Monday was my first time visiting the vineyards of Jerez. In the wee hours of the morning, Jaime—my host and owner of Bodega Faustino Gonzalez, his venenciador of the bodega, Momoko, two other friends in the industry, and myself all crammed into a tiny car to head off to see his vineyards. The vineyards are only about ten minutes from the center of Jerez, down a tiny, although paved, incredibly bumpy back road. As we arrived, the sun slowly began to rise shedding light on just how beautiful the vineyards are.
In some areas, harvest is already well underway, but not at the vineyard of Faustino Gonzalez. We met with Pepe, the capataz of the vineyard, which is from what I understand a viticulturist. Pepe needed to determine if the grapes are ready to harvest. He brought an instrument that is like a laboratory to-go that tests the potential alcohol in the grapes. You just squeeze a little juice onto the instrument to get a measurement. The juice reads at about 11.5 which is just about where they want the grapes to be. This test is not exact so they still need to take clippings of the grapes to the laboratory for a more exact approximation. The vineyard is small, with only 7 hectares, and only 2 of those hectares are dedicated to making the wines of Cruz Vieja (the name of Bodega Faustino Gonzalez’s line of Sherry) which require them to be dedicated to the Palomino grape, the others are Pedro Ximenez (PX), a grape used to make sweet passito wines, and are reserved to sell to other producers.
Everything in the vineyard is done with a holistic approach and little use of any pesticides or chemicals. There is a lot of life in the vineyard, with chameleons crawling about, birds, and even signs of rabbits having been there for a grape feast. The venenciador tells me many people are using less and less chemicals in the vineyards. I’ve found that most of the vineyards seem to be practicing organic principles and sustainability, not because it is a new trend, but simply because this is how the area has operated for centuries. You won’t find many people who are certified because it is an expensive and tedious process. I had a chance to taste both PX and Palomino grapes of the vine and although on the surface they appear to be almost indistinguishable they taste very different. PX is fruity, soft and sweet with delicate skins, while Palomino is stronger, with thicker skins. You can taste the skins and the tannin in them making it a bit drier with less fruit characteristics.
After spending time at Jaime’s vineyards, we went to visit the vineyards of one of the biggest producers in Sherry, Gonzalez Byass, to see the harvest well underway there. In Jerez, the vineyards are divided into sub-regions called Pagos, these vineyards were in a warmer part, with less wind and less humidity so the grapes matured faster. But in Pago Monte Alegre, where the vineyards of Faustino Gonzalez are located, there is much more wind and humidity due to its proximity to the river so the grapes need more time to mature. In this region, it seems like everyone you talk to mentions el viento or, the wind, at some point in the day. There are two wind streams that pass through the area and change quite frequently. There is the cool, humid winds the come from the ocean called the poniente and there is the extremely hot, dry winds that come from the south called the levante. You never quite no which one you are going to get in any given day but the vineyards benefit from both, helping greatly reduced the risk of disease, which is probably why they don’t use many chemicals in the first place.
Visiting the vineyards is like a dream for me. Being able to be in the vineyards and learn even more about everything I have been learning about in books for years is incredible. Soon, I’ll begin the grueling task of harvest work. I’ll be in the vineyards, baking in the sun and getting super dirty, hopefully with a smile on my face considering I have the luck to be in one of the most beautiful places on the earth.
Stay tuned for more from the Jerez...