Feature Story

Jerez Blanco

A new generation in Jerez is looking to the past in search of flavors modernity seems to have erased. Their rescue mission has uncovered several historic alternatives to vinos encabezados, wines fortified with alcohol to sustain long aging in casks. These new, old-fashioned, non-fortified wines also happen to be a great match with the local cuisine.

“We like the effect of the albariza on the palomino. It gives elegance, but at the same time gives firmness to the structure.”
—José Blanco
Back to the Future
A decade ago, El Campero in Barbate was a tavern known only to locals. I had driven there, an hour south from Jerez, arriving in time to party with a tuna feast—the chef offered the entire fish in different preparations from head to tail. It was easy to spend three hours at the table, believing that life was actually wonderful.

Today El Campero has become a little more sophisticated and purists might dismiss its latest offerings of sashimi, tataki and wasabi. But leaving aside that nod to Japanese fashion, this restaurant remains an experience that is hard to forget.

El Campero’s tuna is caught by almadabra—a labyrinth of nets installed to capture the fish as they migrate from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. It’s an ancient technique, dating to before Roman times, allowing the fish to be caught intact, without any damage to its flesh.

That pristine fish is shown off well in the sashimi and the toro tartare, the signature dish of the house, but it’s also advisable to take a look at the classic dishes on the menu, such as the galete, the fatty flesh under the fish’s chin. At El Campero, it’s braised until the meat develops the texture of butter. And the deep flavors leave you speechless.

I have driven for an hour from Sanlúcar to Barbate because I have just tried Encrucijado, an Amontillado-style wine made by Ramiro Ibáñez, at Bodega Cota 45. That wine’s flavors and creamy texture have filled my head with memories of galete.

Ibáñez studied winemaking and viticulture in Jerez. Then, he traveled to make wines in Australia and Ribera del Duero. In 2009, he accepted a job as an oenologist at the Cooperativa Virgen de la Caridad in Sanlúcar, which, at the time, vinified grapes from one thousand of the ten thousand hectares planted throughout the DO Sherry. “That work allowed me to know many vineyards,” he told me. “That was undoubtedly the period of greatest learning in my professional life.”

After three years working in the cooperative, Ibáñez decided to start his own project. We met at a space he leases to age his wines in Bajo de Guía, on a street crowded with bars that overlooks the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, in Sanlúcar. “One of the motivations for starting Cota 45 was the disconnection that has occurred in the last decades between the vineyard and the work in the winery,” Ibáñez explained. “Today most people will tell you that the character of the wine is in its aging—and that is normal, because two-thirds of the wineries in Jerez do not have vineyards; they buy ready-made wine.”

There’s a gentle breeze coming off the Guadalquivir as Ibáñez confesses that he has become a history freak, that he has been searching out all the information he can get his hands on about the past in Jerez. And that it has been fundamental to his work. For example, while there are only three grapes authorized by the Consejo Regulador today—palomino, pedro ximénez and moscatel—Ibáñez discovered through his research that, before phylloxera, 43 types of grapes were registered in Jerez. “Some of them, early ripeners like palomino, were destined for wines aged under flor. The other varieties that ripened more slowly were used for wines that would be held in solera (oxidative aging). The classification of Fino or Amontillado was determined, in good part, by the type of grapes.” Winemakers selected the more delicate and refined grapes for aging under flor, while they chose the riper, more structured fruit for oxidative aging.

José and Paco Blanco of Callejuela José and Paco Blanco of Callejuela
Phylloxera hit Jerez around 1890 and, when growers began to replant, the fashion was for wines aged under flor. So, it made sense, Ibáñez believes, that growers opted for palomino.

Through his readings, he also learned that adding alcohol to fortify Sherry is a relatively recent practice. In the mid-19th century, when the system of criaderas and soleras developed, the wines wereasoleados—made from grapes left in the sun for a few hours to dehydrate and concentrate their sugar. “Until 1969, it was mandatory to dry the grapes in the sun, and all the prestigious wineries had an area in their cellars, the almíjar, to deposit the bunches. But the Consejo Regulador lifted that obligation and, since then, fortification became the norm.” The potential alcohol and inherent quality of the raw material was no longer as relevant—with fortification, the wine could be reliably protected during aging.

For his Encrucijado, Ibáñez uses perruno and uva rey, two grapes that nearly disappeared after phylloxera, but which had once been used in wines destined for oxidative aging. He had to walk many vineyards to find these two grapes. Adding 20 percent palomino to the mix, he leaves the grapes in the sun to concentrate their sugars—in a warm year like 2015, they needed only eight hours to reach 15 degrees potential alcohol, a level he considers sufficient for aging.

