The Sherry Revolution (Jerez, Spain – Day Two)

As I talked about in my previous post, most people think sweet when they think sherry, but there is far more to it. Different styles were developed over time, but essentially the principle of the fortification process was to allow the wines to age in an oxidative process whereby barrels were not completely filled and in the case of the dry styles a thin layer of yeast was allowed to form on the surface of the wine known as flor. With the sweeter and higher alcohol wines this flor does not exist and are thus more oxidative in nature, and often age for longer both in solera and bottle. After all, if the wine is already oxidised in the barrel it hardly matters if you drink it several months after opening the bottle. With the sherry rainbow of styles on offer, it actually means that sherry is a versatile and unique companion to food. Possibly one of the most famous food matches with manzanilla for example, is freshly grilled sardines which are very salty and pair perfectly with the fresh acids of the sherry. There is currently a sherry revolution as new generations are discovering this ancient wine style, most notably in London and New York. Several wine experts still maintain that sherry is woefully undervalued and I couldn’t agree more. It just takes a little while to understand the wine, and shake the image of it being for old fuddy-duddies.
Can you tell I’m missing home?

My first appointment for the day was at Gonzalez Byass, which is one of the biggest and certainly most important producers in Jerez. No sherry producer has achieved more for the promotion of the wines, and reached as many consumers as this one has. Nor does any other winery in Europe welcome as many visitors, with one of the most sophisticated and efficient tours available. I was surprised to discover how much Jerez was geared towards tourism the previous evening when I went on a tapas tour, and found the process three times higher than in Rioja or Ribera del Duero, and half as good. People come not only from Spain but all over the world, many of them on cruise ships that harbour in Cadiz and make a day trip to the area. One of the only other regions that receives that many visitors was the Napa Valley, but thankfully they couldn’t be more different. The Gonzalez Byass winery was initially a partnership with a local and a British merchant, who established the brand when sherry was really taking off in England. Gonzalez handled all of the winemaking, producing wines in various styles and then Byass would take over in the market, shipping and distributing the wines. The partnership eventually dissolved and the winery has since been in the hands of the Gonzalez family who still run it today.

One of the Gonzalez Byass sherry halls

I was welcomed to the huge facility just outside the historic city wall by a decidedly un-Spanish accent, a Glaswegian one belonging to Claire Henderson who has been in Jerez for five years. The first thing she showed me was a massive area dedicated to one barrel for each country that Gonzalez Byass has been sold in, including the Antarctic. They have many amazing museum pieces on display throughout the winery, and not just the wines ageing in barrels. One such piece is the laboratory of the founder, who died in his eighties and left hundreds of bottles of sample wines, which have been left untouched since the day he died. Another piece of history is the marks left by some of the most famous visitors to the bodega, including Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, Pablo Picasso, and numerous royals. On one such royal visit the Spanish queen wanted to see fruit being pressed to make wine, long after the harvest was complete. The winery collected every grape they could find from every backyard, and brought them to the winery to eventually put them in a barrel. This barrel was then considered holy, and became the central Jesus character with twelve barrels forming the twelve apostles. An important person in the history of Gonzalez Byass was Tio Pepe who actually developed the fino style of sherry, and who the most famous fino was named after in his honour. Tio Pepe refused any monetary compensation and was happy to have his own private cellar where he could entertain guests and drink some special wine. Whilst the wines are very commercial they are all very good, although not all the wines are what they claim to be. Click here to read my notes on the tasting from bottles.

The signature that apparently launched a brand mark

My second appointment of the day was to the youngest producer of the four I visited, but in my opinion was the best. The Lustau house dates back to 1896 when initially the wines were vinified and matured amongst the vines of Nuestra Senora de la Esperanza just outside of the town. Emilio Lustau started out like most in the area, as a vineyard owner and vintner that sold wine to the major houses to be either blended or bottled for sale to merchants. This type of producer was known as an almecenista, of which there are barely any left either through individual growth or mergers and acquisitions. It wasn’t until almost 50 years later that they relocated into the town to bigger premises, and within ten years they had become big enough to be awarded the Sherry Exporter status to commercialise their wines. Their march towards premium sherry production began in the 1980s when sherry was at its peak, but unfortunately several things changed in the market. The first was a dramatic and prolonged shift towards table wines like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and the second being a general complacency from all sherry producers to continue promoting their products in strong markets, subsequently leading to several generations of wine drinkers being totally uninterested in sherry. But the move towards premium production could prove very intelligent as the shift back to sherry has begun, and as is the case with all wines quality and value are key.

An old plow at Lustau

Another ex-pat hosted me in the afternoon, but this time from south of the border from Leeds. The relocated halls of Lustau just outside the city walls are a veritable cathedral to sherry wine. Grupo Cabalero own the winery and provide the vast majority of the fruit for the production of the sherry wines. They are one of the few who have the capacity to age wines in all three towns in the Sherry Circle, and can thus release a manzanilla wine as well as a fino. Some of the wine is still coming from very good almacenista producers, some of whom have their excellent wines bottled separately and designated as such. Lustau produce a lot of different wines; at least 30 in every possible style and various quality levels. The quality and volume of each varies, but it is of course the age of the soleras that makes such a huge impact. They are still producing an East India for which they are famous for, but very few are still making. So impressed with the former Spanish-born Empress of France Eugenia that Don Emilio Lustau established a solera in her honour, which was recognised as the world’s best sherry at the 2005 International Wine Challenge in London. Like almost every house Lustau make their own brandy but they also produce some excellent sherry wine vinegar which is pretty intense stuff. Click here to read my notes on the extensive tasting of just a part of the full range.

The solera named after Empress Eugenia

Click here to see more photos from my second day in Jerez, Spain. The following week I headed northwest to Portugal, first visiting the Bairrada region.

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