I love Sherry. How can you not? It's saltily delicious, it's a wine with its own language, its own culture, its own spirit. These days, Sherry is completely synonymous with the region known as the Marco de Jerez (that is, the southern tip of Andalusía, comprising the winegrowing territories of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerta de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda). But it wasn't always thus.
A new dawn in the Marco de Jerez? (Strokes chin)
The history books tell us that during Sherry’s ‘golden age’ (the early to mid-19th century), when many bodegas began to ship finos, amontillados and olorosos around the world in prodigious volumes, back in Andalucía the Jerezanos were enjoying unfortified wines made from the many grape varieties which then grew in the region. They were known as vinos de pasto and the best of them, produced from selected prized vineyards, commanded high prices.
Skip forward to the 20th century and as foreign demand for fortified Sherry grew, while domestically the price became more affordable, vinos de pasto were virtually forgotten. By the 1970s – the historic peak of Sherry production – the only conversation relating to Sherry was about barrel ageing, soleras and the velo de flor - the film of yeasts that, in the right conditions, forms on the surface of Sherry wines in the barrel, enabling so-called ‘biological ageing’.
A 1904 map of the vineyard parcels of Jerez de la Frontera. Most of these vineyards had already been demarcated in the 18th century.
Though you would hardly know it from the wholesale dominance of fortified Sherry wines, the Marco de Jerez has a deep-rooted terroir story to tell. As far back as the 18th century, the entire region was meticulously mapped according to pago (a 'cru' vineyard area encompassing different vineyards) and vineyard parcel - much like in Burgundy. While some Sherry producers sought to maintain the integrity of this terroir map, others did not. Many of these historic sites were replanted with high-yielding palomino clones, their grapes lumped together in large batches and channelled into solera systems. The terroir message was entirely lost.
Now things are changing in Jerez. People like Raúl Moreno (who I worked with on my Palomino 2022), Ramiro Ibañez, Willy Pérez and Alberto Orte are working hard to restore this terroir message by producing unfortified wines with a focus on low-yielding clones of palomino from specific vineyard sites. Look around the Marco de Jerez and you will see a flowering of terroir-focused projects, born of a dedication to the wine styles that existed before fortification. You will also see experimentation from winemakers like Raúl who sense a kind of magic in the twin treasures of palomino and albariza soil – with nary a solera nor a destilado in sight.
My clone 84 palomino at Dominio de Las Animas in Balbaína Alta
My 2022 Palomino was made in the spirit of this return to terroir in Jerez. It was made from a small plot of organically farmed palomino vines on chalky albariza soil in pago Balbaína Alta - one of best crus in Jerez, according to Raúl. Those are the palomino grapes in the picture above. This is an older, low-yielding clone of palomino called clone 84. Note the small berries and loose bunches. You don't get this with the high-yielding modern 'California clone' used for Sherry production. Clone 84 grapes grown on this chalky albariza soil provide citrus and 'verticality' compared with California clone palomino, which tends to produce fruit with flabby stone-tropical fruit, and no intensity, no edge.
The velo de flor in TFWATH Palomino 2022
When making this wine, I was initially inspired by a wine Raúl made in 2018 called El Refléjo. This amazingly complex, spicy, unfortified palomino was made from partially sun-dried grapes and aged in a combination of old Sherry casks and a tinaja. That was the starting point. I wanted to produce a wine which had elements of classic Sherry character, but which had its own style, and would express the terroir of where the grapes were grown. The grapes were handpicked and footstomped as whole bunches before being macerated for about 10 days. Then the grapes were gently pressed in a small basket press and the wine was racked to a single 700l chestnut amontillado cask, where it aged under a veil of flor for about seven months. It was then transferred to tank where it rested for two or three further months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Ageing in an old chestnut wood amontillado cask
Thanks to Raúl's guiding hand, my palomino has worked out just as I would have hoped. It's spicy, salty, complex and ever-evolving. The clone 84 palomino has given ripe apple and citrus flavours. The stems have given hints of pepper. The flor and barrel have given a gorgeous complexity of slow-building spice, opening up with hints of fenugreek and curry leaf. The texture is evocative of the sunbaked chalky soil of Balbaína Alta and there's a supple savouriness, a sapidity, which keeps you drinking. It's not a Sherry and neither does it want to be; it's a unique wine which hints at the story of the new (but actually very old) Jerez - a story which, thanks to Raúl and those terroir-focused winemakers like him, you can expect to hear a lot more about in the years to come.