonderfully now (though this cuvée usually ages very well, which is why I bought a few magnums). It is made from 100% Jerez Palomino (all from Macharnudo Alto), fermented in bota (40-year-old American oak of 600 litres) using local indigenous yeasts, and aged for eight months under flor. The 2014 was bottled in December 2015.
The freshness of the 2014 possibly exceeds that of any previous version I recall. There’s fruit under the flor, and a lightness of touch despite the 13% alcohol. It has body but you kind of don’t really notice it as the wine takes off. This went down very well with the Sherry aficionados and, I won’t lie, I’m glad I have a decent few bottles (and mags) of this vintage. It seemed a little tight on delivery, but it is now in a good place to try it with all that freshness. I might drink my bottles over the next twelve months and keep the magnums.
Delicado Fino, Gonzalez Byass
This is a limited production wine made exclusively for the UK supermarket, Waitrose. It’s on sale for a bargain £13.99 (for 50cl). The name hints at the style. The wine in the blend is well aged and the flor has been maintained, yet the wine is relatively pale in colour and has a freshness and delicacy which is hard to retain in an aged fino. The elegant nose mirrors the palate. This is actually a great summer aperitif, being fairly light, yet with more complexity than you’ll find in a cheaper branded fino. Waitrose suggest tapas and paella, though my own choice with the latter dish might be something with more body. But this is a fine wine at an exceptional price, and with a nice label too.
Classic Dry Fino, Rey Fernando de Castilla
“One of the most exciting producers in the region today” according to Peter Liem and Jesús Barquin (Sherry, Manzanilla and Montilla, Manutius Press 2012), and no one who knows Sherry is going to disagree with that sentiment. The Fernando de Castilla range divides between “Antique” and “Classic”, this wine being, obviously, from the latter category. Whilst these are not in the same league as the Antiques, the fino is perhaps the best of them. It is classic in both name and nature, very fresh, and combines both fruitiness and salinity. It retains that light chalky mineral texture all through its good length. It has that knack of showing a very slight sweetness on the palate (it’s the fruit, there’s no sugar), which can make it a good match with spicy food. At around £12 here in the UK, it’s about half the price of the exceptional Antiques, a very good everyday fino, yet way above the ordinary, and pretty perfect with fish & chips too.
Fino, Bodega El Maestro Sierra (37.5cl)
This is an old family house (founded 1830) which created a stir at the time. The Sherry business was dominated by the nobility, and the idea of a barrel maker becoming an almacenista was quite shocking. Owning no vines, the company sources its wine from the Jerez co-operative, but everything is done traditionally. The fino is exceptional. The wines may average around five years of age, but the bodega’s good hilltop location provides good ventilated conditions for flor to thrive. Consequently you get a richness in this fino, with a depth and complexity assisted by minimal finishing (fining and filtration). It’s quite full on the nose yet there’s a lightness on the palate. A wine of character.
Fino La Panesa, Hidalgo
The solera used for this wine was created in 1961 to mark the birth of Alfonso Rodriguez Hidalgo. This is a marvelous wine where the average age of the bottle’s contents will be 15 years. As Liem and Barquin point out, this represents the upper limits for biological ageing, so the wine is darker and quite rich. It is also perhaps the most complex fino we drank yesterday (though that would be challenged by the last wine of the day, a manzanilla). Of course, complexity and indeed richness, is not what we are always looking for in a fino style. We may want more of the refreshing clean lines of some of the lighter bottles. But sometimes we do like to taste a different style, and I must admit that on the rare occasions this wine comes my way, I’m always thrilled by its myriad flavours. Especial, as they say, though you may have to pay around £30 for the chance to sample a bottle.
Tio Pepe Fino “En Rama”, Gonzalez Byass
Another wine from the Gonzalez Byass stable. The straight Tio Pepe fino must be the most recognisable brand of dry Sherry on the high street today, and a very decent drop it makes. It’s my mother’s favourite, so I know it well, drunk fresh from the fridge, not a month or two lurking on the sideboard. En rama wines are bottled directly from cask and usually, as is the case with this version, undergo minimal filtration, so that the wine can be somewhat cloudy. En rama wines are bottled in springtime, when the flor tends to be most active, and this is truly captured in the wine. The nose is pungent with flor‘s nutty character, yet even as a special cask selection, it doesn’t lose that elegance which the regular Tio Pepe, in its own way, always exhibits. The overriding experience when you drink this wine is one of naturalness. I don’t know how otherwise to describe it.
Because of the nature of en rama, it is released soon after bottling, and producers generally recommend consuming within three months in order to capture that moment of freshness and purity.
