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.