Little has changed in this family winery established in the centre of Jerez since its foundation in 1870. Despite the reforms that are taking place in the laboratory and in some old roofs that feel the passage of time, the winery still retains batches of wine and brandy from its early days. It is also loyal to its philosophy of maintaining these oenological jewels for the enjoyment of a growing number of fans, especially outside Spain, who are discovering sherry.
It was Emilio Hidalgo Hidalgo who acquired vineyards and set up his business in Clavel street. It was -and still is- a traditional bodega construction in Jerez, with central courtyards, thick walls on its aging cellars, albero (sand) floors, high ceilings and windows on the upper decks covered with esparto curtains that let fresh air in, avoid sunlight and generate the necessary moisture to maintain ideal conditions for flor and oxidative aging to develop.
The business prospered and early in the 20th century they even had a "base in London”. From there, they distributed a product which was a symbol of refinement at the time. Today, the fifth Hidalgo generation runs the business and continues to export a significant portion of its production but no longer owns vineyards, sold by the third generation to focus on the work at the winery. Hidalgo buys the must already fermented (and sometimes fortified) from two or three regular suppliers, a fairly common practice in Jerez.
These new musts entering the sobretabla (youngest tier of the solera aging system) help to keep alive the wine that rests in the criaderas (scales of the solera system) and soleras (last tier of the fractional blending system) and acquires different personalities over time. "Sherry represents the art of blending wines. The wines in each cask are like the children of a family: they live in the same house but each one behaves differently and each has its own personality. We put them through an education process that also results in exams such as when the time comes to taste and classify them to decide their destiny,” says Fernando Hidalgo, export manager and member of the fifth generation.
The teacher who oversees them daily is Manuel Nieves, foreman for the past 45 years at Emilio Hidalgo. He knows these American oak casks and wines better than anybody else and checks with his nose and palate the evolution of his students to get the best of each.
In Jerez, the job of foreman has traditionally passed from father to son, as in the case of Manuel, who learnt the trade from his father. He started working in Emilio Hidalgo in 1959 learning from his predecessor, but it was not until 1972 when he took over. When Manuel retires, he will pass the baton over to Manuel Jesus, his own son, who has spent 10 years learning the trade with him.
The wines under Manuel's custody are not any old wines. The 3,200 casks at the winery ooze history and the work of generations to maintain a style of wine, beyond fashion trends and business strategies. Sweet wines such as Santa Ana, of which a few casks remain and still store Pedro Ximenez from 1861. This is is sprinkled with other old wines to continue the tradition of this centuries old solera.
Just over a hundred bottles -priced at €300 in Spain- go on sale each year. It is a very cheap wine if you consider its scarcity, age and Parker points (98, granted by Jay Miller) especially when compared, for example, to Château d'Yquem 1865 (€7,200 in WineSearcher). Much remains to be done to improve the reputation of these wines, says Fernando. At least in Italy this particular PX - as Pedro Ximenez is affectionally called- is appreciated - a considerable amount of bottles is sent over there every year because it coincides with the year of the unification of Italy.
La Panesa (10,000 bottles, €31.30 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) is one of the youngest family members but is endowed with an undeniable personality. A “sharp, delicate and lively” fino, according to Fernando. The solera was created in 1962, coinciding with the birth of Alfonso Hidalgo, a member of the family. The yeasts that form the flor can reach up to 2 centimetres thick, which requires suitable levels of temperature, humidity and nutrients for the 15 years -double the usual in finos- that this wine rests before being bottled unfiltered in several yearly take outs. Even taking care of such details, it is amazing to see how a cask placed at one end of of the cellar is different to another stored in the middle or another resting against the wall. Fernando’s remarks about the education of these children makes even more sense.
Amontillado Viejo El Tresillo (€79.40 at Gourmet Hunters or via Wine Searcher) is another one of Hidalgo’s sons. Vigorous, deep and seductive, it belongs to a solera started in 1874 of which only 3,000 bottles are sold annually. It spends the first 10 years of his life with biological aging (flor) and another 20 under oxidative aging. For the past five years, Hidalgo has been producing an amontillado fino bearing the same name (€30.40 at Lavinia) but with a shorter aging period and good presence on the palate.
El Tresillo was named after a game of cards played by winery workers in the old days which was always accompanied by a glass of the same wine, a tradition that has since disappeared. Another activity that has also disappeared is the doctors’ gatherings that Fernando’s grandfather used to hold in the sacristía -a tasting room where the oldest and most precious wines were stored. Little bits of history can still be found at the sacristía, such as a venencia made from whale cartilage which was formerly used for tasting from the cask; or ancient oak staves wrapped on newspaper print in which the imminent arrival of World War II was announced.
The family is rounded off with the Oloroso Viejo Villapanés (€29.90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher), a concentrated, opulent wine that is named after a manor house in the centre of Jerez which once belonged to the Hidalgos; Palo Cortado Marqués de Rodil (€43,90 at Lavinia or via Wine Searcher) is made in tiny quantities from Palomino -the grape found in all the wines except Santa Ana. Marqués de Rodil is kept in a solera from 1860 and sprinkled with fortified must since the flor died.
Another venerable member of the family is Privilegio Palo Cortado (€298.25 at Gourmet Hunters or vía Wine Searcher), with over 90 years of average age and a distinctive nail polish aroma. It is kept in a single cask at the far end of a corridor with wells (now blocked) dotted around the cellar floor that once were used to store the must. It is precisely here where the Hidalgo family congregates to celebrate family birthdays and toast with copitas filled with their liquid history.