Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Week of Sherry Tastings

I’ve tasted close to 300 sherries in the past week, in all possible styles, and many of my favorites were so good I had to taste them multiple times. As with champagne, I never tire of tasting sherry. Here are just a few of the standouts:

Most Exciting Fino from Jerez: La Bota de Fino #15 Macharnudo Alto
From the Equipo Navazos, the hottest label in sherry right now, this outstanding fino is a special selection drawn from the solera used for Valdespino’s Inocente. Like the Inocente, it comes exclusively from the Macharnudo vineyard and was fermented in wood, but unlike Valdespino’s version this is bottled unfiltered. It’s sleek and fragrant, with a seamless harmony from nose to finish, and shows an incredible depth of aroma on the palate, both from the particularly strong character of the selected barrels and from the absence of filtering. This was a preview, as the actual bottling won’t take place for another few weeks, and the wine will be released in September. Only 2,900 bottles will be produced.

Most Exciting Fino from El Puerto de Santa Maria: Lustau Puerto Fino Solera Reserva
El Puerto, being located near the sea, is closer in character to manzanilla than to Jerez fino. Lustau’s Solera Reserva is a classic example, showing a delicately complex fragrance and a long, elegantly balanced finish. Lustau’s almacenista bottling, the Fino del Puerto from Jose Luis Gonzalez Obregon, is more intense and austere, and even more complex — a wine for true sherry connoisseurs. I love them both, but would recommend starting with the more accessible Solera Reserva.

Most Exciting Manzanilla (i.e. Fino from Sanlúcar de Barrameda): Barbadillo Manzanilla en Rama Saca de Primavera 2008
I could have picked Equipo Navazos’s La Bota de Manzanilla #8, a single-vineyard manzanilla from Las Cañas in Balbaína, but just to spread the love around I’ll choose the spring 2008 bottling of Barbadillo’s unfiltered manzanilla. Honestly, I find Barbadillo’s standard manzanilla, called Solear, rather indifferent and innocuous. It’s striking to compare it with the En Rama, which is drawn from the best barrels of the same solera and bottled unfiltered, giving it a much fuller, livelier and more complex character. Barbadillo bottles a small amount of this wine four times a year, and the character changes each season due to the waxing and waning in growth of the flor. The only problem is that you really have to be in Andalucia to have any hope of buying a bottle.

Classiest Manzanilla Pasada: Lustau Almacenista Manuel Cuevas Jurado Manzanilla Pasada de Sanlúcar
Manuel Cuevas Jurado is one of my favorite Lustau almacenistas. This manzanilla pasada shows such striking purity and complexity, shifting kaleidoscopically on the palate with breathtaking grace and finesse. I tasted this several times directly alongside Hidalgo’s Pastrana, another manzanilla pasada that I adore: while the Pastrana shows more ample depth and body on the mid-palate, the Lustau is consistently finer, longer and more complex on the finish.

Greatest Rare and Old Amontillado: Gonzalez Byass 4 Palmas
I think there are more great amontillados than any other category of sherry. While there were many, many amontillados that I absolutely loved, it was the 4 Palmas from Gonzalez Byass that nearly brought me to tears. From a small and highly prized solera founded in 1871, this contains old finos of the highest quality, with an average age of 50 years, and its combination of balance, complexity, purity and elegance is simply stunning. This is the amontillado of my dreams.

Most Memorable Palo Cortado: Reliquia Barbadillo Palo Cortado
Barbadillo’s Reliquias are some of the most extraordinary wines of the region, drawn from soleras so old that nobody knows exactly when they were founded. The Palo Cortado is an absolute classic, with a richly concentrated array of aromas from coffee to tobacco to wood spice and black walnuts, all pinned down by an amontillado-like steeliness on the palate. The finish is unbelievably long and fine, simply oozing class.

Finest Old Oloroso: Gonzalez Byass Millennium Oloroso
There were a lot of great old olorosos offered for tasting, and some of my favorites included Hidalgo’s single-vintage, single-vineyard (El Cuadrado, in Balbaína) oloroso from 1986; the Oloroso VORS of Bodegas Tradición; Osborne’s BC 200, from their Rare Sherry collection; and of course Barbadillo’s extraordinary Reliquia. I even tasted an astounding 1959 vintage oloroso by Williams & Humbert, which I’m pretty sure I will never be able to again. However, I was particularly taken by Gonzalez Byass’s Millennium bottling, sourced from the finest butts in the bodega’s legendary array of soleras. This extraordinary wine encapsulates a century of winemaking, blending vintage wines from 1902, 1917, 1923, 1935, 1946, 1957, 1962, 1977, 1983 and 1992. The darkly caramelly, walnutty complexity of the old wines is superbly balanced by the fresh structure and vivacity of the “younger” wines, and the blend feels effortlessly harmonious and expressive.

