Innovation in Sherry

Forty years ago, Sherry was a popular drink. Jamie Goode looks at what went wrong, and current efforts to revive the category.

Sherry barrel
Sherry barrel

The year 1979 was peak Sherry. A million cases of Harveys Bristol Cream were exported to the UK and Jerez was in the middle of a boom, with the UK and the Netherlands its key markets. Just two years later, the market collapsed.

Vineyard disconnect

The roots for this demise were sown in 1971. Times were good, and increased demand led to expansion. The existing vineyard area, based on specific vineyards known as pagos, grew rapidly. “Until 1971 we were working with the pago system,” says Willy Pérez of Bodegas Luis Pérez. “Because Spain was entering the European Union, some clever guy says that we needed three times the wine, so we planted with a new clone, Palomino California.” Yields rose by a factor of three; the vineyard area tripled. “Before, you could easily reach 15% alcohol naturally,” says Pérez. “With the new clone and high yields, this is very difficult. In that moment it was all messed up.” 

This wasn’t the first boom and bust cycle for Sherry. “In 1778, there was an overproduction situation, and the market collapsed,” says Pérez. “In 1865, exactly the same thing happened.” The problem, he says, is the disconnect of production from the vineyards. “In the 19th century, all the wines were classified by the type of soil,” Pérez explains. “They had nine different types of soil: three albariza, then three of clay and three of sand.” He says soil used to be more important than ageing, with a ten-year-old wine from sand cheaper than one from albariza of just one year.

Pérez, though, is a believer in the region. His father Luis Pérez was a professor of oenology and also technical director at Domecq, and the initial goal of their family winery was to make red wines from international varieties. But something changed.  A few years ago, Willy, now aged 38, began reading old books about the region. One in particular, written by Scotsman James Busby, left its mark on him. In the 1830s, Busby took a tour through Europe’s vineyards, and one of the places he visited was Jerez, where he had extensive conversations with Pedro Domecq at his vineyard, El Majuelo, in the pago of Macharnudo.

Reading this book left a strong impression on Pérez, and he decided that he wanted to recreate the Sherries of old: vineyard-based fine wines from modest yields. His family purchased a 30ha vineyard of 50-year-old vines in the Carrascal pago, called El Corregidor. Previously owned by Sandeman, this has, in addition to lots of Palomino, other varieties including Tintilla and Pedro Ximénez. He explains that millions of years ago, Andalucia emerged from the oceans. Although the highest point in the region is just 136m, altitude matters, because it’s at the tops of the low hills where the most interesting albariza soils, formed from old marine diatoms (algae), are found. There’s albariza with clay in the middle of the hill, and then the lower vineyards of mostly clay. “We were looking for a vineyard with low yields to recover the process of the old Sherries,” he says. “We are trying to recover the Sherries of the 19th century and it is important to have low yields to give concentrated Sherries. We are trying to recover Sherries as white wines.”

The old ways

Until the 1960s, he says, the high-class Sherries were not fortified. The old system was to harvest the grapes in a unit known as a carretada or cartload. This weighs about 690kg – what one person could harvest in a day, the equivalent of 60 baskets of grapes. The grapes were then laid out on a circular straw mat in the sun for several hours. This process was known as asoleo, and the idea was to increase the potential alcohol to 15 degrees so that no fortification was needed. “Until 1969, all the grapes needed to be asoleo under the sun at least seven hours for concentration, to avoid fortification,” says Perez. “If you need one degree of alcohol you need one day of asoleo.” He adds that in 1971, the advertisement for Domecq’s La Ina Sherry was grapes being asoleo outdoors. But this was quickly forgotten. “I was born here and I never heard of this. Everyone forgot about it. My father started to work with Sherry in 1974 with Domecq, and he didn’t know about asoleo. I learned this through books.” 

