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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In sherry country, wines of the future that look to the past

Willy Pérez, left, and Ramiro Ibáñez taste wine in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, June 20, 2023. They assert the best wines have always shown the power of the terroir rather than the hand of the winemaker, but that the emphasis had shifted in recent decades.

By Eric Asimov

Good wine offers history in every glass. Through the vintage and vineyard, it tells a story of a time and a place. But it can speak of far more, of distant practices and traditions reclaimed. In the best of examples, it can look to the future as well.

In sherry country, a flat, dusty swath of southwestern Spain framed by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, history was ignored for decades as the sherry business grew and consolidated, focusing on inexpensive, mass-market bottles primarily for foreign markets.

But in the past decade or so, a small group of winemakers have focused intently on the region’s past. They have reexamined the terroirs, rediscovered long-lost grapes that were nearly extinct and resurrected unfortified styles that had largely disappeared. In short: They are producing some of the most exciting wines in the world.

Sherry is famous the world over as a fortified wine. But the industry has been declining since the 1980s as consumers in Britain, the biggest market for inexpensive sherry, began to lose interest in those mediocre sweet wines. Many producers went out of business, and the land planted to vines dwindled from roughly 70,000 acres to around 15,000.

In response, over the past 20 years, labels such as Equipo Navazos began bottling small amounts of extraordinary sherries that had been used in blends with nondescript wines to create mass-market sherries. By identifying wines and bottling them separately, producers were able to show a new generation sherry’s potential while charging much higher prices.

These superb wines also proved that sherry is not only capable of aging and becoming more complex over time, but that it is very much a vineyard expression and not simply dependent on the skill of the winemaker.

One of the key myths about sherry is that the palomino, its primary grape, is neutral and required fortification, intricate blending in the cellar and exposure to air, as with oloroso sherries, or aging under flor, a yeast that gives personality to fino and manzanilla sherries.

But in recent years, numerous producers have shown that palomino, planted in the best plots, farmed conscientiously and made into wine with care, can make wines of depth and nuance that express with uncanny precision the place in which the grapes were grown.

They are also examining dozens of other local grapes that largely disappeared after phylloxera, a ravenous aphid that devours the roots of vines, devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, we had 50 local varieties,” said Alberto Orte, who makes wine across Spain but in recent years has focused on finding and recovering these lost grapes. He has traveled to other parts of Spain, including the Canary Islands and Galicia, as well as to Portugal for cuttings and has planted them in experimental vineyards in Añina and other pagos, the local word for a vineyard area defined by a specific identity, somewhat akin to the term lieu dit in French.

He is now making wines in Jerez from grapes including tintilla, which is genetically identical to graciano, a grape grown in Rioja, as well as vijiriega, which comes in red and white varieties.

His 2021 Atlántida Blanco, made of vijiriega, is herbal, spicy and refreshing, while his 2021 Vara y Pulgar, a red named for a traditional pruning technique and made of tintilla, is juicy, spicy and saline.

What makes these wines so good? Orte believes it’s what many local farmers and winemakers have long known. “The soil is very strong,” he said.

The best vineyards in the sherry region have always been planted on albariza, a chalky white calcareous soil related to limestone.

No producers have made a greater study of albariza than Ramiro Ibáñez and Willy Pérez, who between them are responsible for much of the renewed interest in the history of viticulture and wine in the region.

Pérez now runs a label, Luis Pérez, started by his father, which makes sherries and other wines from the Jerez region. Ibáñez started a label, Cota 45, which explores the terroirs of the pagos in the Sanlúcar region. And together they have revived an old sherry label, M. Antonio de la Riva, which is exploring the history of sherry through a series of new releases.

They cite 13 different sorts of albariza in a sort of hierarchy, with two at the top: lentejuelas, which is granular like lentils, and barajuelas, which forms in slabs like a deck of cards.

Ibáñez said that lentejuelas produces wines of freshness and delicacy, characteristic of the coastal area of Sanlúcar, while barajuelas gives wines of power and concentration, more typical of Jerez inland.

