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César Saldaña: “Jerez would benefit if other wine regions did biological ageing” 1. César Saldaña signs a copy of his book at Vinoble. In the text, detail of an illustration and picture of the president of DO Jerez next to Juancho Asenjo, Paula Menéndez, Enrique Garrido and Santi Carrillo Photos: Y. Ortiz de Arri


César Saldaña: “Jerez would benefit if other wine regions did biological ageing”

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | October 25th, 2022

With his diplomacy and communication skills, combined with his unfailing smile and smart demeanour, César Saldaña Sánchez (1961) has dedicated most of his professional life to Sherry wine. He spent 15 years in export and marketing management at González Byass and the now defunct Sandeman, before joining the Regulatory Board for the Denominations of Origin of Jerez, Manzanilla and Vinagre de Jerez in 2000. As director general he launched projects such as the enormously successful Aula de Formación del Vino de Jerez —a source of inspiration for many other DOs— and since 2020 he presides the organisation after the retirement of his predecessor, Beltrán Domecq. He also chairs the Wine and Brandy Route of the Jerez Region.

With this resumé, it seems clear that César Saldaña is unafraid of new challenges. He says that he is able to handle everything by getting up early, going to bed late and avoiding procrastination. He has indeed managed to reconcile his responsibilities with the publication a few months ago of El libro de los vinos de Jerez, a handbook that provides an overview of the culture, history and viticulture of the region but in which he also shares his opinion on the future of Jerez wine. 

The interview took place during the celebration of Vinoble in Jerez at the end of May this year, but César Saldaña recently updated his answers about current issues.

How did the idea of writing the book come about?
It all started during a conversation with Manuel Pimentel, the publisher of Almuzara, whom I befriended during his time as president of the Montilla-Moriles appellation. I told him that I had written a series of texts, on which the Consejo's training courses are based, that could be structured into a manual. He took me up on it and so during the pandemic I began to shape it, introducing more cultural background, fleshing out the historical part and offering my views in the foreword and the afterword. Then I made the unforgivable mistake of telling him that I draw.

You have drawn the 30-odd illustrations included in the book. Are we discovering yet another talent of yours?
I used to do sketches with India ink when I was a kid and I even enrolled in the School of Arts and Crafts in Jerez, but then I abandoned it. The book has been a pleasure for me because it has enabled me to rediscover a hobby from my youth, although I had to invest a lot of time in it because I made a commitment to illustrate it. Also, a good part of the 32 photographs that appear in the book are mine. It is a very personal work.

You observe in the book the peculiar fact that everybody is aware of Sherry wine, but few know what it is like and only a few people drink it. 
The conversion rate of sherry is low, let's be honest. Everyone has heard about this wine and many people have tasted it at festivals or in Andalusian-inspired establishments, but its presence in the list of regularly consumed products drops considerably. 
Nevertheless, within this low conversion rate, devotees are very enthusiastic. I think this has to do with the unique character of the wines of Jerez, so distinctive and genuine. Once you discover them, then options are far reaching and you come across new bodegas with their own particular characteristics, but sherry is a wine that attracts inquisitive consumers who are open to diversity and eager to learn, who don't just stick to what they already know they like.

But shouldn't we strip Sherry of some of its formalism?
Sherry wine has sometimes been cloaked in an aura of solemnity, although I think we have managed to change that so pomposity is a thing of the past. In the past, if you thought of the kind of person who liked Sherry, you would think of a man, with a tie, drinking a glass of it at the right time... there was a code that made you shy away. Nowadays, they are into gastronomy, but a gastronomy that is sometimes even alternative and somewhat more casual, which is also important. There are now lots of people who like wine and who live it, share it and enjoy it without complications. People who don't need a linen tablecloth to drink expensive wine.
In the book you give some tips for anyone starting out to enjoy sherry.
Yes, you don't have to go crazy. I think that a properly served glass of fino and some olives is an incredible culinary synergy and it costs you nothing. 
Understanding four or five tips about biological and oxidative ageing, the system of criaderas and soleras, why the albariza soil is important, or how sherry wines are organised gives people a bit of confidence to then be able to take the plunge, which is the fun of sherry. It's like when you travel to see a city. The fun part is wandering the streets, visiting the places where the locals go. But of course, you can take a wrong turn and instead of being somewhere really cool you end up in an industrial estate. 
I think those few keys help in any situation, but especially in the case of Sherry. From there, you can go on a journey of self-discovery.

