Before he became fully dedicated to wine, after turning 50, José Estévez knew that his would not be a small and cute little bodega where he could make a few thousand bottles.
An enterprising and hard-working man, for years he combined his job as a quality engineer in Domecq with the management of Arenas Silíceas, a company he created to supply glass bottle manufacturers with quality sands. The success of the business enabled him to buy in 1977 a small winery in Jerez (Félix Ruiz) and Real Tesoro in 1985 but it was not until the late 1980s that Estévez and his children decided to become full-time wine producers.
A few years later, on a vacant site on the outskirts of Jerez, they began to build the bottling plant. Later came the rest of the warehouses, cellars and offices that make up what today is a large industrial complex and headquarters of the Estévez Group, one of the main producers of wine —and spirits— of the Sherry Triangle with wineries such as Real Tesoro, Valdespino and La Guita in Sanlúcar and 800 hectares of own vineyards, 260 of them in Macharnudo, one of the grand crus in Jerez.
"Estévez was a visionary," recalls Eduardo Ojeda, the group's technical director. "He was one of those people who moved at a different speed, very charismatic and passionate. And by the end of the 1980s, he knew exactly how his business was going to grow.”
Ojeda joined Estévez in 2000, shortly after the entrepreneur bought Valdespino, a prestigious and historic bodega and its vineyards in Macharnudo Alto, the source of Fino Inocente. “Leaving Croft was hard for me because after 20 years it was like leaving home. My children were there every harvest —they felt that Croft was theirs but when I came across this project I realized that it was a unique opportunity, something that could survive for several generations," recalls the group's current technical director, a first-person witness to the history of Sherry wine.
Valdespino's buildings in the centre of Jerez were not included in the sale so Estévez decided to build a new bodega on the group's premises and entrust the move to the newly signed Ojeda. "It was a huge undertaking. We dismantled some 25,000 butts, many with real jewels inside. We fixed them and reassembled them, without neglecting the rest of the production, which had to continue working normally," says Ojeda. "It was something you do once in a lifetime.”
Today, Valdespino is a functional winery, with humidifiers that keep the right temperature across the different scales, with chips that control the amount of wine in the butts (a technology that has been developed in partnership with Fundador) and without the traditional albero (sand) floors that Estévez liked but that Ojeda discouraged due to the hygiene problems they can cause.
Although modern in management, Ojeda has always been concerned with researching and respecting the identity and character of Valdespino wines, one of the most traditional wineries in the Sherry Triangle. Great wines such as Valdespino Coliseo, the amontillado VORS that originates as a manzanilla, palos cortados like Viejo CP and Cardenal, both from Macharnudo, or the 70 butts of the solera and ten criaderas or scales of fino Inocente. It is still fermented in casks as has always been done and is made with grapes from Macharnudo Alto, the oldest part of the vineyard, some 40 years old.
The Inocente solera, from which two sacas are made each year (spring and autumn), coexists in parallel with that of Tío Diego amontillado, with the same origin, elaboration and number of scales.
"Inocente is extraordinary but my kind of wine is Tío Diego,” confesses Ojeda, a keen food enthusiast and connoisseur of the world's wines. "It is about 18 to 20 years old. It is drawn out once a year and everything goes much slower. It is an old fino, which naturally and slowly reaches its oxidative phase. Alcohol was added only at the beginning and it doesn't have concentration in spite of its old age because its ageing has always been with flor. It is easy to drink, but it also has the grip and the taste of Macharnudo. Tío Diego is not a fino that was fortified to make an amontillado; it has done a full degree in fino and then a short masters degree in amontillado, but it is a fino.”
While consumption of Tío Diego is predominantly local, Inocente is largely sold for export, although it represents only a small part of the Estévez Group's total output. "Inocente is nothing in volume compared to the rest of what we do," explains Ojeda. "Everyone —or rather your world, our world— sees the glamourous part but Inocente is only the tip of the iceberg. Nine parts are really submerged here. Nearly one out of every two bottles of sherry sent to England is shipped from here.”
Without a doubt, for great soleras like Inocente or Tío Diego to continue to exist —especially at the prices that these wines are sold, both below €15— the production chain has to be efficient and the litres have to be sold, either at Tesco in England or in Mercadona, where Estévez sells about 50 different wines and spirits. This last category represents 60% of the group's sales.
"Perhaps the sherry revolution is having an impact, even if it is only a few thousand bottles and in very limited circles. The media noise is good, but you can't make a living from it. A transition is required and statistics say sales continue to decline," Ojeda acknowledges. "We should have started earlier, but sales are complicated. We are raising prices by about 10% each year to position these brands where we think they should be. The important thing is that we are in a process of change. I hope that someday, maybe in 30-40 years, things will be different.”
Ojeda may not see those changes he points out, but he has witnessed a few. After Valdespino's move in 2007, two years after Estévez's death, his company embarked on an even more exciting challenge in Sanlúcar with the purchase of La Guita. "Looking back, I think it was actually fun," he jokes. "Imagine the amount of problems I've faced in so many years, but only La Guita has deprived me of my sleep.”
Why? Because I didn't understand it. The recovery has been slow but I can safely say that you can insert the venencia in any of the 15,000 casks in the bodega with complete confidence. And that's the luxury," concludes Ojeda. "Bottling a good wine is easy; what I look for is that everything behind it is spectacular.”
