Sherry Baby (Pizarro Sherry Lunch)

At least once a year the treat of a Sherry-focused lunch comes around, and I’m sure some of you have read tales from our “Fish & Fino” lunches in the past. This week we went to Pizarro, one of José Pizarro’s venues on Bermondsey Street in London, for a lunch covering all the Sherry styles and more. With so much alcohol on the table (twelve bottles between eight diners), we were glad of a fairly prodigious quantity of food to soak it up. The fact that the food was delicious and well matched, and that the service was warm and attentive (though we had to use a rolling pin on the crab), was an added bonus. We were so unfathomably sober, and the food was not too heavy, that a few of us even managed a couple of glasses over at Winemakers club afterwards.

Tio Pepe Una Palma Fino, González Byass

Tio Pepe is probably the most famous name in Sherry (at least to my mother). On the market since 1844, there are more than 30,000 casks in the Tio Pepe solera. Most goes to produce that well known Fino, but some sees a different life. There is En Rama, of course, and there are also the Palmas, of which we were opening with the first of four. Una Palma is the youngest, with around six years of age. This was a winter bottling (25 October 2017), and like all of the Palmas, it is bottled without (or with a light) filtration.

Although relatively light as a wine as well, there is a hint of richness, with a bready/nutty note adding to its savoury character. A serious aperitif, but also a fine accompaniment for the first of our pica picas to share, the padron peppers. Una Palma should not be ignored in favour of the more complex (and complicated) older Palmas, especially as it’s pretty good value and relatively inexpensive.

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Inocente Fino, Valdespino

Inocente may not be as famous as Tio Pepe among the general public, but I’m sure it is among Sherry lovers, and I’d wager that many who discovered the delights of Fino did so over a glass of Inocente and a few salted almonds and olives. As with all the Valdespino soleras, Inocente’s now resides safely at the Grupo Estévez bodega on the edge of Jerez.

The wine in the Inocente solera has traditionally come from Jerez’s fine, chalky, Macharnudo Alto vineyard, undoubtedly the region’s most famous site. With an unusually high number of criaderas for Fino (ten) and the very pure albariza soils in Macharnudo Alto, the wine is singularly pure, perhaps less obviously biological in character than many Finos, yet also showing the depth of its average ten years of age when bottled.

This bottle tasted very fresh, without especially pronounced flor character. It was restrained, with a touch of glycerol showing, doubtless as it was left “uncovered” by the wine’s finesse. It gives a dry wine with a glimmer of false sweetness, which is very attractive.

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Manzanilla En Rama “La Gitana” Aniversario, Hidalgo

La Gitana is Hidalgo’s classic Manzanilla, and its label is possibly the most easily recognised in the whole region, equally a classic. Aniversario is a limited edition (fewer than 2,000 bottles), released to celebrate the 225th anniversary of Hidalgo, founded in 1792. The average age of the wine is 15 years.

This is easily the most striking wine on the nose so far, very concentrated. It has a real saline character (it is aged very close to the sea at Sanlúcar), but also real almond nuttiness and something almost bitter-sweet. The other quality, perhaps the most noticeable of all, is a genuine smoothness which sets it apart. A wine of real complexity, and although unusual for a Manzanilla, it is extremely good, and indeed it excelled at the table with food.

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La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada 59 “Capataz Rivas”, Equipo Navazos

This was the first of three EN wines on the day, and a fine start, of course. I won’t repeat the EN story here, but it is clear that when Jesús Barquin and Eduardo Ojeda are selecting wine for bottling under this label, what they are looking for above all else is wine of a singular character and personality. That does mean that some bottlings can be very intense, yet others exhibit finesse and a lightness of being which you rarely find. All are, in my opinion, of genuine world class.

Bota 59 comes from Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín in Sanlúcar, and 3,500 bottles were filled from 15 butts in June 2015. The uniqueness of this wine, which has an average age of around fifteen years, is in its slightly different method of production. The casks were filled higher than usual for the style, and so the flor layer is thinner, allowing for the wine to take on slightly more of an oxidative character. Add that to its strong salinity and you get something very complex, which almost approaches an Amontillado. Concentration, complexity, yet freshness. Stunning.

