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Wine

Sherry’s Indie Moment

January 26, 2022

Story: Zachary Sussman

photo: Lizzie Munro

Wine

Sherry’s Indie Moment

January 26, 2022

Story: Zachary Sussman

photo: Lizzie Munro

A growing number of independent bottlers is aiming to showcase a more nuanced, variable side to fino, manzanilla and more.

There’s no single origin point for the modern sherry renaissance, but the aged cask of amontillado that Eduardo Ojeda and Jesús Barquín of Equipo Navazos bottled in December 2005 would be a solid place to start.

Like so many examples of its kind, the wine had been forgotten for decades in a dusty bodega, where it would have continued to slumber if not for the private club of investors, organized by Ojeda and Barquín, who pooled together the funds to rescue it from oblivion. Titled “La Bota de Amontillado” (after the Edgar Allen Poe story) and shared exclusively among club members, that initial release gave birth to a series of chronologically numbered editions. Hype quickly followed, and in April 2007 the project released its first commercial effort: La Bota de Palo Cortado No. 6.

It may come as a surprise that one of the driving forces behind the current sherry revival basically started off as a Kickstarter campaign. But according to Peter Liem, sherry expert and co-author (along with Barquín) of Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla: A Guide to the Traditional Wines of Andalucía, few were interested in purchasing, let alone marketing, these wines. “The only reason that all these old wines still existed is that nobody wanted them,” he explains, citing the economic collapse and fall from relevance that decimated the sherry industry toward the end of the 20th century.

More than 100 “Botas” later (as of 2022, the library consists of 107), the project has redefined sherry for many U.S. drinkers. As Liem puts it, “They opened our eyes to the fact that something completely different existed in this region, which nobody was talking about.” That alone would have been enough to secure Equipo Navazos’ lasting place in the zeitgeist. But in recent years, their success has paved the way for a new set of independent bottlers who are following a similar playbook, sourcing minuscule quantities of wine from bodegas across the Sherry Triangle.

Some are Jerez natives, such as Antonio Barbadillo Mateos of the Sacristía AB project, and Ramiro Ibáñez and Willy Pérez, the duo behind the resurrected M. Antonio de la Riva label. Others, including Nicolas Palazzi of PM Spirits and Buelan Compañía de Sacas’ Nick Africano, operate out of the United States. They are united not only in their rejection of sherry as a standardized, industrial wine, but also in their desire to carve out a more intimate model for the region.

To put this revolution into perspective, it helps to understand what takes place within the solera, sherry’s traditional system of fractional blending. Before it’s ready to be bottled, virtually all sherry undergoes several years of aging in a complex succession of casks, or criaderas, each containing wines at increasingly advanced stages of development. With each saca, or extraction, an equal volume of young wine enters the system; a portion of the youngest criadera is then transferred to the next—and so on—resulting in a multivintage blend that bears the signature of that yearslong journey.

They are united not only in their rejection of sherry as a standardized, industrial wine, but also in their desire to carve out a more intimate model for the region.

Like the art of blending nonvintage Champagne, this process guarantees a consistent product from year to year. It also accounts for sherry’s potentially infinite range of styles, from “biologically aged” fino and manzanilla (shielded from oxygen under a layer of yeast known as flor), to “oxidatively aged” oloroso (which travels through the solera fully exposed to air) and amontillado and palo cortado (a synthesis of both techniques). The shift to large-scale production during the 1970s reduced this spectrum to an edited set of commercially marketable styles, but Jerez’s indie movement is defined by a willingness to expand it, including embracing the myriad expressions that fall in between each modern style.

This desire for a more expansive definition of sherry inspired Antonio Barbadillo Mateos to abandon his role at Bodegas Barbadillo, his family’s prestigious brand. In 2010, he launched his Sacristía AB label, paying homage to the beauty of aged, unfiltered (or en rama) manzanilla, the signature wine of his hometown of Sanlucar de Barrameda. More specifically, Barbadillo Mateos bottles a manzanilla pasada, a historic style that, like its twin, fino amontillado, undergoes a longer period of biological aging.

“I saw a gap in the market for serious wines from this region, since everyone thought of manzanilla as something cheap, relatively young and accessible,” he says. “Many of the wineries had these marvelous older wines, but they weren’t bottling them, since they didn’t know how to communicate their value or tell their story.”

Alternative bottlers like Barbadillo Mateos aren’t the only ones tapping into this impulse. The wave of acclaim he and those like him have received coincided with the rise of several boutique bodegas specializing in rare and older styles, including Fernando de Castilla, acquired in 1999 by the Norwegian-born Jan Pettersen, Alberto Orte’s Bodegas Poniente (one of Jerez’s few grower-producers) and Bodegas Tradición, the celebrated firm established in 1998 by construction tycoon Joaquín Rivero Valcarce.

Several large sherry houses have also embraced a more progressive agenda. Just consider initiatives like Bodegas Lustau’s Almacenista range, launched in 1981, highlighting the small, often family-run cellars that traditionally supplied the region’s big players, or the Las Palmas collection introduced by Gonzalez Byass in 2011, illustrating four stages in a wine’s progression from a fresh, young fino to a richer, nuttier amontillado.

For Nicolas Palazzi, owner of rare spirits distributor PM Spirits, the collection of sherries he released late last year signaled a case study in sherry’s diversity. Since 2012, Palazzi has partnered with Equipo Navazos to bottle a series of highly-coveted single-cask Spanish brandy, whisky and rum under their Navazos Palazzi label. Even as someone who makes his living importing small-batch spirits, Palazzi was struck by the enormous variation between barrels in a single sherry solera system. “When you’re sampling different casks of spirits, a lot of the time you will find some small differences, but if it’s the same run, put in the same type of cask and aged in the same place for the same amount of time, the stuff you get is going to be pretty similar,” he explains. “But with sherry, it’s mind-bending. You can taste four different casks of the same exact wine and they’re all vastly different.”

