Enofusión is the vinous side of Madrid Fusión, a gastronomic fair that, for a few days, turns Madrid into a food and wine lovers’ centre. Among the many tastings held on its latest edition earlier in February, two of them were particularly significant for me as they emphasized the uniqueness of two wines produced in Andalusia.
First one is manzanilla, a wine linked to the specific microclimate of the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Cádiz province, influenced by its closeness of the sea. Meanwhile, PX (short for Pedro Ximenez) comes from inland (Montilla-Moriles in Córdoba). It is an extremely sweet and sticky wine made out of sun-dried white grapes that can be enjoyed both young or after a long aging process. We will review these two southern treasures in a two-part series, the first one devoted to manzanilla.
Manzanilla is a fortified wine (this means that distilled alcohol is added to it) which like fino, is aged under a layer of flor made up of yeasts that completely cover the surface of the wine protecting it from oxidation and adding a unique character and quality to it.
Unlike fino, manzanilla can only be produced in Sanlúcar de Barrameda due to the special microclimate of this seaside town. As Beltrán Domecq and César Saldaña, president and director respectively of the Regulatory Council of Jerez, highlighted at the tasting, this uniqueness is due to the action of the western night breezes that counteract the Levant wind influence. Higher levels of humidity can also be explained by the proximity of Doñana, Europe’s largest wetland. An additional factor that contributes to the style is that the lower area of the city was in past times reclaimed from the sea.
In their book Sherry, Manzanilla, Montilla. A Guide to the Traditional Wines of Andalucía co-authors Peter Liem and Jesús Barquín believe that both the solera system and the aging of wine under flor could have originated in Sanlúcar between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But despite being part of the DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry since 1933, manzanilla didn’t have its own appellation until 1964, when DO Manzanilla – Sanlúcar de Barrameda was officially approved. That was 50 years ago.
Wine lovers may also like to know that flor veils are far thicker in Sanlúcar compared to Jerez or El Puerto de Santamaría, so manzanilla producers can perform more sacas (the drawing of wine from the solera for bottling) per year. Another curiosity is that in Sanlúcar, Palomino, the grape variety commonly used to produce sherry, is locally known as Listán.
The tasting held in Enofusión was specially revealing as it allowed us to assess the evolution of manzanilla from its early stages as an unfortified base wine called mosto to the finished wines, each representing a further aging step. The last stage comes when the flor has completely faded away giving way to an oxidative ageing process that will turn the wine into an amontillado.
Every Sherry lover should taste mosto to appreciate the enormous transformation taking place during the aging process under flor. Mosto is a fruity wine with alcohol levels of around 12-13%, surprisingly full-bodied and heavy compared to the fine and lively manzanillas usually available for purchase. How can they change so dramatically? Basically yeasts feed themselves with glycerin, leaving no traces of it in five years. During the aging process under flor acetaldehydes (which give off those distinctive pungent sherry aromas) are also produced; meanwhile, alcohol and acidity drop so the fresh edge usually found in manzanilla has more to do with the briny character of the wine than with acidity.
The styles ranged from the very popular La Guita (four years under flor, €5,95 at Vila Viniteca), a light- to medium-bodied manzanilla showing distinctive almond and yeast notes (bakery) together with a briny edge to La Guita Amontillado, described on the label as manzanilla pasada vieja. Kept for 10 years under flor and another 10 years without it, it combines biological and oxidative aging. There were many differences between both wines: from pale greenish to mahogany colours; from freshness and lightness to concentration and strong flavours (caramel, wood carving, toasted hazelnuts, acetaldehydes). The amontillado showed that briny trace which recalls its origins.
Between these two extremes, we were able to taste an assortment of manzanillas starting with the youngest styles, locally called finas. The light and delicated La Cigarrera (aged for five years, according to the speakers, €5,5 at the winery’s online store) with green apple, almonds notes and good length seemed to me a good introduction to the category. Gabriela (M. Sánchez Ayala, six years under flor, €12,6 at Monvínic Store) showed a traditional style that will surely appeal to purists: sharp, dried almonds and aged wood with a pleasant bitter aftertaste and a very dry and long finish. San León (aged for seven years, Bodegas Argüeso, €7,6 at Vila Viniteca) combined lovely balance and complexity with a long finish showing briny and dried fruit notes.
The following lot was marked by manzanilla pasada, which undergoes a longer aging period under a thinner layer of flor that will eventually plunge into the wine and disappear, marking thus the beginning of an oxidative process leading inexorably to amontillado. Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada (Bodegas Hidalgo – La Gitana, €10,70 at Grau Online) comes from the eponymous plot on the Miraflores vineyard and is aged for as much as 12 years. It was one of my favourite wines —deep and complex, it had weight on the palate and an unctuous texture together with an extremely long finish.
The tasting also featured two manzanillas en rama. The expression is applied to wines that see minimal clarification following long aging under flor. These are deeper, more complex wines which virtually taste the same as poured directly from the cask. They tend to be rather unstable and more sensitive to oxidation so the usual advice is to drink them early, although authors like Liem and Barquín suggest some of them (like Solear’s en rama bottlings) really improve if drunk in two or three years’ time. Solear en Rama (Bodegas Barbadillo, eight years under flor) is available in four different sacas (bottlings), one for every season of the year in 3/8 bottles costing around €15-16 in Spain. The 2014’s Winter Saca was an almond character manzanilla showing great power and concentration. It’s interesting to note that spring and autumn bottlings are more marked by the flor as yeasts are more active at these times of the year.
The other manzanilla en rama, the Goya XL (Delgado Zuleta, 50 cl., €20.35 at Gourmet Hunters) was so closed on the nose that Beltrán Domecq suggested to decant it, something I had never heard before for manzanilla but it came as a very useful tip. The palate wasn’t shy at all: intense and flavourful, quite unctuous, perhaps approaching the last stages before flor fades away, I thought.
So why complicate the manzanilla category that much when it is difficult enough to just learn all different Sherry styles?
I suggest holding onto a couple of simple facts. Firstly, that the influence of the sea makes manzanilla the briniest type of Sherry. Secondly, it can give great pleasure starting from €5 a bottle (a real bargain for a four-five year old wine, just like a Rioja Gran Reserva). And thirdly, it will intensify its flavor, character and price with longer aging times (as is the case with manzanilla pasada) or if it’s bottled unfined (manzanilla en rama).
Anyone with the chance to visit Sanlúcar (click here to read SWL’s recommended route) will see that all you need to do is ask for a “copita” and a tapa and smile.