“Today most people will tell you that the character of Sherry is in its aging—and that is normal, because two-thirds of the wineries in Jerez do not have vineyards; they buy ready-made wine.”
—Ramiro Ibáñez
He aged the wine for two years in casks, with only three months under fl or, obtaining nutty flavors, a firm structure of tannins and monolithic acidity. The wine’s salty sensation is not as accentuated as in most contemporary Amontillados; instead the fruit is generous and enveloping, the ideal flavors and textures to match with galete.

The Neighborhood Prawns
Casa Bigote is close to Cota 45, also on Bajo de Guía, just a few meters from the calm waters of the mouth of the Guadalquivir. The tavern is on one side of the street, its narrow corridor flanked by a wooden bar where seafood and fish come in small dishes that flood the place with their marine vapors. Standing there, next to a glass of Sherry, the experience is complete.

The restaurant is a much bigger place across the street, with white tablecloths and walls full of paintings and photos of the area. Far away from the agitation of the street, it feels like another world, one in which the chefs approach their raw ingredients with a reverence that shows in the dishes.

Consider the carpaccio of shrimp from Huelva—nothing more than shrimp cut into thin slices with a precise touch of Malaga olive oil and some onions. Or the langostinos de Sanlúcar, which come from just offshore. They are cooked in boiling water for a few seconds and then dressed with a pinch of salt. It’s unnecessary to add anything else, as their meat flourishes in the mouth, filling every corner with its saline flavor.

Often, this kind of dish can be too delicate for fortified wines. It works better, in fact, with the wines that José and Paco Blanco of the Callejuela winery are producing on the Calle del Reventón Chico, at one of the highest points in Sanlúcar.

From the shed that serves as their winery, there’s a view over vast stretches of vineyards to the river and the sea. “Since we started helping my father in the winery, we have been vinifying the different pagos (vineyards) and have learned about their behavior,” José explained while Paco watched from a distance, nodding. They founded their own label, Callejuela, in 2015, focusing on parcels in three distinct pagos.

Las Mercedes de Callejuela comes from Pago de Añina, in Jerez, about 8.6 miles from the sea; La Choza de Callejuela 2017 comes from the Macharnudo vineyard, also in Jerez, around 13 miles from the sea. The third pago, located behind the winery in Sanlúcar, they call Hacienda Doña Francisca.

All three sites focus on albariza soils. “We like the effect of that soil on the palomino,” José said as he uncorked the three bottles. “It gives elegance, but at the same time gives firmness to the structure.”

The wines ferment in casks and then have a brief period under the veil of flor, as if they were destined for Manzanilla. Then the Blanco brothers stop the aging at five or six months, when they rack and bottle the wines. “The flor gives more volume to the wine and, at the same time, refines it. In this case, the period under flor is very short. We do not want the wine to become a Manzanilla.”

Of the three wines, the one that makes me think about the prawns at Casa Bigote is Hacienda Doña Francisca. From chalk-rich soils, white and compact, the wine is the finest and most delicate of the three, and also the sharpest in acidity. “A river wine,” says José, while I think about its neighbors, the prawns.

Charcuterie from the Sea
The truth is that I had never heard of it: Charcuterie made with seafood. And there it is, in front of me, at the bar of the Taberna del Chef del Mar, in El Puerto de Santa María, the new restaurant from the acclaimed chef at Aponiente, Angel León.

Unlike Aponiente, the tavern is a more relaxed place, with a less experimental kitchen, except for this craziness. The plate contains butifarra, a black pudding made of croaker. To achieve the fattiness of sobrasada, the Majorcan spicy pork sausage, the chef has used mackerel; the “caña” has been achieved with smoked dogfish; the chorizo with horse mackerel. The result is delicious, although somewhat eccentric—it’s easy to forget that all this comes from the bottom of the sea and not from a pig farm.

“Historically, the technique of asoleado (drying grapes in the sun) was the norm and fortification was used to correct wines of inferior quality. But from the 1970s, when the Consejo Regulador imposed the regulations for fortification, the quality of the grapes ceased to be important.” —Alejandro Narváez
La Taberna is in downtown El Puerto de Santa María, the third of the most important cities of the so-called marco of Jerez. It doesn’t receive the avalanche of tourists that Jerez and Sanlúcar do, but it has lovely places to eat seafood, and only one place for charcuterie of the sea—a dish that makes me think of a wine with greater density than the classic Finos del Puerto, although perhaps never as dense as the local Amontillados. Something in between, like the wine Rocío Aspera and Alejandro Narváez produce at Forlong, just a few miles from La Taberna.

Aspera and Narváez had never made wine until 2007, when they decided to vinify the grapes from one hectare of vines Aspera’s father had planted in El Puerto. According to Narváez, they both fell in love with it and decided to continue, studying and working in other wineries until 2010, when they set out to focus on their own wines.

