Sherry Master 2014 – from the vineyard to the glass
Sherry Master 2014. Where on earth do I begin? Two and a half weeks after it finished, I’m still in sensory overload. This intensive course run by Gonzalez Byass was advertised as a total immersion in sherry, and that pretty much sums it up. In fact I think my pores might still be oozing sherry (but that might be partly caused by the rest of our two week trip to Jerez too!).
Two days of unforgettable experiences – far too many to do justice to in a single blog article. So I won’t try. Think of this article as a postcard from Sherry Master, telling you about the highlights. There’ll be more articles over the next few weeks about specific experiences, but here’s a rundown to whet your appetite….
A sleepless night
I was pretty excited about securing a place on Sherry Master – this was an opportunity to spend serious time in arguably the world’s most famous sherry bodega, learning from the sherry poet himself Antonio Flores. So I already anticipated a sleepless night before the course began. However, the excitement was replaced by terror the day before when, during a chat with fellow Sherry blogger Paddy from The Vine Inspiration, I realised that I was signed up for the Spanish language edition of Sherry Master (the International Version was scheduled for the following week). That will teach me to write my course application in Spanish! So the sleepless night was spent practising Spanish in my head and hoping my recent intensive lessons would pay off!
A journey from vineyard to glass
The programme was designed to take us on a journey from the vineyard to the glass, so we started the first day with a morning spent in the La Canariera and Esteve vineyards in the Carrascal pago.
La Canariera, we met the vineyards manager and enologist Salvador Guimera – who Antonio sees as ‘the future’. He explained the fundamentals of viticulture including the technicalities of dealing with the albariza soil so essential to sherry’s unique character. We then spent time with Jose Manuel Aranas – capataz of the vineyard and the third generation of his family to do this job.
Now it got really technical, with demonstrations of the two vine grafting methods used in the vineyard: Yema or T-Bud grafting, which is the most efficient and productive method, and Espiga grafting which can be used the next winter if the buds fail to sprout. Jose Manuel still uses traditional tools for this job, and the grafts are bound in raffia for planting out.
Gonzalez Byass is the only bodega to still use locally grown Pedro Ximenez, instead of buying it in from Montilla. The Esteve vineyard is where it grows, over a 70 hectare area. When we arrived, we were greeting by rows of grapes undergoing asoleado – sun-drying to make raisins. This is essential to concentrate the sugars for sweet, gooey PX wines. It takes 4kg of fresh grapes to make 1kg of PX raisins for pressing. The raisins tasted of dates and figs, rather than raisins, and gave us a hint of what the final wine would eventually taste like.
As well as PX, they were sun drying Palomino Fino too as an experiment for recreating an old Jerez style.
Delving into the archive
Gonzalez Byass began life in 1835, and has an incredible archive going back to the very beginning. After our morning in the vineyard, we spent a fascinating hour in the archive reaching far back into history. We saw the original letter from Robert Byass Blake exclaiming about the first ever Fino shipped to him in London, and Robert Falcon Scott’s listing of Gonzalez Byass sherries taken on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition. From old labels to bodega accounts to the fire-damaged sales ledger from their London office, this was so interesting I could have stayed all day.
And so, the tasting begins….
By now it was 1 o’clock, and I had resisted the sherry offered in the vineyard and the archive. But the sun was definitely over the yardarm and it was time for our first tasting. After this tasting we were headed to Michelin-starred Aponiente for lunch, so who better to co-host the tasting with Antonio than Juan Ruiz-Henestrosa, sommelier at Aponiente and local man raised on sherry. He took us through a tasting of the sherries served at Aponiente and that we would be having with lunch very soon. Juan’s enthusiasm for sherry was ignited by his grandfather, and continues to burn brightly today. For him, Amontillado is better than champagne. I like his style!
For this tasting, we began with the first tasting of this year’s Mosto – the prince of the bodega as Antonio called it, and a real privilege. We then followed with En Rama Finos from three different Tio Pepe soleras (but more of this in another article coming soon), Amontillados Vina AB and Del Duque (VORS), Oloroso Alfonso, Palo Cortado Leonor and finally a Tintilla de Rota from Gonzalez Byass’ Finca Moncloa near Arcos de la Frontera. And this was BEFORE lunch!
