Willy Pérez explains that he grew up on a sherry butt. His great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were cellar masters at González Byass, his grandfather owned an almacenista cellar and vineyards in Balbaína, and his father, oenology professor Luis Pérez, was technical director at Domecq, one of the Sherry Triangle’s greatest producers.
Despite this pedigree, Willy didn’t feel an interest in Jerez until a day he was reading, late at night in bed, an old book written in 1834. In it, James Busby, a Scottish agronomist widely regarded as the father of Australian wine, writes about his meeting with Pedro Domecq. From El Majuelo, his estate in Macharnudo, Domecq explained to him every detail about the place: its types of soil, the pruning system, fermentations, the amount of time he had been forced to mortgage El Majuelo to continue buying land…
Willy, who had grown up with the image of sherry being a distilled liquor rather than a style of wine, decided that if Pedro Domecq was right, he wanted to recover that Jerez.
“Reading that book, I realised that Domecq was a highly intelligent, brilliant man. He was on top of the vineyard and knew everything about it. What’s happened to sherry?, I asked myself. I’m a sentimental kind of guy and that thought made me cry. The next day, I decided to devote my life to sherry or at least to recover that concept of sherry. That’s the start of my obsession with books and learning everything about it,” reveals Willy.
A couple of years before that Eureka moment, Willy, then 25, travelled to Australia to learn about Shiraz with his friend and university classmate, Ramiro Ibáñez. His idea was to put in practice everything he had learnt in McLaren Vale —an area with similar distance to the sea, temperature and rainfall to Jerez— in Vistahermosa, Bodegas Luis Pérez’s estate north of the Andalusian city. This is where the family launched their project in 2002, based on making red wines from international grape varieties, which were fashionable at the time.
“The story was completely the opposite of what I thought. I went to Australia trying to understand Jerez and Shiraz and it turns out that someone had been here 200 years before studying our techniques and adapting them”, explains Willy. “In fact, the Australian Ministry of Agriculture has a collection of Tintilla and Palomino plants of which I’d one day like to take some samples.”
Although they continue making wines with the international varieties planted at Vistahermosa —their popular single-vineyard reds Garum and Samaruco pretty much sustain the entire project— Bodegas Luis Pérez is known for its work with local varieties. Out of the 30 hectares recently planted in El Corregidor, in pago Carrascal, a considerable part is Tintilla, a variety with good acidity suitable for warm climates. The rest is Pedro Ximénez, very scarce in Jerez, and some pre-phylloxera grapes like Cañocazo and Vijiriega. These new plants are an addiction to the 30 hectares of Palomino de Jerez that were present in the vineyards.
As well as doing massal selection in their best vineyards, concerns about climate change have encouraged them to create their own hybrid varieties mixing Tintilla with Uva Rey, Tintilla with Palomino and Palomino with Palomino, looking for new seeds. “We are trying to pass the acidity of Tintilla to Palomino. It will obviously won’t be called Palomino, but I’m fine with that,” confesses Willy, who does not share the idea that ancient varieties are always better. “I’m in no hurry; I have my entire life to do that work but we must leave an inheritance, just as the elders did before us.”
They are not concerned about being officially certified, but having a healthy, organic vineyard is essential for Bodegas Luis Pérez. El Corregidor, Sandeman’s historic estate some 18km from the coast which was purchased by Ruiz-Mateos in 2004 and belongs to the Pérez family since 2013, has just completed the transition. When Rumasa became insolvent, the vineyard was pruned en moflete, a technique usually applied on vines set to be uprooted consisting of allowing as many buds out as possible to reduce yields. When the Pérez family settled in El Corregidor, the vineyard was pruned with the traditional vara y pulgar system and yields were taken back up to 5,000-6,000 kg/Ha, just right for Willy’s plans for La Barajuela: to make single-vineyard, vintage wines with no alcohol added and with equal weight for terroir and ageing.
Now El Corregidor is divided into plots which are vinified separately and are set to have different names in the future. On a ridge with very pure soils surrounding the house is La Barajuela —the name refers to a laminated type of albariza, with layers of white chalk that is very light and looks like a deck of cards— where bunches are picked one by one up to 14 passes, as it happened in the 2017 vintage, which lasted 50 days.
This requires a large labour force —70 people worked here on the previous vintage, including 11 trainees who controlled fermentations in each individual butt— but allows them to refine their work. “If a vine has five or six bunches, they are picked on five stages. First is bunch thinning: those grapes are destined to make brandy and to adjust acidity naturally on certain stages in late harvests; grapes on the second passed are used for the white (El Muelle de Olaso); the third is for Fino La Barajuela, the fourth set of grapes is for our Oloroso and the fifth is for our Raya, made with very ripe grapes. But don’t be mistaken: fino is not selected from this row of vines here and oloroso comes from the next one down; it’s not an orderly thing, instead we taste the grapes and decide its destination. It’s an absolute nightmare”, says Willy, as he provides a wealth of information about soils, history and sherry wines.
El Corregidor still maintains 10 open lagares that echo Sandeman’s Douro roots and in which grape stomping was —and still is— done the old way. Willy explains that a large producer like Sandeman could fill around 150-180 butts per year. Each worker picked one carretada a day (690 kg), exactly the capacity of the lagar. Grapes were picked in 60 baskets that could contain 11.5kg each. They were then taken to the almijar (yard), placed on 60 redores (esparto mats) and dehydrated in the sun (asoleo) for seven to eight hours for fino and up to 48 hours for oloroso. After the asoleo —a complicated but common technique in Jerez up to the 1970s aimed at concentrating sugars and avoiding fortification— grapes were stomped in the lagares before filling the butts for fermentation without debourbage and without temperature controls. Nowadays, the process to make La Barajuela is essentially the same.
