It seems the more I learn about Sherry, the more confusing it becomes and the more I realize I know nothing. It can be a complex and difficult wine to understand: the vineyards, the aging systems, the different styles, the bottling and shipping regulations, even the fact that it’s called vino de Jerez in Spain and Sherry elsewhere. Luckily, there is no better cure to fix this feeling of hopelessness than una copa de vino de jerez.
For years, I have been learning everything I can about Sherry bodegas—the warehouses where the wines are stored, blended and aged. The more I learned about the bodegas, the more curious I became about an often overlooked aspect of Sherry production; the vineyards. Sherry is always included in wine reference books and wine certification course, but other than a quick reference to the famous albariza soil, there is never any focus on the vineyards. Part of this is because the mystique of Sherry is connected to the mysterious bodegas, but what about the vineyards? All wine starts in the vineyard, so it must be somewhat important. This desire to understand the Sherry vineyard is what spurred me to work a harvest in Jerez, rather than in some other area of the world.
Due to antiquated regulations which were only recently lifted, if a bodega wanted to bottle their own wine for sale, they needed to continually have 250,000 liters of wine in barrels. Many small Sherry producers couldn’t meet this demand and needed a third party to sell their product, which led to the industry being divided. There were and still are people who only own vineyards, as well as those who only own bodegas, and those few large producers who have the capital to purchase from those who do not bottle and label their wine as their own. Although the new regulations have now reduced minimum amount of wine to 25,000 liters, the industry is still quite divided. That division presented an obstacle to my goal of seeing the whole process of Sherry production, from vine to bodega. I needed to find one of the rare producers who does everything themselves, from beginning to end. My best bet was to find a small producer that would have once been an almacenista; producers that have their own bodegas but don’t meet the production requirements to have their own label, so their wine is sold to other producers for sale and export. With the help of friends in the Sherry industry, I was able to secure a sort of internship with a longtime almacenista that has just recently begun bottling their own Sherry under the label Cruz Vieja, named after the neighborhood in which the bodega resides.
Bodegas Faustino Gonzalez is potentially the smallest producer in Jerez that has its own label. Beginning in 2014, they’ve bottled their own very tiny production of incredibly high quality Sherry. This is a family owned bodega that began this passion project in 1971 after acquiring an old solera dating back to 1789. Now run by the second generation, mainly by Jaime Gonzalez with the help of his brothers and sisters, the bodega cares for seven hectares of vines, two of which they use to produce the very traditional Cruz Vieja wines. They are one of only a few producers who controls every step of the process from vine to bottle, and I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with them.
For years, the important role vineyards play in Sherry production has been overlooked. Bodegas Faustino Gonzalez produces single vineyard Sherry, something that very few producers do these days. I only wish they included this information on the label so people could know how special this is! There are a few producers that will sometimes identify the pago, or designated vineyard zone, on the label, such as Valdespino and Equips Navazos. While I can’t tell you for certain if a single vineyard or single pago Sherry is necessarily better than one that is a blend of vineyards or pagos, I can definitely say quality Sherry does begin in the vineyard. Even those great producers who do not own their own vines do all they can to know where their juice is coming from and how the vineyards are cared for. Bodegas Urium is an example of this. They are another phenomenal small producer, one who does not have their own vineyards, but has a business partnership with a vineyard owner whom they trust and who gives them the ability to control how the vineyards are being managed. This points towards growing interest amongst the new generation of winemakers to put an emphasis on the vineyards. I met three young oenologists who were excited to tell me about their project that focused on the terroir of different pagos. The idea is to create unfortified white wine from palomino grapes, with each bottling containing a single pago, in order to express the terroir of each pago. Hopefully more projects like this one will help bring attention to the importance of the vineyards and the terroir of the different pagos.
I was lucky enough to see the process of winemaking at Bodegas Faustino Gonzalez from pick to press to fermentation. The 2016 vintage had been difficult, with excessive rainfall in May, followed by too much of the levante (the southern, hot, dry winds), which led to grapes maturing unevenly and low yields, but ultimately the harvest resulted in fruit of a high quality and concentrated sugar. The harvest started early this year in many places. By the beginning of my second week in Jerez we were ready to harvest the grapes (see this post to learn little more about the preparation for harvest). Harvest work is some of the most difficult work I have ever done in my life—sweating, bending, crouching, and getting bit by ants and wasps. It is certainly less then glamorous. This year there was a heat wave during harvest, meaning at times temperatures reached 116 degrees fahrenheit. My first day, I thought there would be a master class in how to cut the grapes properly off the vine, but I was simply given a ten second demonstration and a pair of clippers and told to cut everything off the vine. There were a few things I was to watch out for, such as grapes overly dried on the vine, rot, or infestations. These were to be cut off the vine and discarded, but the majority of sorting and cleaning is done after the picking. I was always given only one row of vines to work at a time. I would work as quickly and as carefully as I possibly could, but I always finished much later than the professionals. Later, I learned that they were actually taking two rows at once, and I was still finishing a half hour later than them with my single row.