You also confess that in the end what everyone wants to know is the mystery of palo cortado.
We have been very good at selling the magic of sherry, conveying that it is a bit cryptic and mysterious. That's good for attracting attention, but it's probably not the best thing to do if we want to change the conversion rate. The documentary El misterio del palo cortado is wonderful and we owe a lot to it, but it is just an anecdote. 
What really helps us to attract people is for sherry to be understood, and to understand palo cortado you first have to understand what biological ageing is, what oxidative ageing is, why when we press we obtain the free-run juice and why, if we press a little bit more, we obtain wines with more extract. You need to understand how it was in the 19th century, when the veil of flor was lost in many butts. Back then, they didn't know about the biological ageing processes, which is something that no longer happens. Once you understand all these things you realise that palo cortado is an oloroso made with the ingredients of a fino. It is as simple as that but we have created a mystery around it.

Having been in the business for so long, you know all the players, with their weaknesses and strengths. Has this experience helped you to reach a consensus on the appellation’s regulatory overhaul?
Yes, undoubtedly. The Presidency of an appellation must try to reconcile positions and I believe that my management experience in the Regulatory Board has greatly helped because I have worked side by side with each of the sub-sectors for years. 
The change in the regulations that we have agreed on was preceded by a major sector-wide agreement signed in May 2021. It involved the different sensibilities that are represented in the plenary session, which are basically four: cooperatives, independent growers, bodegas from Jerez and bodegas from Sanlúcar. Each of them made some concessions.

Is there unity in the Sherry region?
There is unity, not unanimity. There are still a number of differing, and in some cases potentially conflicting, interests. But we are never going to change the heterogeneous nature of the region. A bodega that sells mainly cream in England has little to do with a bodega that sells manzanilla in local festivals. Both are under the protection of the Consejo and we need to accommodate both of them, striving to find a common ground, which at times is very limited, but it does exist.
There is unity because everyone has made an effort to find it. Aspects such as the recovery of varieties and old finos have been approved, and there are sectors that have secured historic changes such as the extension of the boundaries of the Zona de Crianza [ageing area, now expanded to all the villages in the production area]. Right now, I think everyone is comfortable with the regulations.

Some modifications have just seen the green light, but others have not been implemented yet.
We have two types of modifications; the so called normal ones, which are in force after publication in the Junta de Andalucía's Gazette, and the so called major ones, which must be approved in Brussels: the inclusion of non-fortified wines, which puts us in a different group from liqueur wines, and the fact that the production of fino wines in Sanlúcar is to be discontinued.

One issue that has not been included in the new specification is the unfortified terroir-driven white wines made in the region, the so-called nuevos jereces or vinos de pasto. Will they finally be accepted in the DO? 
There are documents from renowned bodegas such as González Byass or Domecq that contain price lists of vinos de pasto. However, since the appellation was created in January 1935, sherry has always been a generoso wine, a fortified liqueur wine or a natural sweet wine. It is also true that the concept of Sherry —and our DO is Jerez-Xérès-Sherry— refers to this type of wine. 
I have no doubt that a vino de pasto is Jerez, but I also know for sure that it is not Sherry. I personally have always defended that they should be within the DO as a category of wine, but I can understand that there are operators who are very concerned that including this type of white unfortified wines in the Sherry designation might cause confusion.

And what’s the solution? 
The most likely option to go ahead is the creation of a separate indication. As with Douro wines, it probably makes more sense for it to be a PGI and in the future a separate PDO. 
No one doubts that the new Jerez whites share all the identifying features of Jerez wine such as the albariza soil, the local grape varieties, and even, in some cases, the presence of some flor. The only thing that separate them from being Sherry is two years of ageing and 15% alcohol. These wines are not Vinos de la Tierra de Cádiz either. This PGI was created to include internationally-minded wines made from foreign or local varieties that do not fundamentally reflect their origin, terroir or traditional practices. 

How would this new indication be materialised?
This is a collective discussion but, in my opinion, the most plausible way forward is to create a PGI that includes the word Jerez in the name. It could be called Vino de Pasto de Jerez, Jerez white wine... I don't know. 
These new Jerez wines are out there, and nobody is stopping them from being sold, either as part of the Vinos de la Tierra de Cádiz or as Vino de España. The problem is that we are losing a precious opportunity because these wines cannot say they are from Jerez and I think it is deeply unfair because, as I have said more than once, they are Jerez through and through. The soil, the terroir, the way they are made, many of them fermented in cask, with a subtle presence in some cases of biological ageing, the varieties that speak of the territory and of who we are. 
Right now Jerez is Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, but let's make a geographical indication. We have the experience because we have Jerez Brandy and Jerez Vinegar.

We are starting to see labels with the words "vino de pasto" made in different styles. And Montilla-Moriles, for example, also has vino de pasto. 
That's why it is urgent to draw up the regulations, because this is burgeoning. It is time to define them: What type of wine should it be? It's OK if there are different styles because they have a lot in common: the land, the varieties, etc. But what is necessary is to define the category. I don't know if sparkling wines should be there or not, but let's define it. My opinion is that they should have a certain cellaring time, because that would require certain winemaking techniques and quality of the wines.