Butts —which are filled according to the biological intensity of each vintage to ensure that the ageing never overpowers terroir— are now stored in Vistahermosa, but plans are underway to build an underground cellar to complete the entire process —grape-stomping, fermentation and ageing— of their sherry wines in El Corregidor.
This future winery will also house the grapes picked at La Escribana and San Cayetano, two vineyards with a derelict cortijo that the Pérez family has recently purchased on Valcargado, in Macharnudo, the legendary vineyard with pure white albariza soils that the Arabs named (Machar means house and Nudo means naked) like that because vines were the only crop that would grow there.
These vineyards were purchased from one of the few independent grape growers left in Macharnudo, a place that was made famous by Domecq, who first named their wines after the pago and which was once the owner of highly regarded vineyards in Sherry’s Gold Mile such as El Majuelo, La Riva or El Santo, the highest point in Jerez at 136 metres. Although most of Macharnudo is now in the hands of Estévez and Fundador, Willy is aware of the historic value of the place: “Knowing how close we are to Macharnudo Castle sends me shivers through my spine,” he confesses.
Compared with other wine regions, height in Jerez seems ridiculous but it is an essential element in terms of the soil. Diatoms, those fossil deposits of hollow shells with great water retention capacity, abound on the ridges and high areas of vineyards like Macharnudo and help vines to ripen well without becoming stressed, giving concentrated, long-lived wines. Lower areas with darker soils produce fruity wines meant for early consumption.
One of Willy’s forthcoming plans is to do a georadar mapping of Macharnudo to determine what’s in those soils and apply the findings to his wines. “It’s no use for me to know that this albariza soil is barajuela or that pago Tizón is gypsum marl if I don’t know how this is expressed on the palate or the style of wines that were made there in the past. That is really important to me. Ripening was taken to the extreme at El Corregidor; I’ve inherited this historic trait and I must respect it”, he says.
He knows that the past is not necessarily better and he is open to innovation but Willy, born in 1981, is adamant that neither he nor other colleagues who are becoming well-known in the Sherry region are doing anything new. “One of the ills of generations like mine, born at the onset of a crisis, is thinking that what we are doing has never been done before. Everything has been done in Jerez before: sparkling wines, reds, brandies, sweet wines, dry, olorosos, with or without flor, with botrytis, late harvests… There isn’t a new generation bringing change. At the end of the 19th century, that movement was led by Count Aldama, the Marquis of Casa Domecq and Gumersindo Fernández de la Rosa. They realized that wines in Jerez were being made in the bodega and called for a return to the albariza soil”, explains Willy, who has always argued that biological ageing must only be a technique to refine wines rather than the aim of the wine itself. Hence his by now famous sentence 'Less veil, more soil'.
His interest to learn more about the history of the wines and soils of Jerez is shared with Ramiro Ibáñez, with whom he is writing Los Sobrinos de Haurie, a book written in Spanish and English that has not yet been published. Together they have prowled the most important pagos in the Sherry Triangle, vineyard by vineyard, to map them and describe their soils, heights and distance to the sea, and they have put a dent in their savings to buy old bottles of wines born from those soils. The lucky people who took part in their tasting at Vinoble earlier this year got a glimpse of Willy’s and Ramiro’s comprehensive and methodical work, but for the time being, we must make do with the first chapter of the book (in Spanish).
As well as Los Sobrinos de Haurie Willy and Ramiro have partnered in De La Riva, a joint project to recover old styles of sherry from selected vineyards sharing a historic coherence. “We are completely open here”, says Willy. “Truly fine wines have been made in Jerez, fortified wines too, and our idea is to keep an open mind rather than restrict ourselves to the wines we make”.
Four wines have been released so far: De La Riva White, sourced from grapes purchased from the vineyard El Notario, in Macharnudo Alto, and kept in the sun for a few hours to get the structured style of wines that was a trademark of this producer; De La Riva Fino, from Balbaína Alta, with around 10 years of ageing in criaderas and soleras and a single annual saca; De La Riva Oloroso Viejísimo, from Balbaína Baja, described by Willy as a “knife” despite having aged in a cellar in Jerez, where wines are meant to gain volume, and De La Riva Moscatel, “a unique sweet wine in the Sherry Triangle”. They now have a solera of very old oloroso which is being refreshed with wine from the same plot as they gradually buy more soleras to increase their lifespan. “We enjoy working together on this; it’s great fun”, says Willy.
He is also working on new wines in the family bodega. A set of butts filled with wine from some of the plots in El Corregidor is meant to be a new wine between the white El Muelle de Olaso and Fino La Barajuela. From El Caribe, one of the plots in pago Añina where his grandfather was cellar master, he is set to release a truly special wine which Willy describes as “white with oxidative ageing”. Although sourced from very fine albariza soils suitable for making fino, the 2016 vintage, which was dominated by the hot and dry levant winds, turned into a very concentrated oloroso. It has the usual cocoa, nutty notes of an oloroso but it also feels saline and tarry on the nose, which, according to Willy, is a trademark of El Caribe.
If this is the aromatic palette of Palomino, the old belief that this variety lacks character quickly falls apart. “If you harvest 15,000kg of Chardonnay, as it happens here with many Palomino grapes, you won’t get a trace of character,” adds Willy. “We must understand that even if it doesn’t have much fruit or terpenes, Palomino is a chimney of calcareous, saline notes. You just have to work hard to obtain them.”