Albariza on the soles of her shoes
Despite my sherry obsession being a little over ten years old now, 2014 was the first time I set foot in a sherry vineyard. Sure I’d looked at them from the road as we drove past, and seen the tiny demonstration vineyards in a couple of the bigger bodegas, but last year was the first time I really got the albariza between my toes – sometimes literally!
Not one to do things by halves, in the space of six weeks in Autumn 2014 I went from vineyard novice to a total soil geek. Did I mention that I get easily obsessed?!
I hadn’t exactly planned it that way – I had booked one vineyard trip with Genuine Andalusia (more on that later) before arriving in Jerez, but sometimes the planets just align and you run into opportunities to do new things. What followed was an albariza odyssey from huge vineyards in the finest pagos to tiny vineyards supplying a family’s vegetable and sherry needs at the same time.
Quick vineyard facts
Before I begin to wax lyrical about the vineyards, let’s run through a few essential facts about the sherry vineyards.Soil – the characteristic soil of the sherry triangle is albariza, which is soft, bright white, chalky, and highly absorbent and moisture retentive whilt being relatively nutrient-poor. Packed with calcium carbonate and silica, its structure results from the high proportion of fossilised marine diatoms it contains. Its softness allows vine roots to penetrate both deeply and widely. The soil soaks up the winter rains like a sponge and holds it tight in thr spaces between the fossilised sea creatures. Then when the weather warms up, the surface dries into a crust, which prevents evaporation. Those widespread roots can therefore access the water even during the parching summer heat – essential, since the DO’s regulations forbid irrigation.
Other soils in the triangle are barros (clay) and arenas (sandy coastal soil).
Pagos – the vineyards of the sherry triangle are divided into different parcels, known as pagos, depending on the quality of the soil, the orientation, gradient and microclimate. The finest pagos are generally accepted as Macharnudo, Carrascal, Añina and Bilbaina, but there are around 300 in total.
Vines – the overwhelming majority of vines grown in the sherry triangle are Palomino Fino, with smaller crops of Muscat of Alexandria (for Moscatel) and Pedro Ximenez (most PX grapes are brought in from the neighbouring DO of Montilla-Moriles). Palomino and PX grow best in albariza, whilst the Muscat is grown in the sandier Arenas soil near the coast. The vines are usually removed and replanted after about 30-35 years. New vines are not productive until about three years after planting.
My first, my last…
The first I visited was La Canariera, Gonzalez Byass’s huge vineyard in Carrascal, as part of Sherrymaster 2014. The vineyard house has a dedicated education suite, with examples of vines, soil samples and loads of information about how the vines are cultivated. There’s also an old vine attached to the wall so you can see just how far the roots can travel.
After a short talk about viticulture techniques, we went outside to watch three different methods of vine grafting, demonstrated by second generation vineyard capataz Jose Manuel Aranas. We then crunched our way through the vineyard (the albariza surface was baked hard in the sun, but gave way under our feet to form a crunchy gravel) to plant one of the grafts and talk about pruning.The typical pruning technique in the sherry triangle is known as vara y pulgar – stick and thumb. The vine is trained into two branches, each trained along opposites sides of a lateral wire. One is kept long with at least eight buds: the stick, whilst the other is pruned short with a maximum of two buds: the thumb. Each year the pruning is alternated so last year’s stick becomes this year’s thumb, and vice versa.
After a coffee break in the sun, we departed to visit nearby Viña Esteve (also in Carrascal) for a tasting class and to see the asoleo (sun-drying) of PX grapes. However, it turned out that I was to return to La Canariera only six weeks later, this time for the Sherry Educator course. So this beautiful vineyard was my first and my last of the year!
As I mentioned, we also had a brief visit to Viña Esteve, to see the PX grapes sun-bathing before pressing for PX sherry. You could smell them from about four metres away, rich and raisiny. Interestingly, they tasted more of dates and figs than of raisins. The asoleo process evaporates much of the water, giving a sweeter more concentrated juice. For every four kilos of fresh grapes, you end up with only 1 kilo of raisins. Alongside the PX raisins, a small quantity of Palomino grapes were also being dried, for an experiment to revive a forgotten style of Jerez wine.
Soil geek on tour
Before heading out to Jerez, we had booked a vineyard tour with local guide Ivan Ricoy from Genuine Andalusia. Entitled ‘secret sherry houses’, it was a chance to visit smaller working vineyards and meet the people working the vines. It was meant to be a ‘long half day’ finishing at lunchtime. Suffice to say we were a little late for lunch!
Viña ZarzuelaWe began the day at Viña Zarzuela – another vineyard that I would end up visiting more than once during the trip. This vineyard is in the small pago Zarzuela, between Añina and Bilbaina. It’s owned by Jose Manuel Bustillo, who until recently worked for the Andaluz government as a viticultural researcher, and he collaborates there with Spirit Sherry – a wine tourism company recently founded by young enologos Cecilia and Eduardo. This small vineyard used to be self-sufficient by bartering with other small farms and vineyards locally. Jose Manuel is keen to restore the tradition. Before breakfast we took a walk through the vineyards, and had the chance to get up close and personal with the vines and the albariza. We then did a honey tasting, of four different varieties, before finding out what Jose Manuel did with the fruits of all those vines…. The vineyard house is tiny, but not small enough to stop him making his own sherry. Since harvest had only ended a couple of weeks ago, we tasted fresh mosto before sampling Amontillado-Fino, followed by an Amontillado much closer in characteristics to Palo Cortado than a classic Amontillado, and finally his Amoroso (medium sherry based on Amontillado). Whoever agrees to barter their eggs or veggies for these wines is going to get a bargain!
