Most visitors to La Arboledilla share a feeling of being in a calm time warp when entering the bodega and for Armando Guerra, who handles special top-end wine projects for Barbadillo in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the sensation is similar. It is one of the most beautiful examples of cathedral-style cellars in the Sherry Triangle and nowadays it is part of the sprawling premises of Barbadillo in the southern town.
He hasn’t stood idle since he moved from his Taberna der Guerrita last autumn. When he’s not traveling the country leading tastings with the most special Barbadillo wines, this champion of sherry culture employs his time searching for forgotten casks and recovering old bottles in the 17 cellars that Barbadillo owns mostly in Sanlucar’s Barrio Alto. He is a sort of Indiana Jones to the rescue of the liquid legacy of this great winery founded in 1821 by Benigno Barbadillo, an entrepreneur born in the northern city of Burgos who made his fortune in Mexico and set up a wine business in Sanlúcar upon his return to Spain. In 1827, when the Manzanilla appellation first appeared, Benigno shipped the first bottled manzanilla to Philadelphia, under the brand Divina Pastora.
The Bodega del Toro, built in 1660, was the first cellar purchased by Benigno, explains Guerra, who is gradually discovering the nooks and crannies and the history of the Barbadillo’s numerous buildings. “These first cellars were not designed for biological aging; up to the 19th century they weren’t built with that purpose in mind”. Crossing a couple of streets we get to Casa de la Cilla, a stately 18th century building where locals paid taxes back then and which houses the company’s offices these days. Under the elegant staircase with coffered ceilings, Guerra shows us the old dungeon where defaulting debtors used to be locked up —nowadays it is the resting place for old manzanilla en rama bottles.
Before the arrival of Guerra, this bottle cellar did not exist; the custom of laying down bottles is a rather new thing. These days there are two dark and silent rooms: one with untouchables and another one with collections to taste and add onto Barbadillo’s liquid archive, such as the first Solear en Rama spring saca from 1999 —the first manzanilla of this style to be launched onto the market, at least in modern times— and others from the whole series, which includes some 3,000 bottles.
The shelves also store bottles of Castillo de San Diego 1975, the year in which this table wine, championed by Antonio Pedro “Toto” Barbadillo, was made for the first time at the new Gibalgin facilities, with stainless steel deposits and controlled temperatures —a novelty in Spain at the time. Nowadays, and despite the increasing competition, this aromatic and fruity Palomino is still the king of whites: 391 bottles of this Vino de la Tierra de Cádiz are sold every hour in Spain; its popularity is such that it is widely known as Barbadillo.
Innovation didn’t stop at Castillo de San Diego. Guerra has managed to gather bottles of the sparkling trials —which were the starting point of Barbadillo Beta, made following the traditional Champenoise method with Palomino and Chardonnay— and of Señorío de Barbadillo Reserva, an experimental unfortified white which was fermented in casks at 12.5%. Two bottles are set to be opened during the summer tastings held at Taberna der Guerrita.
With the family’s seventh generation heading the company and winemaker Montse Molina taking care of the wines, Barbadillo has managed to weather the difficult times that have dodged Sherry wines with courage to innovate and tackle changes. Solear en Rama, the first non-filtered manzanilla in the market, set the way for all the others that have followed. Just as they did in the first 1999 saca, Barbadillo selects 12 casks from which they fill 2,500 half bottles and 100 magnums each quarter.
To keep the increasing interest for this style of wine but without perverting the wine, Barbadillo has recently launched Pastora, a new manzanilla pasada en rama which is the natural evolution of Solear en Rama. They are similar in style, although Pastora feels broader and more powerful, with almost nine years of biological aging. Both are refreshed from the Solear solera, but in the case of Pastora there will be 10.000 bottles of 75cl per year in the market.
Guerra shows us the cellar housing the casks of Pastora; the location is essentially the only differentiating factor between both manzanillas —a dark cellar with less ventilation than La Arboledilla, where part of the Solear solera lives (10 criaderas and 12,500 casks), hence the flor has less nutrients. “We try to combine the work in the cellar and the location’s characteristics”, he explains. Just outside the Pastora cellar there is a very theatrical patio, with a natural stone stage, where Armando Guerra hopes to be able to hold Manzanijazz this summer, a festival which combines jazz and wine culture.
It is obvious that the arrival of Armando Guerra at Barbadillo, one of Spain’s oldest family businesses, has helped to bring notoriety to Montse Molina’s experimental projects. With 2,000 bottles (€14) of the 2014 vintage just released, Mirabrás is a white old vine Palomino from the Cerro de Leyes vineyard. It was fermented in old casks with flor and was aged in casks and stainless steel tanks for a year. The fact that it has no added alcohol means a return to the traditional asoleo practice of letting grapes dry on the sun. It is a deep and flavorful wine, dismantling the extended belief that Palomino is a boring neutral grape.
Nude is the “punk Tintilla”, says Armando Guerra. A vin de soif, fresh and unfiltered, with a style that brings echoes of carbonic maceration styles from Rioja and Beaujolais rather than other riper Tintilla wines from the area. Production of Nude has reached 2,000 bottles and each of the costs €14 in Spain. There are additional projects in the pipeline, but this sherry agitator doesn’t reveal anything.
Barbadillo has also started to focus on the luxury market with its Reliquias, a collection of very old and exclusive wines which belonged to the family and are released in dribs and drabs. It is the case of Versos 1891, an amontillado from a single cask which was dedicated on that year for Manuel Barbadillo —back then it was classified as old amontillado. One hundred bottles have been released on this saca; with a price tag of €10,000 announced during the presentation in London, Versos 1891 is the most expensive sherry in the world.
All these projects sit on the base of a business that owns 500 hectares of vines in the Sherry Triangle and a capacity to produce up to 10 million litres. Barbadillo also owns two wineries in Somontano (Bodega Pirineos) and Ribera del Duero (Vega Real) taking the company’s total turnover to €35.6 million in 2015.
Our visit ends in the old labels room, a graphic trip down memory lane with thousands of rolls of paper with old designs and brands such as Manzanilla Posada Mil Pesetas. The idea is to recover part of this material and add it onto the archives but, as Guerra says, “we cannot forget the day to day” —this space is destined to become a tasting room.