The bodegas which are licensed to bottle, ship and sell sherry are known as ‘shipping’ bodegas (‘bodegas de crianza y expedicion’ in Spanish). These are the bodegas you’ll most likely be familiar with. Almacenistas on the other hand can only produce and age sherry and sell it wholesale, they are not licensed to bottle and sell their wines under their own brands.
A crucial link in the chain
In the past, Almacenistas were a really important part of the sherry supply chain, and there were many more than there are today. Despite being small, many had their own vineyards as well as ageing bodegas, and supplied the shipping bodegas with sherry to be blended with their own stocks. Many of the shipping bodegas bought matured sherry from Almacenistas to help them manage the amount of capital they had tied up in stock (given how long sherry spends in the ageing process, this ties up a lot of capital for a bodega). Buying from a third party also helped the shipping bodegas scale their supplies up and down according to market demand.
During the sherry boom times, Almacenistas enjoyed steady business with their shipping bodega customers, and most had long-standing relationships with a small number of key customers. However, as the structure of the sherry business changed and demand reduced, shipping bodegas came to rely less and less on their Almacenista suppliers. It became a much more precarious existence.
Evolving and transforming
Inevitably, some Almacenistas closed as a result of these changes, but others have thrived and transformed. Key to this was a change in the regulations in 1996, which reduced the amount of stock a bodega must hold to become licensed as a shipping bodega. The reduction was dramatic: previously a bodega needed to hold 12,500 hectolitres in stock, but after 1996 they needed only 500 hectolitres. Enough for even a tiny Almacenista to become a shipping bodega if they wanted.
So whilst some of the old Almacenistas no longer exist, several of them are now shippers whose names you’ll recognise from your wine merchant’s shelf: El Maestro Sierra, Faustino Gonzalez, Grant to name a few.
Others have decided to stay as Almacenistas, albeit in smaller numbers these days, and still sell their sherry to the shipping bodegas. In some cases, their sherries are of such distinction that the shipping bodegas bottle and market them under the Almacenista’s name – for example Lustau’s Almacenista range which features several local Almacenista’s wines, and Majestic’s ‘Pedro’s Almacenista Selection’ bottled by Sanchez Romate.
Getting behind the scenes
It’s hard to find an Almacenista. Their bodegas are hidden behind anonymous doors in the sherry towns. You could walk past them and never know they were there. Over the next few months my guest articles will take us behind the scenes at various different bodegas, and that includes Almacenistas and some of those that have transformed into small shipping bodegas. So stay tuned and see what’s behind those doors.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of El Consejo Regulador.
02 October 2015