Next up was La Sobajanera, a tiny vineyard in the pago Tizon run by Domingo. The vineyard and house have no running water, and rely on a rainwater collection system. The vines are 70 years old and planted in the days when harvesting was done by hand with the help of mules. What takes 9 days to harvest by hand would only take a single day with a machine, but the vines are planted too close together for a machine to pass. So 2015 is the final year for these vines, before Domingo rips them up and starts again. He’ll rest the land for two years, and then replant the vines. So he’s looking at 2020 before his next harvest after this year.
That’s a long time to wait for more sherry grapes, but Domingo won’t be sitting twiddling his thumbs – the land will be productive whilst he waits. The resting land is ideal for growing vegetables – tomatoes, squashes, salads, strawberries – and he also catches grouse for food, luring them with water troughs. He will also keep himself occupied with repairs to the house and his old venerable tractor, so old now that the only way to get spare parts is to make them himself!
The little house is a magnet for family parties, and Domingo treated us to a visit to the back room where he keeps the sherry he makes with the portion of grapes he doesn’t sell to the local co-operative. Here we feasted on tomatoes grown outside his front door, dressed with his own brew of sherry vinegar, soaked up with home made bread. We toasted with glasses of 1 year old Fino, followed by a 15 year old version which was closer to Amontillado and deliciously complex. 2014 was a year full of incredible food and drink experiences, from days like this to world class haute cuisine, and I can confidently say this was the most memorable meal of the whole year.Viña El Carmen We finished our Genuine Andalusia tour at El Carmen in pago Bilbaina, this time spending our time in the historical house rather than in the vineyard itself. The house and vineyard belong to the family of Antonio Ramos, who used to supply mosto to many other bodegas. However, the bodegas wouldn’t always want all that was produced, so it needed to be stored in case they wanted more in March. If they didn’t want it, the family made their own sherry with it. This much bigger house had space to store the mosto and to make bigger quantities of sherry than the other ones we visited. It also had a bunkhouse for the vineyard workers, chapel and salon de fiestas. No longer lived in full time, and furnished as it was when it was a working vineyard house, it was a fantastic glimpse into life in a small but busy vineyard. These days the family sell the grapes directly to Barbadillo and Osborne.
The traditional innovators
The Perez family at Bodegas Luis Perez come from five generations of sherry makers, but they don’t let history hold them back from trying new things. They’re innovating by looking to the past, recovering old varieties of local native grapes (both sherry grapes and others for table wines) such as Palomino Jerez, Palomino Pelousson and Palomino Basto which yield more natural sugar than Palomino Fino and therefore can be used to produce a Fino that requires no fortification. And when they’re not doing that, they grow international varieties “just for fun”!Willy Perez showed us around the vineyard, perched on a hill overlooking Jerez and dominated by a stunning new modern extension to the original house. He’s passionate about making wines that genuinely express their variety and place of origin. Doing so doesn’t make life easy. All grapes are hand harvested at night by the light of head torches, and yields are about a third of what they could be with more intensive methods. But the wines are making quite a name for themselves and frequently sell-out before more can be bottled. Willy leads their sherry project, which is not without controversy as its the first natural unfortified sherry to be produced in many years. In the first year of production, they achieved a wine of 16.5% ABV without any fortification. It also has much less flor influence than a typical Fino, with it regularly being actively broken up by the bodega team. This is because, before 1824, flor was seen as a defect, with technical papers of the time saying:
remove the flor in April, or your wines will lose weight
So Willy wants to rediscover Fino as it used to be: natural, unfortified, with undiluted flavours and minimal flor influence. It may come as a shock to the market when it’s ready, but that’s kind of the point – why stand still when wine making in the sherry triangle has been adapting and evolving since Phoenician times?!
Note to self: do NOT wear flipflops in the vineyardJerez’s Fiesta de la Vendimia (harvest festival) was a biggie in 2014, to coincide with the city’s status as European City of Wine. The programme of events was extensive and I was drawn to the venencia workshop being run by Spirit Sherry. I’d been dying to learn, and my first attempt had left me with very wet feet! So back we went to Viña Zarzuela, this time at sunset rather than sunrise. I thought I was being smart wearing flipflops, since I didn’t want to soak my shoes again, but hadn’t figured that we’d be wandering around the vineyard first. Whoops! But now, not only did I have albariza on the soles of my shoes, I had it stuck between my toes.
After a guided tour around the vineyard from Cecilia and Eduardo, we came to the venencia workshop. I probably shouldn’t give up my day job, but at least I improved a bit. And larking around with the venencia and water, in the fading sun on a hillside just outside Jerez, is a pretty good way to spend an evening, regardless of whether I ever get the hang of it!
My warmest thanks to everyone who helped me explore the vineyards in 2014. If you love sherry, don’t just stay in the bodegas and tabancos – tempting though it is. Go and crunch over the albariza, touch a vine leaf, meet the people who sweat over those vines. It gave my sherry knowledge – and passion – an extra dimension, and the wines taste all the better for it.