Learning about sherry is basically a process of unlearning whatever else you know about wine. Varieties? Largely insignificant (almost all sherry is made from the neutral palomino grape), since sherry’s diversity lies with its styles: fino, protected from the air by the layer of yeast known as flor; oloroso, nutty and rich from full exposure to the air; amontillado and palo cortado somewhere in between.
What’s more, historically terroir in Jerez has been less about its vineyards than the bodegas, the large, open wineries where the wine ages, influenced by its immediate surroundings—especially its proximity to the nearby Atlantic. That’s starting to change as a few bodegas highlight the virtues of individual plantings, like Hidalgo’s single-site Pastrana. But for the most part, sherry’s distinctions come from the years the wines spend in sherry’s unique solera system, moved and blended from cask to cask, the supply of wine drawn down and then refreshed by a new harvest.
All this is to signal that sherry was conceived as a nearly failsafe wine—able to endure the rigors of sea shipping, especially to Britain, that defined the region’s trade for centuries. The blending and aging and oxidation, the unique savory and salty flavors, all speak to a process that valued consistency. And to an industry that sought uniformity in its product, distinctiveness was more a flaw. That showed itself in a particularly stark way in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the popular fino style—what most of us think of as dry sherry—was deemed too rich and too flavorful for a wine market that valued lightness and freshness. Through a process of heavy carbon filtration, fino was turned into a pale, nearly colorless drink, one that promised no depth, that was fine to sit in a corner and mumble, largely unheard. This, it turned out, was partly to blame for the region’s spiral into oblivion over the last half-century.
But around a decade ago, the better bodegas began revisiting a practice they once embraced: the en rama style, which involves very light filtration of a fino or manzanilla sherry. (Manzanilla is a fino style made specifically in the waterside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.) Sometimes en rama is described as unfiltered, which isn’t entirely true; nearly all sherry goes through at least a bit of filtration to ensure its stability.
En rama is basically as close as you can get to tasting sherry as it tastes from the cask. All that uniqueness of the sherry process—the location of the bodega, the specific solera and saca (withdrawal of sherry from a single set of casks), the style of the winery—is put back into focus. That’s why, for instance, one of the pioneers of the en rama resurgence, Barbadillo, began bottling its Solear En Rama once each season: to highlight the difference that something as seemingly minor as the weather can have on the most basic practices of sherry production. It was a defiance of the long-held view that sherry is a standardized, industrial product.
Seen another way, en rama is a willful decision by the Jerezanos to return to an earlier way of doing things: a rejection of progress for the sake of progress. Think of it as a bit like reverting from digital to analog or electric to acoustic, or rejecting an electric shaver in favor of an old safety razor. In all these cases, it is a matter of deciding that a newer, more modern way hadn’t actually made things better.
Amidst our very current fetishization of the past (artisanal butchery, the return of woodworking), it’s almost obvious that en rama would find some fans. And it has. A small but growing posse of sherry lovers, mostly in the United States and Britain, has been seeking out en rama bottlings, which is why an ever greater number of bodegas have begun introducing—or reintroducing—them. Even the huge González Byass bodega makes an en rama version of its Tio Pepe, the world’s best-selling sherry and a symbol of the highly filtered style of fino that reigned for the last 30 years. While this year’s version of Tio Pepe en rama may not be its best, it shows multiple layers of depth—a pleasant bitterness and clover-like herbaceous touch—that’s not present in its filtered brother. More importantly, it’s a huge statement by a big company.
Just four years ago, we couldn’t have pulled off a tasting of these sherries—or rather, it would have been a very quick tasting. But at least a dozen en rama sherries now be found. In addition, a small handful of special fino and manzanilla bottlings highlight other attributes—a single vineyard, in the case of Hidalgo’s Pastrana, or extra aging, as with Emilio Hidalgo’s La Panesa, which is a fino averaging 15 years of age. These tend to be lightly filtered not as a selling point but as a way to show off their distinctive character.
Beyond that, a few sherry houses, including La Guita, have decided to dial back their filtration and let more sherry character come through even in their regular wines. Others, like El Maestro Sierra and César Florido, have always been more lightly filtered, eschewing the use of carbon and cold stabilization. That has made them generally better—in fact, we enjoyed La Guita’s regular bottling, a household favorite among several of the PUNCH crew, even more than its special en rama bottling. And so we decided to include a handful of finos that were basically en rama in spirit, if not in name, and to taste some en rama sherries next to their more standard, filtered siblings.
The current fetish for en rama has paid off, in that the quality of all the wines was high, and even basic sherries are now often come with bottling dates (the equivalent of the disgorgement date on a Champagne) on the labels. But you don’t necessarily have to drink the freshest bottle of fino; some, like the Valdespino en rama Deliciosa (or its fino cousin, Inocente) taste better with an additional six months or more in bottle. Now it’s possible to see the distinctive differences in sherry with a much clearer and precise lens than in the past. For a wine that has struggled to make its case in a modern, impatient era, that return to older ways has offered an enormous step forward.
