Fernando Angulo spends a great deal of his time among the vines he rents in Pago Miraflores, on the outskirts of Sanlúcar. He asks us to meet there —something pretty unusual in the Sherry Triangle— while he finishes working on the old Palomino vines planted a hundred of years ago in El Campeonísimo vineyards.
The town’s feria is in full swing but this native of Ronda who fell in love with Sanlúcar prefers to be stepping on albariza in the countryside rather than drinking countless manzanilla copitas under the bright lights of the casetas (tents) set up for the five days of festivities. Perhaps, at the end of the day, he may drop by La Herrería in Sanlúcar’s Barrio Alto, where the feria goes unnoticed, to snack on flamenquines (ham rolls) and enjoy the calm and reflective conversation of its owner and friend Paco Félix.
“I am intolerant to commercial manzanilla. They now have very high levels of alcohol, tartaric acid, gypsum and sulfur and they tend to be heavily filtered”, explains this former importer of Champagne. “The French are way ahead of us, specially in terms of natural wines. But I think we can make better wines here and in the rest of Spain than up there. We clearly have ideal conditions”.
Angulo —who set up a gathering of winegrowers and producers called Champagne-Sherry in Spain in tandem with Anselme Selosse— is keen to apply this belief to his everyday endeavors at Alba Viticultores, the project he runs along with his agriculture engineer wife Carmen Caballero.
In their small winery-cum-garage in the town’s Barrio Alto, they store a few pallets containing sparkling wines made with the traditional method and the “Sanluqueño method” —with Palomino, following the ancestral method, with the second fermentation in the bottle and with no expedition liqueur added— as well as other wines with and without flor. Each of the plot they work —El Campeonísimo, Coronado or Confitero in the Pago de Miraflores vineyard, Las Alegrías in Pago Carrascal or La Charanga in Mahina— is vinified separately and some of their wines are named after these plots.
Sparkling wine production is not new in the Sherry Triangle, whose chalky soils are similar to those in Champagne. There are records dating back to the 19th century of prestigious houses like Domecq exporting Palomino-based sparkling wines. “I have been told that wine containing bubbles was bottled and then buried in the vineyards”, adds Angulo. “I have also heard that Gaspar Florido’s father invented the flask in the prohibition days; and Gaspar Florido himself, who was a genius and the most important person in Sherry’s recent history, was the first who brought the bag-in-box here. Sanlúcar people are superior beings!”
Their first wine was Alba 2013, a natural unfiltered white without added alcohol or sulfur where flor was hardly present to let the albariza soils and the Palomino variety shine. The 1,000 bottles they had were released and sold in a flash so they continued with Sobretabla (€19.90 at Lavinia) which is made in a similar way —fermented in two sherry casks with different personalities and with minimum intervention.
Their portfolio has now expanded and includes three whites (Sobre Tabla, Pago Miraflores El Confitero, Pago Carrascal Las Alegrías), three sparkling wines (Ancestral, Ancestral Alegrías del Carrascal and Brut Nature) and a carbonic maceration red without added sulfur (Alba Rojo Pago Miraflores) but Alba Viticultores only makes whatever the soil and the personality of the wines dictate. “I do trials and decide whether it becomes a sparkling or whether I leave the flor or not based on the vineyard and the vintage; wines can easily get spoiled and that’s risky with such a tiny production”, explains Angulo. “We hardly have room in the winery during the harvest. We have six plastic fermentation vats, plus the casks, the bottle pallets…”.
The space is tight indeed, which is why he is forced to bottle some wines before he would like to. He needs space and cash because in this business expenses mount, he says. “I have a friend who refers to my Mosto and Ancestral wines as Alba Liquidity”, Angulo jokes. “The first was released with 20 days. I called it The Youngest Wine in History; it was good then although it’s true that the bubbles were fairly big”.
Their small production (between 500 and 1,000 bottles per wine) is quickly sold either abroad or to a loyal domestic clientele formed mostly by wine enthusiasts and some high level restaurants like Aponiente (2 Michelin stars). The 1,000 bottles of Ancestral 2015 —a pét-nat whose grapes are foot-trodden and is fermented for 10 days before spending three months in the bottle— were released in the spring of this year at around €20 and by May the wine was sold out.
Many of their admirers would love to see that the ancestral concept goes well beyond the sparkling production method at the small Alba winery. Pressing, bottling and disgorging are all done manually: Angulo leaves the bottle on the freezer for 6-7 hours until the neck is frozen, then releases the stopper, fills the bottle with the same wine and puts a new crown cap, like those normally found in beer bottles. “I don’t find cork interesting. It means more hard work and it has added risks”, he says just before he answers a call on his ancestral mobile phone —an old Nokia without whatsapp or internet connection.
Amphorae, the ceramic vessels so popular among many natural wine producers, are not his thing either. “I used them for Campeonísimo in 2014 but I have stopped now. Amphorae are a lot of work. I like things simple; the simpler, the better”, acknowledges Angulo.
He tries to apply this philosophy to his wines, which are all unfined and unfiltered and carry little or no added sulfur. He also follows biodynamics, buries horns in the vineyard, buys preparations and tries to take account of the position of the moon. “On a leaf day, my wines seem reduced. Even my mum in Ronda notices the effect of the moon when she can’t get a consistent dough for her croquettes on discontinuous days! That’s one thing, but I don't go as far as not trying my wine on non-fruit days… Not everything is acceptable in natural winemaking”.
This focus on minimal intervention commences on the vineyard, where he is gradually restoring soils and ancient clones on various plots of the Miraflores and Mahina vineyards or pagos, as these prime areas are locally known, alongside winegrowers like Manuel Benítez ‘El Bolli’. Angulo thinks they are the leading figures behind the conservation of these vines despite having been disdainfully treated by Jerez and being told to pull the 30+ year old vines because they were no good.
“All this talk about the revolution of sherry seems false to me: firstly, en rama wines, are bottled exactly like the rest; secondly, the pagos: the big players are defending them just because that’s where they can make money. If you are a true advocate of the pagos, you would pay winegrowers fair prices for their grapes”, complains Angulo. “People like Ramiro Ibáñez are doing things well, paying growers for their work, but the only revolution here must involve the vineyard and paying country people decent prices for their grapes and their work. They gamble their money making the wine, they store it and then in February-March they sell it to the big bodegas who pay them 60 cents per litre. It’s outrageous”.
A few months after meeting him in Miraflores, I call Fernando to check a couple of things for this feature and he insists again on the importance of winegrowers (mayetos, in the local lingo) working the vines.
“They do all the important work; I just tread and press the grapes and bottle the wine; anyone can do that”, he claims. That’s the main reason why he emulated Bod Dylan when he refused to pick up his Guía Peñín Best Newcomer Wine 2017 Award at the end of October for his Alba Brut Nature 2013.
“Winegrowers should be well-regarded, as it is the case in great regions like Burgundy or Champagne”, believes Angulo. Generational succession is guaranteed there, but who will follow in the footsteps of brave veteran growers like El Bolli in Sanlúcar and the rest of the Sherry Triangle?