29 January 2015

n.d.p. in andalusia: bodegas gonzalez byass, jerez

Don't get me wrong: the Native Companion and I certainly appreciated our visit to Bodegas Gonzalez Byass, which occupies a seemingly Vatican-sized complex in the town's southwest. The canopied courtyards and echoing, dust-blackened bodegas of Gonzalez Byass are as awe-inspiring as any cathedral, and together comprise a truly resplendent monument to the region's historical significance.

Like other monuments, visitors can go on tours of Gonzalez Byass. There are even trains that take 300,000 tourists per year around the complex. This is what we wanted to avoid, of course, and we were very relieved when one of the company's sales directors agreed to meet us for a private visit.

Unfortunately, our visit was unrecoverably derailed by an extended, Kafka-esque scenario that arose with one of the bodega's doormen, who, despite repeatedly assuring us otherwise, proved unable or unwilling to communicate the message that we had arrived for our appointment. It was human error (his), but I mention it because it blighted the bodega's otherwise commendable hospitality in a way vaguely illustrative of the quality limitations inherent in such enormous, depersonalising enterprises.

After we identified ourselves to the doorman, there ensued a wait of about ninety minutes, spent first in the punishing afternoon sunlight by the gate, and later in the silent, air-conditioned chill of the commercial offices, where the lone secretary evinced indifference to our plight and seemed tacitly to have sided with the doorman. I recall we went so far as to show emails on our phone confirming the time of rendezvous.

I don't consider myself an important journalist by any stretch of the imagination, and am usually grateful for whatever face-time the representatives of wine estates permit me. I'm not a buyer, after all, and I don't write regularly for any major publications. But the welcome we received at Gonzalez Byass was inhuman, and all the more vexing for having apparently been accidental. When the company's regional sales director finally arrived, he couldn't believe how long we'd been waiting. Nor could we ! It is an absurd and unjust world !

How on earth, for instance, was I to appreciate the tasting he had really thoughtfully arranged for us in the royal family's former summer residence ? I was choking on umbrage, not to mention the residence's new inhabitants, fruit flies.

It didn't help that Gonzalez Byass, like most bodegas of its size, seems ill-prepared for, or disinclined towards, satisfying the interest of afficionados. We did no barrel tasting, instead sampling the bodega's normal range, something we could just as easily have done at Jerez airport. We were told no more Tio Pepe Fino En Rama was available to taste, as the most recent saca had already been pre-sold at time of bottling. (I first tasted it at Barrafina in London, where it had paled in comparison to Bodegas Hidalgo's En Rama.)

Gonzalez Byass are among the sherry producers who insist that their lightly-filtered Fino En Rama should under no circumstances be consumed after three months' in bottle. Here as elsewhere, the hedgy marketing seems as likely to be a result of regional attachment to industrial standards of consistency, as to industrial viticultural practices and the resultant imperfect fruit.

Significantly, Gonzalez Byass make no "true" Palo Cortado, instead blending Amontillado and Oloroso to produce their "Leonor" and "Apostolles" bottlings. The latter also contains 13% Pedro Ximenez, as though attempting to attain profundity via sweetness. The wines taste a little one-dimensional, with none of the quivering intensity one encounters in Palo Cortados that have resulted from individual barrel evolution.

The high point for me was a reappraisal of the bodega's Oloroso Dulce "Matusalem," a wine I would never have ordered knowingly. Its pungent, leathery nose and copper notes were a fine counterpoint to its sweetness. I found myself thinking it would be nice on the rocks with a slice of orange.

The walking tour of the bodegas that preceded our tasting was more edifying, though I may in part have been delighted merely to be moving my limbs after so long waiting for the visit to begin.

Can you believe these bottles of En Rama are only 4 months old? 

The bodega dates back to 1835. It was founded by Manuel Maria Gonzalez, who twenty years later went into partnership with his British representative Robert Blake Byass. The bodega remains under the ownership of the Gonzalez family, now in the 4th and 5th generations. The intervening years saw the firm attain such pre-eminence that its Tio Pepe brand became practically synonymous with Fino sherry. Casks autographed by an amusingly diverse cast of historical personages attest to the bodega's centrality in Andalusian and Spanish culture.

I kept hoping to see a Beyonce cask, but no luck. No Putin cask, no Obama cask, no Springsteen cask. There was a Spielberg cask. I didn't see a Bono cask, but it seems possible.

Present day Jerez has about as many Tio Pepe logos as it does cobblestones, for better or for worse. I have nothing against the wine, which is fine for cooking and indeed preferable for drinking, in my opinion, to any conventional unfortified white wine at the same price point. But I can't help questioning the whether today the role of industry leader can be gainfully occupied by a company that positions its Palo Cortados as sweet wines; a company that (like many of its peers) produces effectively zero high-end product; a company that employs such demonic doormen.

It could have been worse.

Bodegas Gonzalez Byass
Calle de Manuel María González, 12
Tel: +34 956 35 70 00

Related Links:

N.D.P. in Andalusia: Casa Bigote, Sanlucar
N.D.P. in Andalusia: La Carbona, Jerez
N.D.P. in Andalusia: El Maestro Sierra, Jerez
N.D.P. in Andalusia: Bodegas César Florido, Chipiona
N.D.P. in Andalusia: La Taberna der Guerrita, Sanlucar

A concise and informative 2013 post on Gonzalez Byass at Sherry Notes, notable for mentioning the company's ill-timed expansion into Madrid in the 2000's. This post seems to be the basis for the company's Wikipedia page, or vice versa...

Some perfunctory notes on a visit to Gonzalez Byass at Alcademics.

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