Old sherry is one of the rarest wines in the world. The widespread idea that fortified wines from western Andalucía don't improve after bottling is the main reason why so few of them are available, even at auctions. In August 2015, master blender of sherry bodega Gonzalez Byass Antonio Flores held a tasting featuring gems from the 4,000 bottle collection stored at the winery’s cellars in Jerez.
“Of the few sherry collectors I've heard of, none of them sell, or even share, their precious bottles”, says Armando Guerra, owner of Taberna der Guerrita on Calle San Salvador in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. From his bar and shop in this corner of southern Spain, Armando is on a mission to make Sherry Triangle wines better known to all aficionados.
Every summer, Armando organizes some fascinating tastings, invariably featuring sherries. One of the most intriguing this year was led by Antonio Flores, from González Byass, a leading sherry behemoth with a history that goes back to 1835. Gonzalez Byass has the largest wine stocks in Jerez. Their iconic bestseller Tio Pepe is slowly maturing in over 21.000 barrels that compose its solera — the system of fractional blending used for sherry. However, the amount of old wine stood in bottles is very limited and for special occasions only.
Antonio Flores first poured us Tio Pepe En Rama 2015, a lightly filtered version of Tio Pepe selected each year from the best 60 barrels. It's a wine of intense flavour with citrus, honey and bakery notes that captures the taster, just as the poetic presentations that Flores is known for.
“The sixth edition (2015) of our En Rama is probably the best so far”, reckons Antonio Flores, who describes it as a “wild” version of Tio Pepe. Sherry’s governing body (Consejo Regulador) has yet not defined “En Rama” which allows less fussy producers to sell traditionally filtered wine as En Rama. Luckily it's not a widespread problem at the moment. Just as the majority of sherry pro-ducers, Flores was unsure as to how an unfiltered wine would age in the bottle. After six editions, locally known as “sacas”, he is not worried anymore; indeed the wines are ageing gracefully developing in body and character as they get older.
The tasting progressed with a Tio Pepe bottled in the early 1940s. One of the many differences between this and the contemporary version is that old sherries used to be fermented in barrel. Today almost all wines in Jerez are fermented in stainless steel tanks.
“At that time, the filtering system was less fine, technically making this wine what we know today as En Rama”, Flores says. Some of the older local attendees remembered that Tio Pepe used to be much richer wine than the more quaffable contemporary version. This old Fino is surprisingly fat on the palate with the elegance and integration of flavors that only time can craft. A mouth-filling white wine, less oxidized than a standard Amontillado, but very rustic compared to a modern Fino. This is far more dense and saline, the 16-17 percent alcohol is barely noticeable and intensifies the immense (!) experience of tasting such an old sherry.
Next up was the regular Amontillado of the house,Viña AB, which is basically a longer-aged Tio Pepe. After its initial upbringing as Tio Pepe, the wine is transferred to another solera system (700 barrels) destined for Viña AB. Gradually this old Fino will start to lose its flor, the protective film of yeast that floats on the surface of Finos and Manzanillas. The so-called ”amontillamiento” is a process of oxidation which eventually converts a Fino into Amontillado. Despite the wine spending over a decade in oak barrels, there is very little wood character to be found in the modern Viña AB; instead it is a fine and delicate Amontillado, with lower intensity than the other wines on the tasting.
“Viña AB is the taste of flor in the absolute end of its life”, reminds Flores. We compared it with a bottle of Viña AB bottled in 1939. At that time Viña AB was labelled as a “Fino Amontillado”; in other words with slightly less oxidative ageing than today. It was an inferior wine to Tio Pepe with less biological ageing, and not more, as is the case today. In modern times one can perceive that Viña AB and Tio Pepe derive from the same base wine, however when comparing the two older versions no similarity is found. The texture of Viña AB (1939) is sharp and the viscosity is low. It's a skeleton of a wine with notes of dried and salted tropical fruits. Although the finish is rather short it's a more polished and complete wine than the modern version.
Flores presented the current release of Mathusalem VORS, a sweet Oloroso or Cream, with a average age of more than 30 years. Sweetened with 25 percent Pedro Xímenez, Flores likes to describe it as the perfect marriage between Palomino, sherry’s main grape, sweet Pedro Ximenez and oak. This is a rich and intense wine with notes of coffee, dried fruit and vanilla, freshened up with a whiff of eucalyptus. We compared it with a Mathusalem bottled in the early 1940s, at a time when it probably contained less Pedro Ximenez than today, Flores tells. It's a fat wine in the intersection of wood fire and smoked fish. Like all Creams, their perceived sweetness is less intense as they age. What a great shame that it takes 70 years to reach this level of intensity.
An old tradition at Gonzalez Byass has been to select each vintage the very best barrels for separate, a practice known as “static” ageing. The following two wines where aged biologically until the flor yeasts died, due to lack of nutrition in the wine. They where bottled in the 1970s.
1930 La Racha is a wine from the sub-pago of the same name inside Macharnudo, one of the most well known pagos, or vineyard clusters, in Jerez. The wine had an almost black color, a deep liquo-rice aroma with hints of coffee, incense, curry and eucalyptus. Unfortunately it had almost unbearable levels of volatile acidity in its viscous body. It was compared with 1929 Las Cañas, produced the same way but with grapes from Las Cañas in Pago Balbaína, a cooler vineyard due to its prox-imity to the Atlantic. This wine had a vertical feel to it, sharper and lighter on the palate. Extremely piercing and with levels of volatile acidity that many would consider uncomfortable, but not as much as La Racha. The most compelling revelation was that even after 85+ years of ageing the characteristics of the vineyard are obvious. Both had minerality (iodine, seaweed, rose petal) from the white chalky albariza soil and the character of the vineyard, either closer to the sea (Balbaína: delicate, elegant) or closer to Jerez (Macharnudo: fat, power).
“When the aromas of the grape fade the character of the soil emerges”, said Ramiro Ibañez, one of the most dynamic wine makers in the Sherry Triangle, who was just as baffled as I was.