To get to that point, and just as he had done earlier with Valdespino, Ojeda steeped himself in the history of La Guita. He even brought together the foremen who have worked there from 1926 to the present day to listen to their stories, from the adoption of the name Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín in 1928, to the sale of the winery in 1972 by the Hidalgo family and the change of style from manzanilla pasada —the customary style among the great Sanlúcar brands until the mid-1980s— to the finer wines of today, averaging five to six years of age.
Another key point in the house's —and Ojeda’s— philosophy is the vineyard and the origin of the wines. Historically, La Guita was always sourced from a vineyard in Miraflores La Baja but when Estévez acquired the brand, the grapes from the 175 winemakers in the Miraflores cooperative were not sufficient for the winery’s production needs so Ojeda reached an agreement to buy must from the Covisan cooperative and ensure that 100% of the grapes for La Guita come from Sanlúcar.
For ageing and storage, La Guita has two wineries, each with six criaderas. The bodega on the road to Jerez, called Pago Sanlúcar Viejo, is functional, houses some 14,000 butts and has an underground section, while the historic Misericordia in Barrio Alto, which was a hospital in the 16th century, has some 2,000 butts. For the final blend of La Guita, 80% of the wine is taken from the first winery and 20% from the second.
"In Sanlúcar we like to have a dynamic system, hence the reason why we draw five sacas a year in Pago Sanlúcar Viejo", explains Ojeda. In Misericordia, with the narrow streets of Barrio Alto —on days when they draw out wine, they have to ask the city council for permission to close the street—, the sacas are reduced to three or four per year. "If we see that the wine here gets older, we move it a little more because La Guita cannot be a seven or eight-year-old wine. We blend and adjust it".
With a total production of 2.5 million bottles, La Guita is the best-selling manzanilla in Spain. It is unashamedly commercial, meant for the general public, so it is clarified and cooled to avoid any precipitates and to have the pale colour demanded by consumers, especially the local market. "And yet I always say, hold it for a year. There are wines that evolve well and La Guita is one of them. Now that old wines are so fashionable, La Guita is the cheapest wine to store,” assures Ojeda. “I come from Jerez, but I’m a true Guita fan.”
The great luxury of a bodega with so many butts is that, in addition to making a wine of volume and identity —kudos to Ojeda for maintaining the wine’s identity with 15,000 butts—, there is also room for selection, fun and experimentation. Ojeda and his team in La Guita —winemaker Victoria Frutos, his right hand, foreman Cabo and Beatriz Caballero who takes care of the laboratory in Pago Sanlúcar Viejo— have set aside 100 butts from each vintage and also have a considerable number of stationary butts, both in La Guita and Valdespino, without being refreshed, forming a fascinating liquid library.
Each team member also has his or her favourite cask in the solera of La Guita, each with a different personality and character. Victoria's is from the second criadera. "I like it because it is the wine that defines the house; it is a wine that you feel on the palate, not on the nose. It is not marked by the yeast character; instead, it is mineral and has that grip that is the trademark of the house," explains the winemaker, who has worked for Estévez since 2005.
“Sommelier Pitu Roca usually says that there are manzanillas with a veil of flor and manzanillas with soil. This one is soil. It's long and it makes you salivate," adds Ojeda, as he moves venencia with the style of someone who has been among sherry casks for 40 years. "We avoid excessive flor. For me, it is the palate that matters. I want to see grip, strength, a savoury character. If the wine is masked by the ageing, it is ephemeral. Wine doesn't have to be perfume; it has to be wine."
At 64 years of age, Eduardo Ojeda is a step away from his official retirement. He does not disclose whether he will step down as technical director of the Estévez group at the end of the year, but he says he will continue to release wines with Jesús Barquín through that laboratory of wine ideas that is Equipo Navazos.
"It's an escape route. We've done as we please, but always under the strictest legality and with the seal of the council, but without being dependent on a brand," says Ojeda. "This is not a business in which we are forced to sell or do what the client wants; it has rather been a kind of rebellion within the establishment.
Thanks to their in-depth knowledge of Sherry, Barquín and Ojeda were the first to innovate in the region, recovering old styles such as non-fortified whites (Navazos Niepoort), bringing to light forgotten wines such as their first La Bota De Amontillado or working with wineries outside the Sherry Triangle, although the latter is not something they are actively looking for. "A lot of people want us to do things together, but our time is limited,” explains Ojeda. "Both Jesús and I have our day-to-day work. And here [in the Estévez group's wineries] we could release 50 different wines every year, but there are not enough buyers.”
Ojeda is well aware that the great wines of the area are sherries, but he is convinced that the future lies in white wines. "What were Sherry wines like 100 years ago? They had more structure, they were more like amontillados. Then came the fino and in the future I think there will be more white wines. And the change will come naturally. Throughout history, wines have gradually become lighter and more refined, both in terms of alcohol and colour,” explains Ojeda, who at Estévez produces Albariza and Ojo de Gallo, two unfortified Palomino Fino whites.
"I think finos will be very elitist, like Madeiras now. We've traditionally had large business structures in the region whose other profitable businesses subsidized sherries, but that is no longer possible. For these wines to be sustainable, their value must be acknowledged and they must have more rotation. Ideally, this should be done without losing authenticity, with the varieties and soils we have and returning to the vineyard".