Fino Chipiona “Los Madroñales”, Bodega Cooperativa Catolico Agricola
This is a pale straw colour, with characteristic green olive flecks accenting. You might not expect it to be as rich as it is. There’s a yeasty, bready, nose with toasted almonds. Chipiona is a town situated on the coast southwest of Sanlucar, once famous for its pre-phylloxera Moscatels. It enjoys similar cooling sea breezes to Sanlucar, and so the wine retains a delicate lightness after around three years in solera. This wine was bottled in February this year and was lovely and fresh, without being at all insubstantial. We see very few Chipiona wines, and production there has almost disappeared, so it was a treat to have one.
Manzanilla La Gitana “En Rama”, Hidalgo
Perhaps La Gitana doesn’t have the profile of Tio Pepe, but with a good distribution I would guess that many people who’ve drunk dry Sherry have tried it. Our second “en rama” wine was a nice foil to the Tio Pepe version, it being a Manzanilla. Like regular Tio Pepe, La Gitana is a fresh manzanilla fina these days, with about five years of age. The en rama version was originally released in 2011 in partnership with UK wine auction site, Bid For Wine. It is both richer and more complex than the regular release, quite full in the mouth in a dry and chalky sense. But it still shares with the Tio Pepe version that lovely tingle of natural freshness characteristic of the genre. It’s rare to be able to compare and contrast the two, and choosing which is the better is a difficult task best left to experts.
Flor de Lebrija 12 Years, Gonzalez Palacios
Lebrija is, like Chipiona, one of the smaller towns in the wider Sherry production area, but Lebrija is way inland, twenty or so kilometres north of Jerez, on the road to Seville. Lebrija’s wines were not allowed into the Jerez-Manzanilla DO, so in 2009 it was given its own designation as a “Vino de Calidad”. Gonzales Palacios is another producer with a well chosen hilltop location, ensuring a well ventilated bodega, which means that the flor can survive as a fairly thick layer all year round. It also happens that Lebrija is, rather counter-intuitively, not only cooler than Jerez, but cooler than Sanlucar as well.
This is a well aged wine with about 12 years in barrel. The wine is probably bottled unfiltered as it’s a bit cloudy, and it has a darkness indicative of its age. It has a very distinctive nose, a sort of umami/mushroom note, but also a hint of whisky. What you get here is a more yeasty, nutty wine (a result of the enhanced flor), and the complexity of bottle age. An altogether different style to some of the paler, lighter, earlier finos, with more complexity if less elegance. Try hunting down a half bottle from Warren Edwardes’ Sticky Wines. At around £7 for a half-bottle, it’s a fairly cheap way to try this fuller style.
Manzanilla Pasada Bota 59 “Capitaz Rivas”, Equipo Navazos
I’m sure everyone knows the Equipo Navazos story. Not a bodega, they are effectively a micro negociant which releases small quantities of special wines in a series of consecutively numbered botas throughout the year. Bota 59 is named after the famous cellarmaster (Capitaz) for La Guita, Rafael Rivas. He started a solera in 1986, from which this wine (from Hijos de Raneira Pérez Marín) is drawn.
A manzanilla pasada, of which this is a true example, is a manzanilla which is potentially on the way to becoming an amontillado. The flor will, as a result of great age, be quite fragile. It is restrained from becoming an amontillado by topping up of the butts, which are filled not to the usual 5/6 full, but to a mere “finger” from the top. This keeps the flor alive. With age, the power and influence of the flor decreases, yet the tiny area of the wine’s surface, and the regular topping up, keep it alive and protected from the air at the top of the cask. As it ages, the alcohol in the wine actually increases. This bottling has reached 16%, and as I said earlier, this is at the true limit of biological ageing.
This is a powerful wine, no question. The oxidisation is gentle and the nutty notes are accentuated, balanced by a remarkably fine acidity. The wines extracted for this bota come from a solera founded in 1986, and will average 15 years of age, so you really get a remarkable degree of complexity, and indeed a smoothness rare in Sherry without sacrificing acidity. There’s almost a whisky note coming through, bags of salinity (salted nuts) and something gently woody, but it’s the kind of wine which will go through many changes in the glass as you contemplate and sip it. Don’t drink it too cold. I personally recommend it with food, and it’s a rare biologically aged wine that I would always use with food as opposed to as an aperitif (rich lobster or crab would go nicely). It’s also a match for the cheese board. Whereas with hard cheeses I would open an amontillado, a palo cortado or perhaps an oloroso, this will do nicely for some well matured runny cheeses.
I’m wholly biased. I’ve amassed a nice little stash of EN, though because of rarity and price I do have to ration them (I do try to share the pleasure with other Sherry lovers). But whilst these wines are relatively expensive for Sherry (you might pay £40 for the 59, more in some places), as fine wines they deliver a level of complexity which you’d have to pay three or four times more for, at least, from any of the other classic fine wine regions of the world. Just pointing that out to those who balk at a £40 sherry. And at least with this 59th bottling, a saca of June 2015, there were a reasonable 3,500 bottles to go round. If you can find one it will be magnificent.