16 December 2014

n.d.p. in andalusia: el maestro sierra, jerez

A depressing reality sinks in when one attempts study of sherry, or, for that matter, of Spanish and Portuguese wine in general: all too often, it seems one passes time studying not the history of winemaking families, but the history of winemaking companies. In France or Italy there is more widespread persistence of microviticulture: of tiny families bottling their own wines for generations, and in doing so communicating something of the personality of the individual winemakers. There is indeed a cultural history to be gleaned in the study of sherry; but it is mostly a story of foreign investment, large-scale acquisitions, and inheritance.  

Were its wines not so uniformly stunning, Jerez bodega El Maestro Sierra would still standout for this reason. It's among the few bodegas I know with a truly captivating, individual family backstory - one that continues to this day with owner Pilar Pla Pechovierto, the regal widow of a descendant of Jose Antonio Sierra, the barrel maker who founded the bodega against long odds in 1832. Even back then, the sherry industry was dominated by aristocratic families, whose attitudes towards a barrel-maker joining their ranks is depicted in the bodegas logo: Sierra is shown as a hare escaping ahead of mounted horsemen with dogs.

Today the tiny bodega is principally managed by Ana Cabestrero, who by all appearances maintains the feisty, individualist spirit of the bodega's founder. Originally from a winemaking family in the Ribera del Duero, she took over cellarmaster duties from the bodega's longtime capitaz Juan Clavijo in 2011. Spritely, welcoming, and energetic, Cabestrero cuts an inspiring figure. Touring the historic bodega, which still contains some of the Maestro Sierra's original casks, she relayed to us the enormity of her task: to ensure the painstaking sustenance of some of the region's most illustrious and well-conserved soleras.

Ana Cabestrero, left

A longtime almacenista, El Maestro Sierra only began commercialising its wines under its own label in 1992, before which time I understand that the wines stocked in its soleras had lain dormant for a period of fifty years. This, curiously, would seem to imply that, while its wines have always commanded respect, the bodega attained its current national-treasures status almost by accident, through whatever succession squabbles or proprietary indolence caused the soleras to remain untapped for such a timespan. (This is not to mention what must have been the Kafka-esque role of the capitaz during that period, maintaining casks without selling anything.)

Even today, the El Maestro Sierra's production is miniscule, relative to the rest of the industry. The bodega produces just 8000HL per year. For comparison, Barbadillo in Sanlucar have an annual production of 130000HL. El Maestro Sierra's VORS wines, the key source of the domaine's renown, are produced in runs limited to 400 bottles a year, evidencing an almost perverse devotion to maintenance of reserves.

Cabestero, thankfully, doesn't seem to let the rarity of her wines influence her hospitality. She prepared a truly astounding tasting for us. (This was in rather marked contrast to the rather airliney way we were received at, say, Barbadillo.)

Among the highlights, for me, were the Vinos Viejos 60-year Palo Cortado, an almost outrageously intense wine, brimming with tamarind and curry notes, and the 100-year Oloroso, whose feminine, irish-coffee / chocolate mole accord was by a long margin the most elegant Oloroso I've ever tasted.

The domaine's basic Fino is also worthy of special mention: it exhibits a markedly savoury, old pecorino noes, and its quivering flavours of horchata and sea salt are incredibly persistent, for an entry level wine.

Cabestrero, interestingly, is not a great fan of en rama production, which elsewhere is seen as a great boon to the sherry genre. But she points out that El Maestro Sierra, in contrast to its larger-scale peers, has always practiced minimal filtration. I can comprehend if she'd be reticent to tweak the bodega's traditional masterpiece formula for the sake of what might seem a new-fangled fad. The difference seems one of degrees, and reminds me of when I hear biodynamic wine producers talk down on the rise of "natural" winemakers. The successes of the former category are typically in no hurry to embrace recognition by the ever-so-slightly different standards of the latter category.

Speaking of natural winemaking: Ana Cabestrero was one of the few people we met on that trip with whom I felt comfortable brooching the subject of natural wine. (As a natural wine lover in Jerez I often feel like a Hindu in a steakhouse. What choice is there, but to make exceptions?) She responded by producing a sheet of paper, the official laboratory analysis of the bodega's Fino...

It showed a sulfur dioxide level of 6mg / litre in the finished wine, i.e. impressively low, even by natural winemaking standards. The average level in conventionally-produced wines is about 80mg / litre.

Cabestrero credits the bodega's historical contracts with high-quality growers and its commitment to traditional production methods - but pretty much all sherry winemakers say these things. At El Maestro Sierra, the proof is overwhelmingly evident in the pudding.

The N.C. and I left the tasting fairly beaming, intent on purchasing as much El Maestro Sierra wine as possible in the region. We were subsequently disappointed to find that many of the wines are really, really hard to come by, even in the town of Jerez itself. Therein, again, lies the paradox of sherry appreciation: price and accessibility do not arc gracefully upward, as they do in exploration of the wines of other winemaking regions. El Maestro Sierra's Vinos Viejos bottles, regional benchmarks all of them, are as fugitive as they are unforgettable.

El Maestro Sierra
Plaza Silos, 5

Related Links: 

N.D.P. in Andalusia: La Taberna der Guerrita, Sanlucar

A lot of lovely photos and useful information about El Maestro Sierra can be found at T. Edwards Wine Blog, although one post contains a rather nonsensical screed against en rama production.

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