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Fresh Jerez Sherry En Rama

by Patricio Tapia
September 28, 2015

Among those who work in wine, there is a certain admiration for colleagues who spit well, the ones who can express wine in a perfect arc that lands exactly where the issuer wishes, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Although not officially recognized, a good spitter has a certain status, a certain aura of superiority.

This holds true in Jerez, though here, the venenciador is even more admired. Usually the capataz, (the head of a winery), the venenciador extracts the wine from the cask with the venencia, a long, thin pole with a small cylindrical cup at the end. It is just a matter of two or three moves: He introduces the cup in the cask, breaks the soft veil of yeast growing over the top of the wine (the flor) and then removes the cup, filled with wine. Almost immediately, he swirls the cup to bring oxygen into the wine and then raises it high into the air, turning it upside-down to release a stream of wine he catches in a tasting glass. Then, like a toreador who swiftly moves his cape to pass the bull, the venenciador hides his venencia behind his back, as if nothing ever happened.

I consider myself an average spitter, but as a venenciador, I´m totally pathetic. Fortunately, my most embarrassing episodes with a venencia occurred in the pre-YouTube era. What I do know, however, is that the wine poured from the venencia—the wine that comes directly from the cask—is Sherry in its most authentic and delicious state. In Jerez they call it en rama.

Today, bottling Sherry en rama—with minimal filtration—is a trend. Here in Jerez, however, it’s often just how it comes. Something like a Sherry en rama may be what I’m drinking in El Pasaje, an old bar in the center of the city of Jerez. I’ve come here on a respite from winery visits and the place is packed with locals, dancing to the rhythm of sevillanas. Here, nobody spits. There’s no venenciador behind the bar; instead, the bartender fills my glass from one of the small barrels behind him, or from a bottle in the fridge.

The wine, poured into thick glasses, is somewhat cloudy, and darker than a Fino you might find in a wine store, but feels fresh and delicious, with an intensely fruity flavor that’s just what I need to cut through the fat from the chicharrones and sausages that I have as tapas.

Until the late 1970s, this was normal for Finos and Manzanillas. However, fashions changed. Eduardo Ojeda, winemaker at the Sherry house Valdespino and partner at Equipo Navazos, dates the beginning of this change to Finísimo Currito, a brand that was introduced in the early 1980s. “This was a heavily filtered Fino, very pale in color, very light in body,” Ojeda says. “And it caught on.”

En rama Sherry, with its deeper colors and flavors, didn’t begin to make a comeback until 1999, when Barbadillo introduced their Manzanilla Solear.

The wine, poured into thick glasses, is somewhat cloudy, and darker than a Fino you might find in a wine store, but feels fresh and delicious, with an intensely fruity flavor that’s just what I need to cut through the fat from the chicharrones and sausages that I have as tapas.
“We created Solear en Rama because we wanted to explain to our customers what was happening inside the cask with the wine, how it evolves,” says Monserrat Molina, technical director of Barbadillo. “We wanted to say, basically, that the wine was alive.”

Molina was born in Girona, Catalonia, and you can tell that by her accent, harder than the musical tone of the jerezanos. But she has spent nearly 20 years in Jerez, and she was responsible for designing the new Solear, two years after starting her work at the winery.

Barbadillo bottles its Solear en Rama four times a year, at the beginning of each season, selecting wines from among the older Manzanillas. “I think in the older wines you feel the differences between the seasons, the nuances,” Molina says. “In younger wines it is only the fruit explosion. The traditional Manzanilla has six years under flor, while the en rama version has eight years.”

Solear en Rama, in its summer version, is an intensely salty wine, full of nuances of dried fruit, but also fresh white fruit and minerals. Its appearance is much darker than the traditional Solear, as it’s a Manzanilla close to becoming an Amontillado; if it remained in barrel, the wine would soon lose its veil of flor to begin its oxidative aging. Molina bottles barely four thousand liters of Solear en Rama each year.

I wonder how many liters of Sherry are drunk each year at El Pasaje, so I ask the bartender, but it does not seem to be the right time for those journalist kinds of questions. Two old cantaores have taken the small wooden stage at one end of the bar. Their plaintive voices, worn by smoking, fill the crowded room, where people dance and smile despite the sad lyrics about betrayal and jealousy. “A la Puerta de Toledo, le tengo celos, porque allí se cita con otro, la mujer que yo más quiero.” The old couple sings, pushing their vocal chords to the limit, as couples vie for space to dance in the middle of the crowd. Others, like myself, keep pace by clapping hands.