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La Bota de Amontillado 37, Equipo Navazos

From the same source as “59”, this is from a run of 3,000, bottled in August 2012. Twelve butts out of 100 were selected from one of the solera’s criaderas. The average age here is eighteen years, but in style it leans back towards the previous wine in some respects. By that I mean that whilst there is a caramel note on the finish, and an intense nuttiness which is a step up in style terms from the Finos and Manzanillas, it is also a wine of exemplary restraint and aromatics (almost herby, which I don’t often find showing above the nut intensity). We are talking about a wine here which is complex and long, and very elegant too. I don’t think I’ve owned any “37” so I was very happy to drink it.

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Amontillado 30-year-old, Bodegas Tradición

Bodegas Tradición is a specialist in fine old Sherry. It is perhaps no coincidence that this is the Bodega chosen by The Queen’s grocer, Fortnum & Mason, to represent their own label Sherries. The label itself only came into being in 1998, with the first releases in 2003. All the bottles released by the bodega itself are hand numbered, as you will see in the photo below (this was 1,576 of 3,600).

As old wines go, this lacks none of the concentration you’d expect, but there is also a fine spine of acidity which gives it structure.You can add to that acidity a eucalyptus note on the finish which is very distinctive. This is an expensive wine, perhaps around £60 retail, but one well worth seeking out. There is also a 40-year-old.

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La Bota de Palo Cortado 72 “Pata de Gallina”, Equipo Navazos

The last of our three EN wines, 2,100 bottles were filled in January 2017 from butts at Rey Fernando de Castilla. The wine is about 30 years old and it is almost a classic rendition of Palo Cortado, sitting between Amontillado and Oloroso in style. As you might expect, there is concentration here, but not at the expense of elegance. What really makes the difference is that finesse, expressed through very fine citrus notes of orange, lime and waxy lemon peel. This gives the very long finish something different and special. It also made a wonderful contrast to the other Palo Cortado which was paired with it, and with the exquisite slow cooked lamb (which, as a very rare eater of meat, I can taste even now).

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Lustau “Fine Old Rare Sherry” Palo Cortado Vides, Bottled Berry Bros & Rudd

This is an almacenista Sherry, which originates, according to the label, “from the solera of Vides”. As we know, the Almacenitas were the wholesalers who maintained their own stocks. They are declining rapidly, but Vides (founded 1958), from whose butts this wine comes, is still going. When Lustau release this wine under their own label, the average age is twenty years, and presumably this is the same wine as released as a 37.5cl bottle under  BBR’s own-label. Lustau has specialised in the release of wines from individual almacenistas, and although the wines vary in style, and perhaps quality, this Palo is quite a bargain in this BBR bottling…if you can still find some.

As I said, it contrasted well with the Equipo Navazos. It’s a smooth wine with hints of caramel and a tiny suspicion of sugar, even. What leaps out of the glass on the nose is a hint of apricot, and on the palate, deeper toned nuts, with coffee/caramel and a salt and pepper finish.

Although difficult to pick out the best flight, I’d be tempted to select this one for class, contrast and food matching. I’m drinking more Palo Cortado than I used to, and this is down to my increasing delight in the style for drinking with food. I’m sure most wine lovers would think of something very different to accompany lamb, even if limited to Spain. But Palo Cortado makes a surprisingly good match. The alcohol is high, of course (19% for the Lustau and 20.5% for the Navazos), but it is both savoury, and a surprising aid to digestion.

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“Medium Old Harvest”, Ximénez-Spínola

What is this? Amazing, that’s what. And, well, it does say “made respecting family rules” (emphasis added). It is unfortified PX grown in Jerez, produced by a bodega which has the reputation of producing the tiniest quantities of wine in the region. This is doubtless why it isn’t a producer I see very often. In fact one might almost suspect that they want to remain a secret.

