By way of introducing a series of posts about sherry and various visits to Andalusia, I thought I'd relay a conversation I recently had with a respected wine journalist friend from New York.
"Are you into sherry?" I asked. (We were on a long car ride.)
He wasn't not into sherry, he said. But, having done the same initial research most wine guys do, he found he subsequently almost never encountered anything new of interest from the region. "I'm sick of Brooklyn bartenders incorrectly explaining what Oloroso is," he added.
After three visits to the region over the course of the past year and a half, I could empathise. Sherry is, as Churchill said of Russian statecraft, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Reading Peter Liem and Jésus Barquin's splendid book on the subject gets you only so far - just inside the outer enigma of a wine whose potential often seems as ill-understood by its producers as it is by its consumers. Even in the sherry towns themselves, one rarely lays eyes on the obscure bottlings about which Liem and Barquin write so inspiringly. Most local bars and restaurants offer a what amounts to a modest elaboration of the Jerez airport's Duty-Free.
This is why it's such a relief to return to La Taberna der Guerrita, foward-thinking sherry dealer Armando Guerra's rustic and unassuming Sanlucar tapas bar, which houses, inside a surprisingly space-age rear tasting room, a scintillating selection of rare and unusual bottles. A chat with Guerra - particularly after a long day shuffling along the town's semi-deserted cobblestones encountering nothing but mosto signs - is enough to restore hope for the region's future relevance.
The bar was founded in 1978 by Armando Guerra's father. Its status as the epicenter of geek sherry appreciation isn't totally obvious from the outside; its bar is typically peopled - not crowded - with the same stout elderly locals one encounters everywhere in the region. The rear tasting room isn't even advertised. One has to ask at the bar.
Only here does the breadth of the enterprise begin to sink in. Guerra's passion for wine - not just sherry - is reassuringly evident in the ambitious tasting calendars posted around the room. Bottle keepsakes lined along the walls, leftovers from previous tastings, included cuvées from Jean-François Ganevat and Jean Foillard. In a region not known for its curiosity about the greater wine world, this seems especially significant.
Not many bottle selections are kept chilled, but since most bottles are 375ml, it doesn't take long to ice one down. Meanwhile the bar's glass list is composed of almost nothing but wondrous curiosities, at least for an outsider like myself. Of particular interest is the emphatic concentration on Manzanilla and Finos bottled en rama, or straight from cask with minimal filtration, with the intention of preserving character.
|This list is a little outdated - it dates from our first visit in summer 2013.|
But it's a testament to the challenges faced by sherry afficionados, and to the anti-innovative stances of many sherry producers, that even en rama production - probably the most positive aesthetic development in the genre in the last century - is a subject of confusion in the market. Largely to blame is the helplessly self-defeating habit of most producers to hedge, emphasizing in marketing materials that the wines are very unstable and under no circumstances can age. Essentially they had the opportunity to create a genre like vintage Champagne, but judged it safer to market it as Beaujolais Nouveau.
In my experience, stability concerns about en rama wines are warranted, but by no means universally applicable, nor do they derive from insurmountable problems. It seems fair to recognise the possibility that flor-aging in a solera system administers stresses to Manzanillas and Finos that render them especially unstable when bottled without filtration. But, in light of the olympian fruit health required for a French natural wine producer to successfully bottle without sulfur (an analagous risk), it seems equally possible that industrial farming and mediocre fruit is to blame. Since a given solera contains the wines of numerous harvests, this is a mystery that invites no swift resolution.
Armando Guerra, in the meantime, has come up with another idea. He has persuaded two producers (so far) to bottle their Manzanilla en rama in magnums specially for La Taberna der Guerrita. The rationale, of course, is that if the en rama wines are aging too fast in traditional 375ml bottles, bottling them in 1500ml ought to slow down the rate of oxidation to the extent that it will result in what we perceive as complexification.
|I bought a few btls myself.|
One night during our last visit to Sanlucar in November the Native Companion and I took the opportunity to taste three sacas of three vintages of Antonio Barbadillo Mateos' totally unfiltered Manzanilla en Rama, which he began bottling quarterly in 2010. Barbadillo Mateos, as his name indicates, is a sixth-generation descendant one of the town's preeminent sherry families, though I gather he is something of a black sheep. His Sacristia AB project, of which only the Manzanilla has been released thus far, is intended to become a personal selection of soleras of all the Marcos de Jerez' famed D.O.'s, bottled without fining or filtration.
The Primera Saca 2014 was predictably the most classic of the three, exhibiting pineapple fruit and a bold, crunchy salinity I've come to associate with the Sacristia wines.
The Segunda Saca 2013 offered a strong argument for letting these wines sit, at least in the short term. It was more resonant than the 2014 by several degrees, constantly evolving in the glass, from candy-corn and marshmallow aromas to cinnamon and nutmeg to a dried flower / roast nut accord.
The Primera Saca 2010 was sort of the counter-argument to the 2013. In that I believe Barbadillo Mateos is making some the most forward thinking wines of the region, I'm delighted to have tasted this soon-to-be historic bottle. On the other hand, it was unavoidably madeirized, with weakened acidity, and a relatively unstructured tamarind-cider palate. (Perhaps it would have fared better in magnum?)
With all this we devoured a healthy sampling of the bar's rationes, including some deliciously piquante fresh mushrooms, posed on the bar and cooked to order.
La Taberna der Guerrita, incidentally, offers what must be the most frightening dish I've ever eaten in Spain: rough-cut octopus, with brains. Nature channels occasionally inform us how intelligent octopuses are. Now I know firsthand !
It was one of the most affecting sherries I've ever tasted - a sweeping, kinetic chalk minerality presided, with just the sternest hints of apricot and citrus fruit. Barbadillo
Guerra explained that, for him, it was this mineral core that truly identified Amontillado from Sanlucar, in the same way that saline flavours separate Manzanilla from Fino. I had never before tasted the difference in such dramatic relief.
La Taberna der Guerrita
34, calle San Salvador
11540 SANLUCAR DE BARRAMEDA
Tel: +34 856 131 335
A nice summary of en rama sherry production at Sherry Notes.
A 2013 post at Brooklynguy's Wine and Food Blog about the en rama sherries available in the NYC market.
A 2013 post at Jerez-Xeres-Sherry rounding up the major houses' en rama sherries.