At that time there was a very real connection to the vineyard, because the grapes would be pressed in small lagares (troughs) in winery buildings on the pago then put into barrels for fermentation, which would then be moved to the larger wineries in town for ageing. “Traditionally, all the wines were fermented in the vineyard,” says Pérez. “In the 1960s and 1970s, we needed to build big new wineries in the centre of town. At that moment you couldn’t separate Balbaina from Macharnudo from Carrascal.” This was the beginning of the disconnect from the vineyard. “In the past, all the system of pagos, subpagos and vineyards were described in the middle of the 19th century with a lot of maps and classification of soils. Jerez had a similar soil classification to Champagne and Bordeaux, but we lost it 40 or 50 years ago and it’s a pity.”

One of Pérez’s close friends is Ramiro Ibáñez, who has a small winery in Sanlúcar called Cota 45, specialising in unfortified, biologically aged wines from selected vineyards in the region. The number comes from the height in metres above which good albariza is found. Ibáñez and Pérez are now writing a book together on the region and its wines. Ibáñez points out that at the end of the 1970s there were 23,000ha of vines in the area (the three towns and surrounding vineyards are known collectively as La Marca), but this has been reduced to 7,000ha. Many of the vineyards lost were planted in unsuitable areas during the big expansion.“We want people to understand that Sherry is more than modern-day Sherry,” he says. “Champagne has the same problems as Sherry: the method is so important.”

And new vineyard-focused producers are coming to the region. Peter Sisseck, of famed Ribera del Duero property Pingus, has begun a new venture with Carlos del Río, who was a partner in Hacienda del Monasterio where Sisseck made the wine. In 2000, he came to Jerez with Álvaro Palacios and decided to start a project there. The project took a while to happen, but began in 2015 and is based on biologically aged Sherries in the old Juan Piñero winery, Bodega San Francisco. “In Sherry, they forgot the vineyard,” says Carlos, the son of Carlos del Río, who is working as export manager. They’ve purchased 8ha of the Balbaina pago and 2ha of Macharnudo, both higher, west-facing plots. The two wines they will make will be Viña La Crux de Macharnudo and Viña Los Corrales de Balbaina.

Innovation

These are not the first attempts to forge Sherry’s future as a fine wine. In 2009, Martin Skelton of Gonzalez Byass introduced a new addition to its Tio Pepe range, called en rama (raw) Sherry. The idea was to take the wine more or less straight from the cask and bottle it without filtration or clarification, although the traditional view is that these en rama Sherries don’t travel. “To send en rama outside Jerez raw is utter madness,” recalls Skelton. “Everyone is saying that Gonzalez Byass is crazy. I was so proud to be able to show people wild Tio Pepe!” En rama was originally meant to be a one-off, for the UK market. But it has taken off, and now lots of other bodegas are offering en rama. 

Equipo Navazos has achieved great success with its numbered releases of fine Sherries of all types, based on purchased barrels that it considers to be of special merit. The project started as a private consortium of Sherry lovers,who, in 2005 found a remarkable barrel of 20-year-old Amontillado from which they produced 600 bottles, called La Bota de Amontillado. In 2007 the wines started being released more widely. Each release is chronologically numbered and with the date of withdrawal from cask indicated on the bottle. They have also collaborated with Dirk Niepoort to produce a wine labelled Navazos-Niepoort, which is a table wine from the region made from Palomino grown under a layer of flor yeast, without any fortification. 

The official Sherry body has responded to the new-wave unfortified biologically aged wines and very soon it will be possible to label these as Sherries. “The next 20 years for Jerez are going to be very exciting,” says Eduardo Davis of Bodega Tradición, one of the most respected producers of long-aged Sherries. “Something for the connoisseurs who like good wines, and not for the masses.” But he adds a note of caution: fixing things at the high end doesn’t change everything at the bottom, where the volume still lies. The region is still making money from selling wine for distillation and producing barrels for the whisky companies. “The market tendency is drinking less but better,” says Davis. “But I don’t think the big guys in Jerez are looking at those numbers yet.” He adds: “The pressure is in the vineyard from the grower side: 7,000ha that need to be kept alive. You can’t do that just with premium wines. You still need to sell to young people that don’t know the story and they need to start with the entry level.” 

Jamie Goode

This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or online.

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