It would be a way of differentiating them from the young wines, which in the area are called mostos (musts), some of which are released by November. 
These wines are fine for local consumption, but they would not make sense in this new category. I want them to be judiciously made wines -maybe we could stipulate that they can only be sold after the following vintage. With a year in tank, the quality would increase, but this is just me thinking out loud.

And are there any signs that it will move forward soon? 
I am doing my best, but the initiative must come from the producers. With a bit of coordination, though, it could be up and running very soon.

You say in the book that "the producers of this generation have understood that without the vineyard there is no wine" but some grapes are still being paid at very low prices.
This is changing. In the 2021 harvest, a butt of base wine went from €300 to €400, and this year grapes have not been paid below half a euro per kilo. This price is not what it should be, but until recently a kilo of grapes was paid at thirty-something cents. I believe that this is going to change gradually, also to the extent that growers are able to set their wines or grapes apart. Grapes in Jerez must not become a commodity. 

Is quality starting to be paid for?
Wineries that buy grapes pay for fruit from a quality vineyard different from a lower quality one, but you have to understand how the supply chain works in Jerez. Some producers are vertically integrated and have their own grapes, then there are those who buy grapes from others and, the most numerous group, those who buy base wines from the cooperatives. This last group holds the key and represent 50% of the total surface area. They can make the difference, but to do so, they must embark on sweeping changes in technology, sorting grapes based on their origin, health, concentration, alcohol content and vine age. As soon as they can offer different base wines, growers will be paid accordingly and this will influence the quality of much of what is sold afterwards. That, in my opinion, is what will bring about the fundamental change.

Until these steps towards quality are taken, skills such as pruning and other farming jobs are being lost.
This is a challenge not only for Andalusian vineyards, but for the whole of Spain. The Consejo is working with representatives of the regional Agriculture Department to draw up a 10-15 year strategic plan for vineyards. We want to ensure the future of growers and provide them with viable opportunities for their business. The big decisions in viticulture are taken every 35 or 40 years. If you want to grub up a vineyard at the end of its productive cycle, say after 40 years, you have to make a decision: do you replant or do you grow another crop? In recent years, almond and olive trees have been strong competitors. Right now grape prices are rising, but in a few years' time they could drop. 
We need to provide business opportunities so that such an important decision can be taken in favour of vines. And we must have some projections of the future needs —for sherry, vinegar, for butt seasoning or for vinos de pasto— and ensure this supply in terms of quantity and quality. We also need to reconsider issues such as climate change and vineyard irrigation.

In the meantime, some growers are throwing in the towel and giving up vineyard land in favour of wind turbines. What impact is this going to have on the vineyards of the Sherry region?
We are fighting to stop El Barroso wind energy site, which intends to erect five 200-metre wind turbines between Macharnudo and Añina, in other words, in the very heart of the Jerez wine-growing area, on land that has been vineyards since the time of Columela. These turbines are going to be the highest point in the Jerez area, above the Macharnudo Castle, which is our most iconic vineyard. From now on that view, which features on the cover of my book, will have two turbines behind it. This is barbaric.
We are not against renewables, it would be absurd. However, in a few years' time, and as technology advances, there will be a new major activity, which will be to dismantle these turbines. In the meantime, we cannot let other activities to be ruined. The Jerez vineyards are becoming one of the most visited wine tourism attractions on Spain's network of Wine Routes and this is absolutely incompatible with having this region clogged up with turbines. The pandemic has shaken the figures, but in 2019 almost 600,000 people visited our bodegas.

Could this have been anticipated earlier?
In 2019, when we had the first suspicions, we met officials at the Town Hall and they told us that the regulations did not allow such excesses. Now it seems that it does. I think the authorities need to impose rules and regulations. Otherwise, it's every man for himself.

What's the impact of the war in Ukraine on sales?
Sales in Ukraine were picking up before the war and Russia was a relatively stable market, selling more brandy than wine. They were not very important markets but the war is obviously bad news. A direct effect of the conflict is also the increase in the price of supplies, bottles, etc. 
In other export markets we have not fared badly. The year 2021 was very good, especially in some traditional markets where there is a lot of domestic consumption. Brexit, for example, did not affect us too much because it was muddled up with Covid, when there was a significant growth in consumption thanks to Britons staying at home. In 2022, on the other hand, we are losing part of that consumption in the UK, which is likely to raise taxes in 2023. That and the necessary price hikes as a result of rising costs will undoubtedly have an effect on export volumes, which naturally worries us.