“Medium Old Harvest” was certainly one of the wines of the day. You don’t often see dry PX from Jerez itself. Some people will try to tell you there isn’t any. I know that the famous “Añina” vines once owned by Hidalgo are gone, but there are still a few hectares owned by González Byass in its “Esteve” vineyard, and there are probably other patches. But X-S has a whole 16 hectares, allegedly, in two vineyards, Carrascal and El Tablas. In fact, they only grow Pedro Ximénez.

This particular wine comes in at 17% abv, and how one would classify it, I’m not sure. Is it dry or not? The palate gets slightly confused by the  prominent drying ginger spice, but technically it has 45 grams of sugar. Of course it is (yet again) complex etc (which can sound like a sticking record at a Sherry lunch, but it’s no less true), but this wine is also just so drinkable. I’m not sure I’ve had a wine at this high alcohol which is so damned gluggable before.

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Old & Plus Oloroso, Romate

Bodegas Romate’s oldest wines appear under the “Old & Plus” label (formerly “Sacrista”), and they are marketed in an unusual bottle shape (as you will see below), in an antique style which reminds me of an early Port bottle, and similar to a wide-bottomed ship’s decanter.

The wine inside is something special. Around 30 years plus, it is dark mahogany in colour with enormous legs and 20% abv. It is aged in American oak. Here we are into new olfactory territory. Figs are not so unusual, but there’s also leather and wood smoke on the nose, and a touch of coffee bean on the palate, leaving it to trail off with intense nutty notes. You are probably looking at paying about £50 for this, although I can’t find any current UK stock. But it would be well worth the punt if you find one. A glorious wine.

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Antique Oloroso, Fernando de Castilla 

The wines of Fernando de Castilla are reasonably easy to source on the UK market, which kind of belies their immense quality. They produce a small range of exceptional wines. The Antique Oloroso contains wines of at least 20 years of age, and so it loses nothing in elegance and finesse whilst providing just the right degree of complexity, intensity and drinkability. It was interesting to see the bottles of Fernando de Castilla arrayed in a cupboard in the room in which we were dining.

I’ve read the word “burnished” used to describe this wine, and it fits very well. My notes use something very similar, “polished” and “classy”. In some ways these descriptions make any other adjectives redundant. But it is important to clarify a little. It is neither too light, nor too heavy. It has character, but not a personality that dominates. It has length, but length which diminishes on a gentle curve, without falling off a precipice. I think that “classy” sums it up.

Pairing these wines with the cheese course really highlights how well they perform with such a match. Rather as Vin Jaune is perfection with walnuts and Comté, a selection of Spanish cheeses, almonds and cubes of quince jelly provide all the flavours to set the Olorosos off rather nicely. We could have stopped here…but we didn’t.

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Solera Fundacion 1830 PX, Navarro, Montilla-Moriles

I last drank this wine just over a year ago, and it is interesting to read my notes from that occasion. I wrote “how can a wine with so much sugar, velvety rather than acidic, not be cloying?”. The same question is just as pertinent today.

This wine from Bodegas Navarro comes from Montilla-Morilles, a good 100 miles to the east of Jerez, but source of most of the Pedro Ximénez grapes grown in Southern Spain. This bottle contains wines with an average age of 25 years, although from a solera founded in 1830 there will be small but concentrated quantities of much older juice.

Indeed, the wine itself is very concentrated, but we all noticed how well it poured. Some PX can seem hardly a liquid at all. So as well as the intense sweetness you get something fresher, which I would describe as a note of bitter orange. It balances the sweetness on the nose, though the palate is dominated by rich caramel and toffee. It was very much at home with the unusual cream cheese ice cream Pizarro served up before a reviving coffee.

I know plenty of Sherry lovers who won’t touch PX, but this has the kind of extra dimension that just might change the minds of one or two of them.

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As I have already intimated, this was a fantastic lunch, one of the highlights of the year so far. I certainly couldn’t do this once a fortnight, but once or twice a year is not really enough. Although I knew several of the wines, others I didn’t, and there must be some gems out there for us to discover (one or two at the lunch are regular visitors to the region). Not only was the company congenial, but the breadth and depth of knowledge around the table was impressive. And to repeat what I have said before, the restaurant did us proud in quantity and quality. I would be very happy to go back there for another lunch or dinner.

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About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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