‘If penicillin can cure those that are ill, Spanish Sherry can bring the dead back to life’ – Benjamin Franklin.
When an invite lands on your desk asking you to head off to Sanlúcar de Barrameda for 48 hours to be educated by Sherry legend Javier Hidalgo and watch a spot of horse racing on the beach…what would you do?
Every year in August, Javier cuts down his food intake (which is pretty small already) and takes part in the amateur horse races that take place on a 1,800 metre track stretched out along the beach with the sun setting on the finish line. It’s pretty magical and, with the entire town’s population turned out to watch, the atmosphere is fantastic!
I digress… The first thing I noticed on the drive from the airport as we neared Sanlúcar was that there were no vineyards. A small point perhaps, but as we drew even closer I actually began to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn. Then suddenly in the distance, blanketing the tops of the low lying hills, they began to reveal themselves. As we stepped out into the morning sunshine the temperature was already in the high 20s and we were met by Javier Hidalgo, famed for his flat cap and jockey frame. He is the sixth generation and, most importantly, the owner, of one of the very few Bodegas still in family hands; a true rarity in today’s climes.
My first question: ‘Javier, donde esta los viñedos?’ (Yes, I still have a pretty good grasp of ‘A-level’ Spanish). The answer was simple enough. As the demand for Sherry boomed in the ‘80s, vineyard plantings rose to 21,500ha – today the vineyard coverage is back down to 6,500ha, as it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Elsewhere in the world, a reduction in plantings would normally equal an increase in quality and yet this is the first key to understanding Sherry; unlike the modern philosophy of ‘vineyard-first’ winemaking, Sherry is made in the bodega and, more importantly, made through a dynamic ageing process called the Solera System. Here, Hidalgo is unique, using 14 layers (criaderas) in the solera process, a nod to innovation to achieve superior quality.
However, this is not to suggest that the vineyards are unimportant! Javier has also pioneered a true Sherry rarity, an aged single vineyard wine known as ‘Pastrana Pasada’. Hidalgo is rare in that the company owns all their vineyards and can control what goes on in them - their Palomino grapes are planted in the superior ‘albariza’ soils which can store water during the dry months when rain is a scarcity (April through to October). Seldom are there hail storms to contest with (unlike their vinous cousins in Chablis who have just suffered from this) and few rain storms - you get the picture. In fact when walking through the vineyards it was noticeable just how prolific the Palomino grapes are with bunches hanging low under the weight of the fruit. Only one plot within the 200ha estate is hand-harvested, a nod to ease rather than selective and qualitative methods.
We then drove into Sanlúcar to where the magic happens. The warehouse is huge, positioned right in the middle of the town; there’s nothing fancy here, no modern cooling system, no fancy office at which to be ‘meeted and greeted’ - it’s just full of some of the oldest barrels I have ever seen, stacked on top of each other forming the Solera System so integral to the final wine!
All below were sampled straight out of barrel:
La Gitana Manzanilla ‘En Rama’
Surprisingly deep in colour (normally out of the bottle it would be fined and filtered, removing some of the colour). Texturally gorgeous, rich, notes of almonds with great depth and a refreshing oxidative tang; you can drink this all day.
Age of wine: 4 – 7 years
Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada
From the superior Pastrana vineyard, it is similar in colour to La Gitana but with a greater concentration of flavours - nutty with a mineral tang. This has a great finish and is a step up from the ‘En Rama’.
Age of Wine: 8 – 12 years.
Pronounced salted caramel and butter scotch aromas, reminiscent of sea air. The breadth of flavours is outrageous. Bone-dry with great vivacity and an even greater ‘zing’ on the finish.
Age of wine: 30 years is the minimum average age for VORS - however Javier told us these were older than 50 years.
Occasion: Great served with smoked food; Javier’s preference is smoked salmons.
VORS Palo Cortado Family Reserve
Pronounced aromas of old mahogany wood, walnut and oxidative notes. Oloroso-esque, this is so easy to drink, with a gorgeous nutty dryness and ‘umami’ completeness. Stunning!
Age of Wine: Unknown. A super-aged, super-premium Amontillado.
Unlike the ‘En Rama’, Patrana and Amontillado, this Oloroso went through oxidative ageing. It is a touch darker than the Palo Cortado with richer and deeper concentrated aromas, almost Madeira-like. The palate is very much as per the nose but not sweet as you might have thought. This has stunning depth and keeps its freshness, making it a lively and complex drink with notes of old furniture? A very special wine that is hard to put into words.
Sherry is baffling to most and loved by few. This is something we would like to rectify. All of Javier’s wines express intrinsic quality and a freshness that just makes you want more. La Gitana Manzanilla is perfect for drinking with friends, pre-supper, in the garden and as a starter, with nibbles or without. The next time you are planning a party be brave, be bold and serve Hidalgo’s Manzanilla ‘En Rama’. This is bottled to order, so as fresh as the morning dew. Trust us! The older wines demand a touch more respect but they are some of the most complex wines you can get your hands on and command ridiculously cheap prices for the quality inside the bottle – honestly, try an Amontillado with your smoked Salmon – you won’t regret it! In truth you need to try these wines because once you do, you will make up your own excuses to drink Sherry, surely one of the treasures of the world and worth investigating.
Javier, muchisimas gracias.