The poet winemaker – a masterclass with Gonzalez Byass
Let’s face it, Antonio Flores is a bit of rock star in the sherry world. Enologo de la Bodega at Gonzalez Byass – producers of the world’s biggest selling and best known Fino, Tio Pepe – he’s a pretty high profile sherry maker, with an impressive portfolio of wines to his credit. So we weren’t going to miss a chance to attend a tasting masterclass with the man himself.
The 2013 Fiestas de la Vendimia included a series of Catas Magistrales – masterclass tastings with the winemakers from some of Jerez’s biggest bodegas. We’d already enjoyed a cracker the week before with Lustau, and Gonzalez Byass was next on the list.
Matching the five classic sherry types (Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Cream and Pedro Ximenez) with tapas courtesy of Altacazuela catering and Flamenco guitar by Juanpe Carabante, all against the backdrop of the floodlit Alcazar, makes for a pretty special tasting.
The Enologo’s role is part scientist and part artist – using all his senses to shape the sherries in the bodega. We discovered tonight that in Antonio’s case he’s also part poet! It was clear that he found the setting – across the road and within site of his bodega – and the opportunity to share his wines with others a real joy. As he invited us all to share una noche magica (a magical night) with him, the stage was set.
Fino – Tio Pepe
Well, I’ve drunk my share of Tio Pepe over the years, and enjoyed pretty much every drop, but I don’t often stop to really look, smell and taste it. It’s our go-to sherry that’s always in the fridge. So this was a bit like bumping into an old friend and really looking at them for the first time in years.
“Tio Pepe es luz” said Antonio. Tio Pepe is light. The Tio Pepe slogan used to be Sol de Andalucia Embotellado (Bottled Andalucian Sunshine), but Antonio told us he preferred to describe is as “Luz y color en una botella” – light and colour in a bottle.
It smelled of yeast, from the flor that makes it, with mineral salts and almonds. Take a sip and it’s tangy, citrussy and a little salty with a taste of white bread and almonds towards the finish.
As Antonio reminded us, Fino is very versatile and can be matched with lots of different foods. Tonight, as well as a classic ceviche and a refreshing lime and avocado cream, we were served a blini with partridge pate and onion marmalade. Surely not, I thought – game should go with Amontillado. I was wrong – the bakery smells and tastes of the fino brought the blini flavours out, so that it was no longer just the means of getting the pate to your mouth!
And finally a note on serving. Antonio was adamant – “siempre frio” – always cold. Whether you like it practically frozen or if you prefer it delicately chilled, either’s fine by him, so long as it’s cold.
Amontillado – Vina AB
Vina AB is made by aging the wine until the flor dies off, rather than accelerating the process by adding more alcohol to kill it. Its average age is 12 years old. This was a wine I’d not tasted before.
Pale amber to look at. It smelled firstly of the bakery – yummy! – then a little vanilla, a little maple syrup and hazelnut. Finally the merest hint of wood.
It had a relatively light and thin texture in the mouth, but brought an explosion of flavour: bone dry with citrus, hazelnuts and a little whisper of dried fruit. The flavour lasts for ages in the mouth – great value per mouthful!
Altacazuela paired the Amontillado with tuna loin and roasted peppers. Amontillado is brilliant for bringing out and enhancing umami flavours, and Antonio also suggested matching with oriental food. Our friend Tomoko from Japan was there too, and she agreed.
Oloroso – Alfonso
Another wine I hadn’t tried before. Considering how ubiquitous Tio Pepe is in the UK, it’s a lot harder to get hold of other Gonzalez Byass wines. Despite it’s syrupy texture and rich raisiny and burnt caramel smells, Alfonso has less than 5g of sugar per litre. Lovely and light textured, it has a complex, rounded flavour. It may be bone dry, but there’s an implied sweetness which is intriguing. We had a tapa of mushroom risotto with it, and the rich meaty mushrooms went beautifully with the rounded, intense wine.
Cream – Solera 1847
Cream is a blend of Palomino Fino and Pedro Ximenez, which I’m not a huge fan of. That said, I’m always up for trying!
25% PX gives a sweeter wine with 125g of sugar per litre. Dark and syrupy to look at, it smells of Oloroso, oak and raisins. In the mouth it’s sweet but with quite a bit of citrus and licorice, which isn’t a combination I’m crazy about. It could work with some really sharp, mature cheese like parmesan or stilton, but if I’m going sweet, I’d rather go all the way…..
Pedro Ximenez – Nectar
Which brings us neatly on to the PX – the dessert course! Made from sundried PX grapes – which Antonio described as “el fruto maravillosa de la tierra” (the marvellous fruit of the ground) this is eye-wateringly sweet. 380g of sugar per litre (say it fast and it won’t hurt!) mean this is not a drink for the weight-watchers and diabetics amongst us, but boy is it a good pud?!
Dense, dark and syrupy with long, persistent legs. Nectar smells jammy with raisins, dates and a little bit of chocolate. In the mouth it’s sweet (surprise surprise!) but with bitter black treacle and licorice notes to take the edge off.
You don’t really need anything to eat when you’re drinking PX, but the turron mousse it was paired with was pretty yummy. Antonio’s more surprising suggestions were strawberries or key lime pie. Personally I love it poured over vanilla ice cream (although another friend swears by chocolate ice cream).
Una noche magica
Some commentators and winemakers can be a bit sniffy about Gonzalez Byass, with their large scale production and huge market share. And yes, we’ve tasted amazing artisan wines produced in more traditional ways – and loved them. But in our fridge there’s room for everyone – especially our friend Tio Pepe! Hearing Antonio’s passion for and poetic descriptions of his bodega’s wines really added another dimension to tasting an old favourite, and we also got to try some new flavours. Antonio promised us a magical night, and – actually – it was.