Visiting Jerez, exploring Sherry, and blending Las Palmas
Part 1, in the vineyards

Sherry is back. This most traditional of drinks is experiencing a welcome revival (at the high end, at least - overall, sales continue to fall), and so I was thrilled to be visiting Jerez, the heart of Sherry country, to find out more about it. And I had a job to do: I’d been asked to help in the blending of Gonzalez Byass’ wonderful Las Palmas sherries, along with chief winemaker Antonio Flores. More on that later. First, to the vineyards.

Now if you have been through wine education, you’ve probably been told that Palomino Fino—the main grape of sherry—makes neutral, dry white wines that are then transformed in the cellar into wonderfully complexity through the distinctive ageing process. After my visit, though, I’m convinced that sherry is actually a vineyard wine, and that Palomino is a more interesting variety than people realize.


Martin Skelton from Gonzalez Byass and I joined one of the vineyard managers, José Manuel Harana Morales, as we headed out to visit two pagos. A ‘pago’ is the term used for the vineyards, and the best pagos are found on low lying, gently sloped hills dotted around the town of Jerez. For this is where the fabulous albariza soil is found. It’s one of three main soil types found in the region, but it’s the most important because this is where the best finos come from. There are now 7000 hectares of vines in the region, down from 10 000 hectares just 20 years ago. This contraction of the vineyards has concentrated them more in the better terroirs, and is not necessarily a bad thing, because the earlier expansion had taken in some lesser sites.

Albarizo is remarkable. It’s white in colour, and in the heat of the summer sun walking around the vineyards would be a blinding experience. Our first stop was the pago of Carrascal. Here, José Manuel described the importance of the limestone in the soils in retaining water. Remember, this is Andalucia, the hottest part of Spain, and this soil moisture is vital in keeping the vine ticking along. Indeed, soil moisture is vital in determining the speed of maturation of the grapes, more so even than heat. This is shown in 2014, which was the earliest harvest for a generation, finishing in the first week of September. But the paradox is that the growing season in 2014 was quite cool: it was, however, particularly dry.

We visited after harvest was complete, and the vineyard workers were busy building the ‘aserpia’ between the rows. These are ridges that create shallow troughs, in order to retain winter rainfall, giving it time to soak in, and preventing the water running down the slopes and eroding the soil. Interesting fact: 70% of the vines in the region are now machine harvested.

From here we went to the pago of Macharnudo. This is a spectacular vineyard, with the whitest soils I have ever seen. It’s a large vineyard of 2000 acres, and we were in the high ‘alto’ bit. Single pago wines aren’t yet the thing here, but Valdespino’s Inocente Fino is a single pago Macharnudo wine, while Tio Pepe comes from here and Carrascal.

Two winds are important for sherry. The first is the dry Levante from the east, which helps to keep diseases at bay, much like the Mistral in the south of France. The second is the humid Poniente from the west. This is good for flor, and cellars want it. The Levante is bad for flor, though.

The buildings on the property also give an insight into how sherry would have been made in the past. There’s a large communal room where the workers would have spent the week, with each worker given his own peg (it would have been just men). The worker’s chairs and other bits of furniture are still there. The grapes would also have been processed here, foot trodden in shallow wooden lagares, although, of course, they wouldn’t have been fermented here (as the grapes are in Portugal). The skins would then be gathered into a pile in the middle of the lagar, surrounded by an esparto grass cage, and pressed using the screw mounted in the middle of the lagar. Unlike the foot treading in the Douro the workers were not barefoot, but instead wore boots with large nails in the soles, designed to ensure that the seeds and stems were not crushed along with the grapes.

We also saw some of the newer, but now obsolete presses used to process the grapes in more recent times. These days, with good roads and more efficient transport in the regions, the grapes go direct to town and the large wineries, rather than being processed in the vineyards, a change that occurred in the 1960s. It’s a long way from the bullock carts used in the past.

See a film of this visit:

Part 1, the vineyards
Part 2, Jerez and a good lunch at Aturo's
Part 3, making sherry
Part 4, blending Las Palmas
Part 5, the wines tasted

Wines tasted 10/14  
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