Valdespino Deliciosa en Rama Manzanilla | $15 (375mL)
Valdespino, now part of Grupo Estévez, has stepped in to make itself the standard bearer for quality in Jerez. Their Inocente is probably the best large-production fino on the market, but they also make a fair amount of manzanilla from their bodegas in Sanlúcar, in this case from Misericordia, a former hospital built in 1526 that now houses some of the most exceptional examples of manzanilla. (La Guita also uses a lot of wine from Misericordia, which helps to explain its quality.) The Deliciosa—we tasted a spring 2016 bottling—shows how manzanilla can offer both its classic aspects of pure salt and freshness, but also a fullness of fruit, like ripe pear flesh. There’s both umami and intensity, and yet it’s still precise and marine in the way Sanlúcar wines are. Importer/Distributor: Polaner Selections [Buy]
See also: La Guita Manzanilla, Lustau 3 En Rama El Puerto de Santa Maria, Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe En Rama, Barbadillo Solear Manzanilla En Rama
Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada | $27
Hidalgo-La Gitana makes one of the best-known manzanillas, La Gitana, but also this single-vineyard manzanilla that is one of the region’s greatest wines, and one that tends to be perennially overlooked. Pastrana is a single vineyard located in Miraflores, and, since 1997, the house has bottled it on its own. Manzanilla pasada—essentially, aged manzanilla—is its own style of sherry, displaying both the freshness of manzanilla and a bit of richer, bass-tone notes of amontillado. Thus, you can smell hazelnuts and sea spray (this from the 2016 bottling), dried citrus and lemon-thyme and a fine-boned, flinty mineral side. It’s all fresh flavors, but with a hint of age to them. Importer/Distributor: Classical Wines [Buy]
See also: Emilio Hidalgo Fino La Panesa, Fernando de Castilla Antique Fino
THE STAR | Tie
Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla No. 55 | $49
Equipo Navazos has done more than nearly any other firm in reviving sherry’s more serious side. A project directed by Jesús Barquín, a criminologist at the University of Granada and Eduardo Ojeda, the technical director for Grupo Estévez (which owns Valdespino and La Guita), it specializes in one-off bottlings: single withdrawals (sacas) of a certain wine from a single solera, often from mostly ignored bodegas. Each wine is sequentially numbered, and No. 55 is a manzanilla withdrawn from the casks of Miguel Sanchez Ayala in Sanlúcar in November 2014. As is the case with Navazos bottlings, this doesn’t really fit the typical form, and that’s precisely the point. In the No. 55, that slightly evolved, cognac-like aspect known as rancio is faintly recognizable, along with scents of chamomile and a mineral aspect somewhere between gunflint and iodine. It’s fleshy and full, with far more texture than is typical of manzanilla—a sign that filtering (or the lack thereof) makes a big difference. Importer/Distributor: European Cellars [Buy]
Bodegas Tradición Fino | $42
We tangled ourselves in the exotic car analogies between these two. Was Navazos the McLaren, and Tradición the vintage Rolls? Anyhoo … these both exist in rare air. In 1991, Joaquín Rivero Valcarce began a project to revive his family’s old wine history in Jerez, dating to 1650. The idea was to focus solely on old wine stocks, often 30 years old or more. Only more recently did Tradición add a fino, but not quite a normal fino: with an average age of about 12 years, it’s bottled en rama and by individual saca, usually around 3,000 bottles. The May 2016 bottling still needs some time in bottle (so, no rush to open it), but it’s a perfect compilation of fino, amplified: intensely concentrated, and fruity in its way, evoking cherries and membrillo, with a richness matched by delicate salinity. Importer: Skurnik Wines [Buy]
César Florido Fino | $13 (375mL)
A case of a regular bottling with extra verve. But “regular” isn’t quite right; Florido is one of the last remaining independent bodegas in the tiny town of Chipiona, west of Jerez de la Frontera, right on the ocean. Chipiona is mostly forgotten, save for its distinctive sweet wines made from Moscatel. But its finos, when you find them, have that seaside mineral note also found in Sanlúcar, plus a distinctly lemony flavor—and in the case of the Florido, a more robust, rich countenance, the latter the result of a year spent in bottle. So there’s the classic saline side, but also toasted walnuts and almost caramel-like low tones, flavors not unlike those found in the Pastrana—except this is just the house’s entry-level fino. Bottled October 2015. Importer/Distributor: De Maison Selections [Buy]
See also: Gutierrez Colosia Fino En Rama El Puerto de Santa María