Most Drinkable Pedro Ximénez: Pérez Barquero La Cañada PX
I’ll freely admit I really don’t like PX. It can be impressive to taste, but it’s generally too plush, too pruny, too viscous and too sticky for me to enjoy the experience. Pérez Barquero, in Montilla-Moriles, makes powerful, decadent wines that are greatly admired by Robert Parker, who gave Pérez Barquero’s 1905 PX Soleras Fundacionales something like 110 points. The 1905 is impressive, but I slightly preferred La Cañada, a single-vineyard PX averaging 25 years of age, as it felt more “balanced” (if you can use that word in the context of PX), allowing more complexity to emerge and feeling more buoyant and lively on the palate.

Best Respite from a Day of Tasting Sherry: A small vertical of Château d’Yquem
Only at Vinobile could you drink rare, old and expensive sherry all day and then take a break to taste a vertical of Château d’Yquem. It’s beyond ridiculous. Pierre Lurton and Sandrine Garbay were on hand to guide us through four vintages of the fabled stuff, in a tasting held in the beautiful old mosque of the Jerez Alcázar. I loved the 2004, with its elegantly refined build and clean, pure botrytis; the 2003 was plush and warm but had much more acidity than I expected, and it promises to develop superbly. The 1998 was still closed and awkward, showing a slight lack of acidity that troubled me, although the concentrated flavors were very pretty. And I’ve always loved the 1988: it still needs plenty of time, but it’s terrifically silky and seamless, just beginning to develop real complexity.


Craig Camp said...

Sherry is perhaps the best value in great wine in the world. Stunning complexity and still cheap. I am amazed they still have not caught on.

Peter Liem said...

I agree, Craig. How can we get people to drink more sherry?

Jeremy said...

Let's not get people to drink more sherry and just drink it all ourselves! I've already put in an order for some Bota de Manzanilla, Amontillado and Manzanilla Pasada. Your posts have made me very thirsty for sherry and salty pieces of fish.

It is funny how houses like Barbadillo (and others) can produce anything from insipid Manzanilla - a friend once referred to it as "Barbadillo-Venenillo" (barbadillo venin)- to some of the very best of the Jerez appellation. It's one of the things I like about Hidalgo: it's essentially all good.

Peter Liem said...

I agree, Jeremy, the Hidalgo range is very impressive. I'm not so keen on the Faraón Oloroso or the Triana PX, but the rest of the lineup is uniformly superb. That's great that you're getting some La Bota wines! Those are the things I'm most excited about right now in sherry.

Jeremy said...

I must confess that i was unaware of the Faraon Oloroso and that as far as I'm concerned (and I know you share this feeling), P.X. is essentially just that: P.X. I like it well enough on vanilla ice cream as food, but not so much as a drink.

steve said...

I'm returning to Sevilla in September. Could you recommend a good place to taste several different Sherries with a knowledgable English speaking staff? Thanks - Steve AdventureFood

Peter Liem said...

Unfortunately I never found a serious sherry-drinking place in Sevilla. I was too busy eating, perhaps. The closest thing, maybe, was Bodeguita Antonio Romero, on c/ Antonia Diaz. There's another place called Bodeguita Romero at c/ Harinas 10, which isn't the same, but it's worth stopping there anyway for their marvelous montadito de pringa — a sandwich of roast pork, pork fat and blood sausage, which is as ridiculously delicious as it sounds. Anyway, Bodeguita Antonio Romero has a better wine selection, and lots of sherry lying about. The last time I was there they were pouring four different manzanillas, which tells you how much they like sherry, and there are lots of other styles to drink, too. Their jamón ibérico de bellota is pretty serious, and I also liked the bacalao liver, the menudo (although the menudo at Casa Cuesta is even better), and the mojama, which is delicious with manzanilla. English, though, I'm not really sure about.

Steve said...

Thanks, We'll check out both places.

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