On his first visit to Jerez de la Frontera in 1993, Peter Sisseck was intrigued by the way wines in this region had lost touch with their origins. As a great flamenco lover, he has returned many times to the city, particularly to attend its annual fiesta, which he finds more manageable and entertaining than its crowded equivalent in Seville.
As the man behind Pingus and a relevant figure who has notably contributed to lift Spain’s fine wines, his presence in Sherry country has sparked a great deal of interest. However, he has taken his time. In the midst of the pandemic, only 1,200 bottles of the new Fino Viña Corrales have been released.
“People have always encouraged me to make a white Pingus, but I must admit that I never managed to produce an excellent Albillo in Ribera del Duero. For some time, I thought that Galicia might be the place, but I finally realised that I could not see the wood for the trees. Fino is Spain’s greatest white wine! I want to produce a white rather than a fortified wine and go back to the origins; all over the world, wine comes from the vineyard.” Thus goes the chat in the small patio that connects the two ageing cellars at 8, San Francisco St, a narrow alley in the Santiago district of Jerez de la Frontera where Sisseck’s wines age.
A burgundy bottle was chosen and although the capsule hints at the colour of albero, the traditional dirt floor found on the region’s bodegas, there is no connection with the graphic imagery of past or present sherry labels.
The name of the vineyard and the wine, Viña Corrales, stand out prominently. The year of bottling, printed on the front and back labels and even on the cork, is also emphasised. The words Jerez and Fino are discreetly displayed in the background. None of these details were improvised -the labels convey the vision of Jerez that Sisseck wants to show to the world.
Present in Ribera del Duero (Dominio de Pingus) and Bordeaux (Château Rocheyron in St.-Émilion), Jerez is Peter’s southernmost venture and also a very special one given that he has to work with biological ageing. Is there a common thread? “Limestone soils are present in the three regions,” he points out while joking about having a tacit agreement with his close friend Álvaro Palacios to avoid producing wines in schist soils like the ones Palacios works with in Bierzo and Priorat.
Carlos del Río, owner of Hacienda Monasterio in Ribera del Duero where Sisseck has been consulting almost from the very beginning, is his partner in Jerez. He treads on much more familiar ground -his second surname is González-Gordon. A former board member of González Byass, Del Río is still one of the over 150 shareholders of this historic Sherry producer. But in the 1990s, when Ribera del Duero was riding the wave, he sought new challenges in this region of Castilla y León. Today his two sons are also involved in the Jerez project.
The bodega that Sisseck and Del Río purchased in Jerez started as an almacenista business. It was founded by local horse breeder Ángel Zamorano in the 1960s, a man who, according to Peter, “enjoyed the good things in life”. He’s believed to have started his business with wines sourced from the Balbaína vineyard, then worked for iconic Sherry houses like González Byass, Osborne or Domecq. At the time, it was standard practice that the producers provided their own sobretablas (the fortified wines from the latest harvest) for the almacenistas to continue with the ageing process.
In 2006 the Zamorano bodega and wines were acquired by contractor Juan Piñero, who owned another bodega in Sanlúcar. His plan was to build houses but the economic downturn and the difficulties to obtain building licenses forced him to become a wine producer. He was lucky to get the talented terroir-driven producer Ramiro Ibáñez as consultant. Piñero made a name for himself with his two Manzanillas produced in Sanlúcar under the brand Maruja, specially the long-aged Pasada, whilst in Jerez he made the Fino Camborio. In 2017, when Piñero sold his bodega and wines in Jerez de la Frontera to Sisseck and Del Río, he retained the brand Camborio.
The purchase of eight hectares of 35-year old vines in Pago de Balbaína on that same year completed the project. Viña Corrales is the name of the plot as well as the wine. Production stands at around 48,000 kg per year with yields rarely exceeding 6,000 kg/ha, a low figure by local standards.
Sisseck’s priorities in the vineyard included the conversion to organic farming (certification is expected by 2021) and the introduction of biodynamic practices. A hectare has been grafted with Palomino de Jerez, a variety with significantly lower yields than the productive and widely planted Californian clone of Palomino.
The Dane is thrilled with the soil. “It is really outstanding and the site is spectacular.” He also likes to draw attention to the old classification of pagos according to custom: “Balbaína was usually destined to Fino, Macharnudo to Amontillado and Carrascal to Oloroso”. Two additional hectares have been bought in Macharnudo Alto to produce a second wine in a style closer to an Amontillado. Oxidative ageing is not part of their plans.
Origin is central to Peter Sisseck's approach. "The problem with sherry," he says, "is that it has been sold to the world as an aperitif. In Champagne, terroir was not mentioned until great vignerons like Selosse emerged."
Since 2018, Sisseck and Del Río have been fermenting their wines in third-party premises, but in the future they expect to press grapes in the old casa de viña in their Balbaína vineyard and to be able to undergo fermentation in casks. This is the reason why they have bought a bodega next to theirs in Jerez, where they also plant to bottle their wines. Sisseck likes to say that their Fino has already been "baptized" with the wine from Viña Corrales, even though the amount in the first release is purely symbolic.
The solera, which has been progressively updated since 2017, is a major source of inspiration. "It has been pampered and revitalized," says Sisseck, who confesses that he had to adapt to this unique ageing system. "At first, when I was tasting from the casks, I lacked references and didn't know if what I was tasting was good or replicable. Now we're starting to understand things by name, reason, seasonality... It's more interesting now because we have a better understanding of things. I really needed to grasp the process before bottling the wine," he explains.
The number of Criaderas has increased to five. As a result, the sobretablas from Viña Corrales are aged for two years before being blended. The sapid character of the soil was clearly present in the 2019 sobretabla I tasted.
Managing a solera is an art, says Sisseck. In his opinion, the crux of the matter lies in the mannoproteins released by the cabezuelas (the dead yeast that fall to the bottom of the cask) and in the resulting harmonies. "In the end, we work with the lees; the biological ageing is the transformation of the must with the help of microorganisms to obtain a stabilized product", he points out.
Did he ever consider producing a vintage Fino? “No, because the starting point in that case is a clean cask with no cabezuelas. As well as alcohol, the flor feeds on glycerol, so under these circumstances the wine turns thin and feels coarse and pungent. Fino stands somewhere between life and death, but a vintage Fino is built on life; it lacks the dead lees. The solera system is Spain’s gift to the world.”
Perhaps this is why Viña Corrales stands out for its refined, elegant texture, which is also Sisseck's great contribution, and serves as a subtle vehicle to express its delicious savouriness. It also displays remarkable freshness considering that its average age is eight to nine years. Using terms from past times, Sisseck likes to describe it as a Fino Amontillado or a wine that stands between Dos and Tres Palmas. Obviously, it has been bottled en rama; that is, unfiltered.
The good news is that a second saca of 4,000 bottles will be released this autumn. "The previous spring saca was not enough to refresh the solera", says Peter. Most of the first bottles were exported, so the wine is almost impossible to find in Spain. Vila Viniteca, their Spanish distributor, is waiting for the second saca to start selling the wine in time for Christmas at a retail price of €39. From 2021, there will be just one saca of around 8,000 bottles in spring, following the flor peak that occurs during the season.
Viña La Cruz, the wine from Pago Macharnudo, will be released as a single saca in autumn when the wine character resembles an Amontillado. The solera for Viña La Cruz comes from purchased wines from Macharnudo, which will be refreshed by their own. Judging by the sobretablas I tasted, Viña La Cruz feels more powerful and structured. The solera butts tasted creamy and deep in contrast with the marked savouriness of Viña Corrales. Patience is required, though: it will still take two to three years for this wine to be released.