Fran Asencio is familiar with the 900-kilometre drive between Cangas del Narcea (Asturias, northern Spain) and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on the banks of the Guadalquivir river. Along with winemaker Nicolás Marcos, he owns Dominio del Urogallo, whose wines have drawn the attention of many aficionados towards Asturias' little known wines, but he has now embarked on a new vinous adventure on the opposite end of the country. Down south, Fran and his brother Fernando are planning to bring Pedro Romero's prestige back to its old glory days after the economic collapse of this Sanlúcar sherry producer ended with the suicide of its owner in 2014 and a tortuous bankruptcy procedure.
The name Bodegas Alonso, as it will be known from now on, comes from Fran and Fernando's maternal grandfather Agapito, who used to take them to harvest the vineyards he owned in Ribera del Duero. They haven't ruled out a tagline indicating that Bodegas Alonso used to be the former Pedro Romero, but they prefer to start from scratch in the Sherry Triangle "and let the wines rather than the name speak for themselves", says Fran.
The two brothers, who were born in Seville, bring courage and financial muscle into the project. They made their money in engineering projects at Gaza airport (now in ruins) and other infrastructures in Romania, but they caught the wine bug seven years ago, after they met Nicolás and decided to invest in Dominio del Urogallo.
The decision to buy part of Pedro Romero (legally, the purchase includes movable and immovable assets of Bodegas Méndez) comes after Fran had been looking for wine investment opportunities down south for some time. After lengthy negotiations and an undisclosed sum of money, the spirit of the winery founded by Vicente Romero Carranza in 1860 will continue to live under the caring eye of the Asencio brothers.
The Asencio brothers are trying to keep the brand Pedro Romero along with one of the cellar buildings and the prized old wines, but some of the house’s great assets have changed hands.
The renowned manzanilla brand Aurora, launched by the former Pedro Romero early in the 20th century to honor his wife Aurora Ambrosse Lacave, is now owned by Sanlúcar producer Paco Yuste (his wife and daughter are called Aurora); the liquid now rests at Grupo Estévez cellars, who make La Guita, and a great deal of the 10,000 butts which Pedro Romero —one of the most beautiful wineries in town, for many sanluqueños— used to store are now spread among various cellars in town.
The new Bodegas Alonso is also trying to retain the rest of the brands, some of them legendary like Ansar Real or Gaspar Florido. The brothers are still undecided about whether to do a one-off saca (drawing out of the wine from the butts) of barely 100 bottles aimed at showing to the world that “these wines are still alive; that they do indeed exist. They haven’t gone anywhere else”. But it will be hard to please everyone, they say. “We have lots of requests. A wine store has already asked us to do a larger saca, of about 3,000 bottles of GF25 [a wine] but we must think about it”, explains Fran.
Although the brands have been mostly kept under the same roof, it is heartbreaking to see how the legacy is becoming fragmented, but this Monopoly of cellars and soleras is par for the course in the region’s recent history. Pedro Romero itself bought in 2006 Gaspar Florido’s casks, wines and cellars in Sanlúcar’s Barrio Bajo as well as those of Bodegas Méndez, an almacenista (wine wholesaler) from El Puerto.
“We are not in the Sherry Triangle to change things but to maintain a legacy”, says Fran Asencio. “We have bought grapes and we have been making manzanilla in other premises in town but the idea is to start slowly, quietly and carefully. We would like to set up a profitable business with manzanilla and maintain the old wines for die-hard wine lovers”.
Their location, below sea level with the right humidity and facing the cool west winds, is ideal to make this type of wines in which flor —Fran is a great yeast advocate— quickly develops. “We brought here the manzanilla we’ve been making in other premises in the area and we were surprised to find out that it had developed flor in barely three days”, adds Fran.
Bodegas Alonso will not have the dimensions of the old Pedro Romero. “We are not just paying lip service; every single process here —production, labelling, bottling etc— will be made in an artisan way”. Their first manzanilla, Velo de Flor, will probably be launched in the spring; later they plan to make an unfortified wine. “We have experience making wine in Toro, Asturias and now here; we are open-minded and ready for new experiences”.
They plan to build a traditional lagar (wine press) and they’ll later decide whether they ferment in stainless steel or casks. “We give ourselves three years to start the ball rolling”, explained Fran while we walked around the run-down cellars in the Barrio Bajo earlier this year. Some old tools were left behind by the previous owners like a wine filler in use between 1860 and 1950, as well as pictures and posters from days gone by and even a typed guide detailing some “good practices and appropriate handling”.
It was poignant to see the empty cellar, with the casks’ supporting stones scattered across the floor and bits of flaking paint on the walls but the sacristía, where the oldest wines are kept, looked well. There are historic soleras such as GF 30 and GF 25, which Gaspar Florido referred to them not as Palo Cortado but as Jerez Viejísimo (very old sherry) or the legendary Ansar Real GF, with five casks kept under lock and key —aged 126 years according to Carbon 14 tests.
José Antonio Palacios, foreman and winemaker at the winery for the past 15 years, serves some drops of Sherry Triangle history, wines with personality and concentration which are unfortunately dying out. “Some of these wines have remained untouched for the past four or five years; occasional sacas have been performed to keep them fresh, but we will have to rearrange the cellar and top up casks”, he says.
Asencio is aware of the work that needs to be done at his newly acquired cellar but he is set on keeping such jewels. “A bit of the history of Sanlúcar belongs to him [Asencio]; how he handles it now is up to him”, says his friend winemaker Ramiro Ibáñez.