An abridged version of an article by Pablo Blanco in El País Semanal 4.4.16
In Sanlúcar’s famous bar Er Guerrita, Armando Guerra converted the storeroom into a tasting room and wine shop known as The Sacristía del Marco de Jerez, through which many of the world’s leading wine critics, sommeliers, chefs and winemakers have passed. The summer tastings here have become decisive events in the renewal of interest in Sherry.
After decades of falling sales Sherry is enjoying a resurgence. While traditional styles are losing sales, both consumers and producers are looking for better, older wines, and re-evaluating the importance of the vineyard and traditional techniques. Now all upmarket restaurants have a specific Sherry List while Sherry bars are flourishing in London, Tokyo and New York. There has also been a welcome revival in the traditional tabancos in Jerez.
Eduardo Ojeda and Jesús Barquín set up Equipo Navazos and began bottling fine and rare Sherries which are now highly sought after and have been a key to the revolution. Luis Gutiérrez who covers Spanish wine for Robert Parker awarded 100 points to three Sherries putting the wine of Jerez up there with the great wines of the world. While Sherry is largely an export wine, growth has been observed in Spain itself - and that despite falling consumption of wine in general.
Sherry has a 3,000 year history going back to the Phoenicians. Magellan spent more on Sherry than on arms for the first circumnavigation of the globe; Sherry was the first wine in North America; Sir Francis Drake stole 2,900 butts of it from Cádiz, popularising it in England; Shakespeare wrote fondly of it.
They say that every glass of Sherry contains a few drops of very old wine, older than the person who drinks it. This is thanks to the solera system pioneered at the start of the XIX century in which the young wine is progressively blended with older wine in steps called criaderas. The young wine refreshes the old, while the old wine educates the young.
Sherry cannot be made anywhere else as it comes about from a unique combination of climate, soil, vine varieties and flor. This little yeast feeds on alcohol and glycerine in the wine covering it with a protective veil and making it very dry and full of complex flavour.
The grand archway at González Byass speaks of a glorious past when Sherry represented 10% of Spanish exports and its producers wore the finest clothes. This bodega is one of the most visited places in Andalucía and houses no fewer than three consulates. Its chief oenologist, Antonio Flores was born here, just above the Tio Pepe solera. His contribution to the revival has been Tio Pepe en rama and the Palmas range, each release being eagerly awaited by connoisseurs.
After the setbacks of phylloxera and various wars Sherry sales rocketed and it was almost impossible to supply enough, so rather than miss out on good business, doubtful practices were employed which would bring the industry to its knees.
With a 99 year contract to supply Harveys, Rumasa needed huge quantities of wine buying up more than 20 bodegas and planting more vines, tripling the vineyard area and slashing prices which caused many other bodegas to close. Then in the 1970s Sherry went out of fashion and sales plummeted. In 1960 there were 355 bodegas and now there are 66.
Rumasa built the modern bodega which now houses Williams & Humbert, and here the chief oenologist Paola Medina has been experimenting with almost forgotten techniques especially with añada or single vintage wines, producing an outstanding Fino. Like many of her fellow winemakers she is often abroad doing talks and tastings at the ever growing number of Sherry events. And she is also a member of the growing number of women winemakers in the Sherry business along with Ana Cabestrero at Maestro Sierra, Montse Molina at Barbadillo, Rocío Ruiz at Urium or Reyes Gómez at Romate.
In El Puerto de Santa María the bodega of Juan Carlos Gutiérrez Colosía has somehow survived the vicissitudes of the industry. He took over the bodega in 1960 when he was 15 on the death of his father and is now more optimistic. He says
What makes Sherry unique is that it can only come from here. I call it alchemy because when you smell it you are immediately transported here.
In the sacristía of the bodega are two butts of old Palo Cortado signed by two gastronomic legends, Juli Soler and Josep Roca, who along with El Puerto’s own Ángel León have done so much to popularise fine Sherry.
Two more outstanding winemakers are Willy Pérez and Ramiro Ibáñez, both restlessly researching the best of the past in terms of winemaking, grape varieties and soils. Between them, they have produced some outstanding and seriously interesting wines using old methods with modern skills.
A journey in time on which the future is pinned.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of El Consejo Regulador.
10 April 2016