I saw a gap in the market for serious wines from this region, since everyone thought of manzanilla as something cheap, relatively young and accessible.

In a typical bottling process, the solera would absorb and assimilate the individual profiles of these casks, rounding out their wayward edges into a smooth and seamless whole. At the scale that Palazzi describes, however, the goal is to capture the unique personality of a single barrel, or the distinctions that exist from one barrel to the next. “It sounds like a cliché, but these casks are living things,” Palazzi says.

New bottlers like Palazzi have arrived in Jerez at an inflection point. For all the recent talk of a renaissance, sherry remains a niche category. And while the cult model adopted by Equipo Navazos and its descendants has ushered in a new era of critical appreciation for the region’s finest wines, that’s not enough to sustain an entire wine industry. The question on everyone’s minds, then, is: What’s next?

Ramiro Ibáñez and Willy Pérez may have the answer. In addition to producing some of the region’s most progressive wines under their own individual labels (at Cota 45 and Bodega Luis Pérez, respectively), Ibáñez and Perez launched the M. Antonio de la Riva label in 2016. Debunking the modern idea of sherry as a process-driven wine, de la Riva seeks to reclaim the role that the region’s traditional pagos, or vineyard groups, played in the wines of Jerez’s past. In the process, they’re leading the charge to reframe sherry as just one way Jerez can express itself. The other includes the production of unfortified table wines. That involves sourcing and bottling old wines from defunct bodegas in the manner of Equipo Navazos, but also producing a site-specific, flor-influenced table wine (or vino de pasto) from a parcel they purchased in the storied Macharnudo vineyard.

“We don’t care if a wine is fortified or not as long as it shows its terroir,” Pérez says. “Sometimes you can preserve that identity better through fortification, sometimes you can express the personality of the vineyard more clearly without it.”

More recently, they assumed control of a small solera of manzanilla in the family-run Bodegas del Río, which they replenish with base wine sourced almost entirely from a single vineyard in Miraflores Baja. A single barrel in this solera became the initial source for Nick Africano’s Buelan Compañía de Sacas project. Slightly younger than de la Riva’s version, but skewing a touch broader and more savory, his Las Canciones No. 1 Mirador Manzanilla first appeared in early 2021. The most recent saca—a 1,500-bottle release blended from three different barrels in the same solera—landed this past June. Unlike many of the rarer, older, private bottlings in the market, it’s fresh, approachable and affordably priced—the perfect sherry to convert drinkers to the wider continuum of wines emerging from Jerez.

Over time, that spectrum continues to deepen. In 2021, the Consejo Regulador of D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry passed an amendment to allow for the production of unfortified fino and manzanilla, further bridging the divide between categories and allowing producers greater freedom to tell the area’s story. It’s all part of the modern rebirth of one of the world’s singular wine regions. As Africano puts it, “I think the real renaissance is just getting started.”

Five Indie Sherries to Try

Sacristía AB Manzanilla Saca

This powerful wine from Antonio Barbadillo Mateos should be approached as graduate-level sherry study. As lean and bracing as the spectrum gets, it’s blended from 20 casks within two soleras in the cellars of Bodega Los Infantes Orleans Borbón (a top producer in its own right). Boasting an average age of 10 years, as opposed to the typical three to five, it’s a tour de force of all things savory (pine resin, almond skin, sea salt) with an incisive mineral edge.

  • Price: $50
  • Vintage: 2018

M. Antonio de la Riva Manzanilla Fina Miraflores Baja

Having rented out a small solera in Bodegas del Río—a small, family-run almacenista, or broker, that supplies wine to other producers—Ramiro Ibáñez and Willy Pérez now oversee all aspects of production for this vibrant three-year-old manzanilla. It’s primarily sourced from a single parcel in Miraflores Baja, located fewer than five miles from the Atlantic coast. Bright, citrusy and remarkably vinous (you hardly notice the fortification), it tastes like manzanilla straight from the barrel, with all of its yeasty, salty pungency intact.

  • Price: $30

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada No. 90 Capataz Cabo

What makes in-between styles like manzanilla pasada or fino amontillado so intriguing is their lack of a clear definition; the idea is to capture that transitional moment in the life of a fino or manzanilla right before the flor dies off and it starts turning into an amontillado. Averaging 14 years of age and selected from a solera of 15 casks in the cellars of Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín (also the source of Manzanilla La Guita), Equipo Navazos’ manzanilla pasada illustrates the dynamic interplay of freshness and the softer, umami-like tones of oxidation.

  • Price: $59

Buelan Compañía de Sacas Las Canciones No. 1 Mirador Manzanilla

Though it bears a family resemblance to M. Antonio de la Riva’s expression from the same solera, Nick Africano explains that his Las Canciones manzanilla comes from three barrels in a single row situated along a warmer wall of the bodega. This might explain the wine’s fleshier, easier-drinking fruit flavors. Still, this is textbook manzanilla, with crisp acidity, marine intensity and a floral chamomile aspect that dissolves into ripe pear on the finish.

  • Price: $20

PM Spirits Amontillado

“Selected with the expert help of Eduardo Ojeda,” as its label proudly declares, the PM Spirits amontillado drinks noticeably brighter and fresher than many examples of the genre, happily embracing its inner fino with a pronounced flor character. Although the packaging doesn’t mention where it was sourced, Palazzi notes that the wine came from several casks belonging to a prominent bodega with roots in the late 19th century. Light amber in the glass, it’s energetic and lively, especially for the style—as close to easy-drinking as amontillado gets.

  • Price: $80

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