The professional harvesters are some of the sweetest people I’ve met and they had a wealth of knowledge to share with me about the vines, the grapes, and the critters in the vineyards. Working in a vineyard like Jaime’s was an incredible lesson in biodiversity. They use only organic compost and very little, if any, insecticide or pesticides, so the vineyard is crawling with critters. Each morning as we pulled into the vineyard before sunrise we would see rabbits scurry into the bushes at the sound of our steps. We found loads of chameleons, many wild partridges, and various types of insects and lizards I had never seen before. We even found a few bird nests nestled in-between the vines when we were cutting.
All the grapes at Jaime’s vineyard are hand-picked, but I had the opportunity to watch how machine harvesting works. It is quite a site to see—fast, efficient, and accurate; but it also seems a bit harsh on the vines. Hand picking is certainly more delicate. We mainly picked palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes, while also picking a little moscatel and a few grapes primarily for eating. The palomino and Pedro Ximenez look almost identical, but taste incredibly different. While harvesting you can even smell the difference; the PX has a sweet, aromatic smell while the palomino is neutral.
One of the cooler experiences was being able to harvest PX grapes for pacificación, or more well-know by its french term, passerillage, a process by which the grapes are picked and then lain on a mat in-between rows to dry out in the sun for a week or two in order to concentrate the sugars.
The day after we picked the Palomino grapes, Jaime took me to see exactly what happens next. A truck comes to the vineyard to pick up the grapes and then drives them to the press site. We hopped in Jaime’s car and followed closely behind. We were greeted at the press facility by a jolly, plump man and a table full of food and wine. Like any social interaction in Jerez, nothing could take place until everyone was sufficiently fed. After several copas de vino de jerez and a plate of chicken and rice, the grapes are dumped into the sorter and then filtered into the press.
Once pressed, the juice is separated into the first press juice, which is reserved for fino, and second press juice, which is reserved for oloroso. The following day, the juices are pumped into a truck and transported to the bodega. Jaime still does fermentation in barrel, an old technique that has mostly been eradicated because it requires a lot of attention.
At the bodega, the truck closes down the entire street for hours in order to pump the juice directly into the fermentation barrels. I was able to assist Jaime in filling the barrels, which he does single handedly each year. This process takes hours, and when we were finished, there were twenty-five barrels of must waiting to ferment. This is a tiny production. Jaime only bottles about 4,000-6,000 bottles per year. Once the juice hits the inside of the barrels, fermentation begins almost immediately. It's a testament to the ideal climatic conditions in the bodega that allow wild yeast to thrive. By the time we were finished pumping the must into the barrels, we could hear the sizzling and smell the funk of fermentation. The sound and smells are captivating and indicate the end of a successful harvest, so we decided to celebrate with a little venencia lesson, from venenciadora, Momoko, jamon y queso, and some of the old, family-only Amontillado, which Jaime let me saca, or pull out of the barrel and pour myself—a nerve-racking task when you know you are drinking wine that dates back to 1890.
The wine will finish fermenting to complete dryness in about a week, then it will be fortified with grape spirit and sit and wait for its classification. But what is next for the vineyards? Now comes the important task of preparing the vineyards for the rainy season, which is in the autumn and winter. As I briefly mentioned before, the vineyards in Jerez have this beautiful, chalky, albariza soil. Before the rainy season hits, the soft albariza soil is pressed into rectangular pits between the rows of vines, helping to trap the water and reduce run off—a process called aserpiado. In the summer heat, the soil will then harden and protect the water from evaporating. In the hot July and August months, the roots will reach deep into the soil for water, sometimes as far as thirty meters down.
If you should visit the Sherry region, take the rare experience to visit not only the bodegas, but the vineyards of the region. Sink your feel in the soil, feel the soft, calcareous albariza soil in your hands, keep your eyes open for the creatures of the vineyards and taste the grapes off the vine, most importantly appreciate that the vineyard is the place where painstaking work, year-round, goes into in order to produce the incredible vinos de jerez.