The producers were inspired in their work by tasting wines made in the region before the midcentury sherry boom and back into the 19th century. They make the argument that the widespread fortification of sherries is a recent development.

“Until the 1970s, they never added alcohol to albariza wines,” Ibáñez said. “Only cheap wines were fortified.”

In the past, he said, fino sherry achieved 15% alcohol naturally by drying grapes on grass mats in the sun before fermentation.

Some in sherry country may take issue with these assertions, but the beautiful wines made by the two men offer powerful support. The Cota 45 wines are gorgeous expressions of Sanlúcar, all unfortified, some aged under flor like a manzanilla, some not, but all fresh, saline, delicate but intense. A 2016 Miraflores is savory and expressive but delicate, particularly compared with a 2016 Maina, a pago farther from the coast than Miraflores, which is smoky, saline and tangy but decidedly richer.

Perhaps the most fascinating Cota 45 wine is the Agostado, made of long-forgotten grapes such as perruno and uve rey, with only 10% palomino, in the style, Ibáñez said, of a baby oloroso sherry of the 19th century. It was fresh yet smoky and full of mineral and umami flavors. He calls it a “cortado,” an old term for unfortified sherry wines.

Pérez, under the Luis Pérez label, is making unfortified sherries from Jerez. His 2013 Tres Palmas, a fino from the inland Carrascal pago, is intense, concentrated, salty and complex, but remarkably fresh at 16% alcohol.

The de la Riva wines are spectacular, both vinos de pastos, as unfortified whites are called, and sherries, which were fortified when they were produced by others. A 2019 vino de pasto made from the Macharnudo pago in Jerez was gorgeous, powerful and concentrated like a fino but unfortified. A manzanilla pasada from the Balbaina pago was intense, delicate like a manzanilla but pointing toward a fuller, complex amontillado.

Many other producers have been inspired by these wines, particularly the unfortified examples, simply because, with prices so cheap, anybody could buy grapes and make a wine. Making sherry, on the other hand, requires aging wine over a prolonged period before selling it.

These producers include Raúl Moreno, a former chef who went into wine as a second career; Alejandro Narváez and Rocío Áspera, a husband-and-wife team who began as farmers and then decided to go into wine after the 2008 financial meltdown, establishing Bodega de Forlong; Rafael Rodríguez, who would have liked to get a job in sherry but instead established Barrialto, named after his neighborhood in Sanlúcar; and Alejandro Muchada, a former architect who, during a trip to France, worked the harvest at David Léclapart, an excellent Champagne house. Muchada caught the wine bug and, with Léclapart as a partner, established Muchada-Léclapart.

Moreno is thoroughly experimental and seemingly never shirks a challenge. He makes an excellent perruno, from an old red grape, aged in traditional chestnut barrels; a refreshing, saline claireté, a dark rosé of red and white grapes; and a fresh, juicy tintilla. But he also makes a pinot noir and a chardonnay that both taste like Jerez wines.

Muchada, like Pérez and Ibáñez, is concerned that the old knowledge is preserved for a new generation. He has worked with old farmers to learn traditional methods of pruning and is learning the intricacies of the terroirs in the roughly 10 acres he farms in four different plots.

“It’s the heritage, the beauty of the knowledge,” he said. “It’s a beautiful métier. It’s a pity if we lose it.”

Narváez casts some of the blame on the European Union, which gives generous loans and grants for vineyards, but in return requires following simple international practices intended for mechanically farming for quantity rather than quality.

He and Muchada both avoid aging their wines under flor. Nonetheless, the wines bear the unmistakable stamp of the region.

One night, at a restaurant with Ibáñez and Pérez, they pulled out two beautiful midcentury oloroso sherries. One was made from a coastal vineyard, they said, and the other from inland. They left it to me to guess which was which.

I didn’t need to guess; the differences were obvious. One was intense and powerful, with a rich texture. It clearly was from Jerez. The other one, fine, light and elegant, was from Sanlúcar.

Pérez was delighted with my success.

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