Those four-thousand liters of Barbadillo en Rama are equivalent to about eight casks. Gonzalez Byass takes 24 casks from its famous Fino Tío Pepe to produce around sixteen-thousand bottles of Tío Pepe en Rama. This, in turn, is a negligible amount when compared with the more than 13 million bottles of Fino Tío Pepe Gonzalez Byass launches annually.

Antonio Flores at Gonzalez Byass. Antonio Flores at Gonzalez Byass.
When I met with Antonio Flores, the technical director of Gonzalez Byass, he was dressed in an impeccable blue suit. He has those refined manners so typical of traditional jerezanos. Flores was born in Gonzalez Byass, literally. His father was in charge of the wines before him and lived in the huge complex of warehouses that occupy a considerable part of the old city. “In those years, people were born at home. And I was born here,” he says with a warm laugh.

The idea of bottling some Tío Pepe en rama started in 2009. One of the firm’s importers in England tasted some very good casks and asked if he could bottle the wine as it was; he said he would be responsible for selling it. “In Gonzalez Byass we have a strict quality control department, so the idea of bottling something as natural as that was difficult. But then we decided to do it,” says Flores. They produced sixteen-thousand bottles, which the importer sold in four days.

Today, Flores selects among more than a thousand Tío Pepe casks to find the ones to bottle en rama. “We just have one saca a year, in April. In October I select the best hundred casks, where the flor has best withstood the harsh weather of the summer, which is the most difficult time,” he explains.

Of those hundred casks, Flores narrows the lot to sixty and, in April, when it comes time to bottle, he whittles it down to 24 casks for the final blend. In the Bodega Constancia, we try some of those casks alongside those that go to the regular Tío Pepe bottles. In the monastic silence of Constancia, the difference is clear. The ones Flores has chosen to bottle en rama have an intense saline note and a pointedly vertical structure, while those that go for the traditional Fino are much lighter and fruitier. While still clapping my hands at El Pasaje, I think of Tío Pepe en Rama, a wine that feels almost brutal, but also with the charming elegance of a Fino, salinity slipping into your mouth like waves unwinding silently on a sandy beach.

“In Gonzalez Byass we have a strict quality control department, so the idea of bottling something as natural as that was difficult. But then we decided to do it.” —Antonio Flores
This metaphor is clearly an indication that I have had enough Sherry for the night, but the music continues in El Pasaje. The cantaores sing a song of betrayal and the sadness of unrequited love. “Me decía que iba a misa y me engañaba. Si no llevaba Rosario ni libro ¿Cómo rezaba?” Their voices struggle more than before, while women raise their arms following the rhythm. Some of them wear tight dresses, bright white cloth decorated with red and purple dots, flowers in their hair, like gypsies. Their enthusiasm is contagious, but when I feel I also would like to dance, I know it’s time for me to go, leaving all those en rama Sherries behind.

The fact that Gonzalez Byass launched Tío Pepe en Rama speaks of the importance that the style has achieved in the Sherry scene. Part of that importance is due to Equipo Navazos, a tiny firm led by winemaker Eduardo Ojeda and Sherry guru Jesús Barquín, who also teaches criminal law at the University of Granada.

“We created Solear en Rama because we wanted to explain to our customers what was happening inside the cask with the wine, how it evolves.”
—Monserrat Molina
The idea behind the Navazos project is to select casks that, by their nature, are worth bottling separately so they won’t get lost in big blends. “Equipo Navazos was born so that our friends could enjoy the great wines of Jerez just as they are, right from the cask,” says Barquín, “without all those filtrations or clarifications that steal much of their authenticity.” Although they aren’t labeled as such, they are effectively all en rama, Barquín explains. “We addressed this issue by creating the brand ‘La Bota’ to emphasize that the wines are bottled as closely as possible to how they are inside the cask.”

The latest version of La Bota de Fino, number 54, is a good example of the style and probably as close as you can get to tasting the wine directly from the casks. A little cloudy, with intense flavors and salty mineral tones, rich in iodine and pure in its fruity notes, it’s a wine of great body, and has a sharp and firm acidity that strides across the palate with strength and determination.

Far from having a similar determination, I leave El Pasaje late Sunday night and the air outside feels crystalline and pure. The jerezanos walk through the narrow streets, carefree, smiling, hugging each other, as if the fiesta will not end when the new week begins. For them, there is always more Sherry en rama at El Pasaje. And now, as fragile and seasonal as it may be, there is more for us as well.


This feature appears in the print edition of the October 2015.
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