Narváez felt that the first step was to turn their attention to the vineyard, so they have been working the vines organically and, since 2016, biodynamically. Like Ramiro Ibáñez, Narváez thinks that in recent years there has been a deep divide between the vineyard and the winemaking process, and that the fortification of wines has a lot to do with it. “Historically, the technique of asoleado was the norm and fortification was used to correct wines of inferior quality. But from the 1970s, when the Consejo Regulador imposed the regulations for fortification, the quality of the grapes ceased to be important,” Narváez told me. “It did not matter that the winegrower brought grapes with a certain level of alcohol, because the wine was going to be fortified anyway. Producers stopped asking for quality in the vineyard.”

What’s more, many vineyards were lost because it became more profitable to plant other crops: In the 1970s, there were about 59 thousand acres planted in Jerez; now there are less than 17 thousand.

At Forlong, Aspera and Narváez attempt to bridge the divide with a range of wines focused on the vineyard. La Fleur might best represent their rescue efforts. Working with palomino from Balbaína Baja, in El Puerto de Santa María, right next to their winery, they leave the grapes to dry in the sun for two days before vinifying them, then age the wine in Jerez casks for two years under flor.

Their 2015 is close to the style of a Manzanilla Pasada, with oxidative flavors, full of saline notes and a strong presence of the minerality imparted by the albariza soil, here presented on a creamy texture. It’s a big wine and definitely the bottle you want when you face down a plate of sausages from the sea.

Sherry for the Masses
La Taberna der Guerrita has been operating since 1978 in Sanlúcar’s Barrio Bajo. It might appear to be just another tapas bar, with Sherry by the glass, a shelf full of tapas and a soccer game on the TV.

But the kitchen hides small wonders. From the tapas shelf, for example, there are fish eggs that are always fresh, with salty flavors that are irresistible when you have a glass of fresh Manzanilla in hand.

And the pescaítos fritos—each one is better than the other. Try the boquerones or the fried prawns, or the chocos (cuttlefish) that melt in your mouth. However, for me, the salmonete (red mullet) is the king of Guerrita’s pescaítos—crispy on the outside, tender on the inside.

Meanwhile, Armando Guerra, son of the owners, has managed to make this bar the epicenter of the wine scene in Jerez. At the back of the tavern, you will find one of the best Sherry selections in Spain, three shelves full of treasures and, right next to it, a well-equipped tasting room where Guerra conducts a regular series of tastings and seminars with winemaking stars from around the world.

This is where Guerra and some local producers have been shaping the idea that unfortified white wines should have a place in Jerez. “These wines democratize Sherry, giving access to young producers who want to make Sherry,” he told me. “They can sell their wines well before the four or five years they need to establish a solera.”

Since 2015, Guerra has been working in the Barbadillo winery, launching new products like Mirabras, which winemaker Montserrat Molina had been tinkering with since 2012. “The project began as a way to investigate the wines of the past, when there were wines that were not fortified or that were asoleados,” Molina explained over pescaítos fritos at Guerrita. “And, also, it coincides with the current moment when it seems that we are reviewing everything, that we question everything.”

Salmonete at La Taberna der Guerrita (above) and Barbadillo’s Mirabras, from vines planted in the 1970s. Salmonete at La Taberna der Guerrita (above) and Barbadillo’s Mirabras, from vines planted in the 1970s.
Mirabras comes from the Pago Santa Lucía, an eight-acre vineyard between the city of Jerez and Arcos de la Frontera, about 12 miles from the sea. It was planted at the beginning of the 1970s, on albariza soils. “The vineyard was going to be pulled out,” Molina recalled, “but we decided instead to produce a special wine with those old vines.”

In fact, Barbadillo already had been a pioneer in expanding the style of unfortified wines with its Castillo San Diego, a palomino produced since the early 1970s, with sales of about four million bottles per vintage. And in the 1980s, the company introduced Señorío de Barbadillo Reserva, a wine aged under the veil of flor, without fortification, but it was not a commercial success.

Molina and Guerra hoped to recover the wines of the past, so using the asoleado technique was fundamental. For Mirabras, they dry the grapes only enough to gain potential alcohol, but not enough to acquire tastes more typical of sweet wines.

They age the wine under flor for about 18 months, the veils of varied density. When he decides on the blend, Molina tends to prefer the barrels that do not have as much veil. “If I have a lot of flor, I will lose the nerve of a normal white wine and it may seem a Fino,” he says.

The Mirabras 2016 has the salinity and minerality of a Fino, but it’s much lighter and fresher, even from such a warm vintage. Drinking it, it’s inevitable to think of walking a few blocks to Guerrita for some salmonete.


This feature appears in the print edition of the October 2018.
Like what you just read? Subscribe now
.

Related Stories & Reviews