Having tasted the wines alone, we then headed to El Puerto De Santa Maria to taste them married with food. Aponiente is run by chef Angel Leon, another great sherry lover and graduate of Sherry Master 2013. He uses exclusively local produce, predominantly from the sea, and the lunch he presented to us was nothing short of epic.
This is not a chef who hides in the kitchen or leaves his staff to do the grunt work. He was in the kitchen , came and explained every dish, and worked alongside staff to deliver courses and clear plates. I’m not sure you’d see Heston doing that.
After lunch, lubricated by great food, wine and company, Antonio had us all introduce ourselves formally to the rest of the group. Sommeliers, food and wine journalists, fellow bloggers and restaurateurs – it was a stellar line up (and all Spanish except yours truly). I will be forever grateful to them for adopting me as a colleague and excusing my clumsy Spanish.
Tasting in V
After a short break, we were back to the tasting room for an incredible ‘Cata en V’, tasting from Mosto, Sobretablas and through to the many different wines they become. This was a real highlight and I’ll be writing an article just about this tasting over the next few weeks. What a joy to taste the evolution of a wine from Mosto only two weeks after harvest right through to old and venerable VORS sherries.
After this tasting, we were taken on the Tio Pepe train to the Lepanto brandy bodega to meet the man who makes it – Luis Miguel Trillo. Lepanto is currently the only Brandy de Jerez made with local Palomino Fino grapes. All the rest are made with Airen grapes grown in La Mancha. Luis Miguel talked us through the production process and we smelled the evolution from Holanda to finished product.
We then took the train to another part of the bodega complex for supper in a bodega patio so breathtakingly decorated I thought perhaps the fairies had done it. Supper was again matched with the wines we had tasted during the day, including a truly heavenly Tocino de Cielo (which means ‘heavenly morsels’) dessert matched with Tintilla de Rota.
A morning in the bodega
We met on Day 2, a little bleary-eyed from yesterday’s exploits. This morning was an intensive morning in the bodega with the ultimate Sherry Master himself, Antonio. Making sherry here at Gonzalez Byass isn’t just a job for him, it’s supremely personal. He grew up in the bodega and has followed in his father’s footsteps. He even showed us his father’s bodega toolkit including a venencia made of whale balleen. This morning’s session was all about understanding classification in the bodega, and how wines are selected for development. We spent three hours roaming the various bodegas, from the very oldest on the site through to the most modern, tasting directly from barrels and understanding how the wines develop. There’s a LOT to report about this session and I need to write it as a separate article (or possibly two), but the highlights were tasting from different Tio Pepe soleras, tasting the Palmas range, including Cuatro Palmas taken straight from the barrel. As they say in Spanish, ‘que lujo’!
Tasting with a wine rockstar
Our final tasting of the course was in a league of its own. It was a homage to Custodio Lopez Zamarra, the recently retired uber-sommelier from the restaurant Zalacain in Madrid. A true rockstar of the wine world, and all round nice fella. This was a tasting of Palo Cortados only. As Antonio said:
What else could we offer Custodio, but the best wines of the house?
Regular readers will know I’m a bit of a fan of Palo Cortado. From Leonor to three Anada vintage Palos, and then onwards to a 50 yeard old tres cortados and a 100 year old cuatro cortados, this was the tasting to end all tastings.
And the Antonio and Custodio double act was superb! Again this needs to be given its own article, so you can look forward to reading more about what Custodio calls ‘these mythical wines’ soon.
Well, we couldn’t finish without more food and sherry, could we?! The course finished with a late lunch in a room just across the patio from the Apostoles bodega. If you’ve ever visited the Tio Pepe bodega and seen the glass of PX for the mice, we were in a room just at the end of that bodega. This was an opportunity to receive our ‘diplomas’ and chat with new friends before we went our separate ways. When I say diploma, I really mean sculpture. It weighs 1.5kg – thank goodness for excess baggage!
Sherry Master was a truly unforgettable experience. So much learning – from a natural born communicator – such lovely people and the opportunity to taste and understand more about some incredible wines. It also gave my Spanish language skills a serious workout! It was a huge privilege to receive a place on the course and hope I can do it justice in the range of blog posts it generates. One thing is certain: I always have a bottle of Tio Pepe in the fridge but, after Sherry Master unlocked more of its secrets, it tastes even better……..
Footnote: If you want to see what really happens on a Sherry Master course, click here to watch a short video of our incredible two days.