And what about domestic sales? 
Spain is mainly an on-trade market, where out-of-home consumption is very important, so Covid was very hard for businesses here. The loss of international tourism and the absence of fairs and other events in the Andalusian spring that involve so much wine was noticeable. That's why 2022 has been a record year; people have started to drink again, and at events such as the Seville Fair there were even stock problems. The prospects in the domestic market at the beginning of the year were exceptional and the evolution so far confirms this trend. What the future may bring with cost increases is another matter.

You anticipate in the book that the age of flor is upon us. 
Our contribution to wine is obvious with the albariza soil or the criaderas and solera system, but the great contribution of sherry to universal winemaking is biological ageing.
I have the feeling that this is one of the ways in which Jerez can make progress, not only in terms of prestige and image, but also in terms of volume, because we do have the capacity to produce more. Not with amontillados, palos cortados or olorosos, which are 8, 12, 15 year old wines and whose expansion will always be through premiumisation. 
At Vinoble we presented preliminary results of a research that looks at producing finos below 15% vol., which is the minimum level we are allowed for liqueur wines. On the one hand, we are trying to change this legislation, but we also want to make sure that, if due to the natural evolution of the veil of flor the wine remains at 13.8% or 14%, we can bottle it that way, without the need to correct it again. This work needs to be backed up by scientific studies and trials. 
I believe that biological ageing with a lower alcohol content, with or without fortification, of 13-15 natural degrees, bottled as it is and without the need to correct it again, can have a great projection in the markets. 

Demand for lower alcohol wines is growing nowadays. 
People often complain that our wines are high in alcohol, but one must question that. I was recently in Campo de Borja and the red with the lowest alcohol was 14.8% and there were some reaching 16%. If you look at butt in a solera in Sanlúcar or Jerez, the wine is never at 15%, and if it is, it is because there has been no biological activity of the veil of yeasts. 
I think we ought to leave our wines exactly as they are. We will need more asepsis, greater control, perhaps bottling with inert gas, and amicrobic filtration. We are fine-tuning the details, but the wines will undoubtedly be more natural. However, we will not abandon biological ageing, which is our identity and what we do best. 

Sarah Jane Evans MW told me in a 2019 interview that she was concerned that all over the world wines with flor are being made and that sooner or later, if Jerez did nothing about it, those wines would become more interesting than Jerez. In fact, many people seem to take Jura more seriously than Jerez.
I am not at all worried. Jerez would benefit if more regions worked with biological ageing. If there is worldwide interest in Jura wines, it will be good for Jerez. If California starts making wine with a veil of yeasts, it will be good for us too. 
We have to try to get biological ageing on the mental map of wine lovers. Granted; Jura does things well and sells at premium prices, but when a wine lover discovers the wines of the Jura and then goes on to discover the wines of Jerez, what do you think they will prefer? 

Probably both, each in its own style.
The acidity of Jura wines means it is less versatile with food, whereas eating with a glass of manzanilla is sheer delight. I think we will continue to triumph in this respect. I wish there was an explosion of biological ageing. In any business, you need to have good competitors. Besides, it would help us to sell at higher prices.

Some people argue that the name Sherry has not aged gracefully, but you defend it "because it is genuine". 
I think the name had not aged well until some years ago, but we are now making up a lot of ground. The name is our identity and to give it up would be to hide who we are.

Isn't it associated with Medium/Cream type liqueur wines?
OK, so let's change that, but what we can't do is change the name and mislead people. A Jerez Medium is a Medium Sherry in the UK. We must make good quality Medium wines, sell them wisely and communicate them well so that they are not perceived as a cheap, poor quality wine.

In the book, you also suggest that if the Sherry region has to make progress with a variety, you would choose Moscatel over Pedro Ximénez.
Yes, for several reasons. I think Moscatel has greater potential for the future than Pedro Ximénez. Firstly, because it is a local variety, whereas Pedro Ximénez is not. 

But Pedro Ximénez is being planted in the region.
People are planting and more will be planted, but it will be very difficult for us to be self-sufficient. I have a lot of respect for the PX wines from Montilla that we age here, but Moscatel has an international profile. I really like its fruit, its varietal character, the terroir, because the sands where it grows also contribute. Combined with the way wines are aged here in Jerez, I think it is a delicious wine, easier to drink than Pedro Ximénez and easier to understand.

The Regulatory Board is almost 100% male, except for the general secretary and the representative from the Andalusian government. 
The situation in Jerez is no different to other businesses in Spain: there are excellent middle managers who are women, but there are few women at the decision-making levels. It is a nationwide problem. I have hired more women than men in the Regulatory Board. Maybe we ought to start implementing positive action.


Twenty unforgettable wines we tasted at Vinoble
Unfortified whites from Jerez: back to the roots and the soil
From our archive: a sherrylover’s guide to the region and its wines
"The natural wine category has become a caricature of itself"
Raúl Moreno brings a disruptive vision to the wines of Jerez
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