I’ve been to Jerez de la Frontera numerous times, mostly to visit the cavernous cellars filled floor-to-ceiling with casks of Sherry. Those visits to the famed Sherry houses have always been about the barrel. On every tour, there’s always a cutaway view of a barrel, demonstrating the fortified fino or manzanilla Sherry resting quietly under a blanket of flor. Tastings are always from the barrel, conducted by someone wielding a whip-like venencia with a flourish. Talk is dominated by discussions of the traditional solera system, how many years the Sherry stays in the barrel, how the wine is fortified or the differences of biological versus oxidative aging. Here’s what’s rarely discussed: grapes, vines, agriculture. In all my years of visiting Jerez, I’d never once been invited into a vineyard.
That changed this past spring, when I found myself walking through several top pagos (as vineyards are called in Jerez) with a new wave of Sherry producers in Jerez— some of whom have formed a group called Territorio Albariza. This new generation sets itself in opposition to what they call “the blending culture” of the big Sherry houses, which they insist too often relies on cheap “neutral” wines, then fortification and wood to give these wines character.
“People think that’s the original way of Sherry, but it’s not true,” said Willy Pérez, of Bodegas Luis Pérez, as we walked through the famed Macharnudo vineyard, about 20 kilometers from the Atlantic near the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Wine has been grown in Macharnudo for centuries, and in the 19th century, it was among the most expensive land in Europe. But you almost never hear about vineyards like this in modern Sherry communications. “Everything changed over the last 50 years,” Pérez told me. “The message moved from the vineyards to the wineries, and the taste of the Sherry changed.”
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Who Says Jerez Has No Terroir?
In Jerez, terroir is a topic that’s not much discussed. “The idea that ‘Jerez had no terroir’ benefitted the big houses,” says Alejandro Muchada, of Muchada-Léclapart winery, a partnership with David Léclapart, the famed Champagne producer. This terroir denial, Muchada says, “gave the big houses power over the small growers and they could say, ‘Your grapes aren’t worth much.’”
The new wave can’t come fast enough for Sherry, the market for which has been declining since the 1980s. By some accounts, vineyard land in Sherry country has cratered from about 70,000 acres to just 15,000. “People talk about a crisis in Jerez,” says Muchada. “A lot of the bodegas sold their vineyards, and we lost the connection to the vineyards.”
There are certainly quality traditional producers in Jerez. Big houses like Valdespino and Lustau make excellent Sherries. In 2005, Eduardo Ojeda and a partner launched Equipo Navazos, a négociant that sources and releases special barrels of rare, coveted Sherry from small bodegas around the region.
However, to change the fortunes of Jerez, more radical change is necessary.
In the U.S., for more than a decade, people in the wine and spirits bubble have tried to make a Sherry revival happen, with little to show for it. Don’t believe me? How many normal everyday drinkers do you know who regularly enjoy, say, a fino or manzanilla or amontillado? In reality, the opposite of a revival has happened. In a 2019 Wine-Searcher article titled “Sherry is Dying, Pass the Port,” writer Don Kavanagh summed up the situation in dire terms. “Extinction is such a final word that it seems strange to use in terms of an entire category of wine, but along with gorillas, the Sumatran elephant and the white rhino we may soon have to add the name Sherry,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The real interest in the wines might well be limited to whisk(e)y distillers who need the barrels to age their own product, but the general public’s interest will gradually shrink.” Ouch.
Some of the original Sherry revivalists have grown cynical. “This is something that people in the industry don’t want to hear, especially those advocating for Sherry, but it’s never going to happen, man,” author and mixologist Derek Brown told me. Brown ran a high-profile Sherry bar called Mockingbird Hill, in Washington, D.C., during the so-called “Sherry renaissance” of the 2010s. Unlike Brown’s other popular bars, the Sherry bar didn’t last long.
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Even in Spain, Sherry consumption is declining, especially as an everyday drink. Sherry’s Consejo Regulador found that more than 40 percent of the fino Sherry in Spain is consumed solely during various ferias (or festivals) throughout the country, mostly in rebujitos, a drink made with a mix of fino Sherry and 7UP.
Back in Jerez de la Frontera, the Consejo Regulador finally took action to reverse these negative trends. Last year, a slew of new regulations went into effect for the Jerez D.O. that producers hope will chart a new course for Sherry. The most important change is no more mandatory fortification. Non-fortified wines can now be bottled as D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry. “It was 10 years of fighting but now we can have a fino without fortification,” Pérez told me.
Six local grape varieties will also now be newly permitted: Perruno, Beba, Cañocazo, Vigiriega, Mantúo Castellano and Mantúo de Pilas.
In Jerez, before phylloxera, there were 45 white varieties and 33 red varieties, according to Ramiro Ibáñez of Bodega Cota 45. “With the culture of the last 50 years, we’ve lost this tradition,” Ibáñez says. “We are now taking pieces and tools from history.”
This is not to say that the traditional Palomino grape will become less important. In fact, many believe that Palomino, grown the right way, can show as much terroir as other world-class grapes. “You read a book and it says ‘Palomino is a neutral grape’ but that’s not true. It depends on how you farm,” says Muchada, who makes exquisite, non-fortified, terroir-driven wines from Palomino. Depending on where it grows, the grape can be zippy and citrusy, mineral and saline, full of ripe orchard fruit, or all of the above. “People say Palomino is a grape for the future,” he says. “She’s low-alcohol, and she’s going to show you everything.”
‘Dirty Dogs’ and the Post-Natty Path
Finally, another major change will be that pagos can now be stated on the label, signaling that terroir will become a more important facet of Jerez wines moving forward. Look for place names such as Macharnudo, Miraflores and Carrascal as emerging “grand cru” designations.
Jerez will likely promote its coastal locale at a time when “Atlantic wines” has become a popular term in the Iberian Peninsula. “For us, the most important element is the Atlantic,” Ibáñez told me. “Now, in Spain, they want to say that there is Atlantic climate all over. But the Atlantic is here.”
Perhaps the most interesting winemaker I met in Jerez was Raúl Moreno, an experimentalist whose wines are coveted in Spain’s big-city wine bars. I went with Moreno out to his vines in Pago Miraflores, which he called “the coolest vineyard in Jerez.” The soil is pure chalk, and he farms his plots biodynamically, with a mule. “This is precision viticulture, and it takes a lot of work,” says Moreno. “This region has amazing potential if people would do good agricultural practices. But they’re lazy.” For instance, Moreno started picking last year on July 17th. “I am always the first to pick in Jerez. I’m also always the last one picking.”
One reason for that is Moreno grows a crazy number of different grapes: Pedro Ximénez, Tintilla, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Muscat, and, of course, Palomino. He makes a red with 100% Perruno (which means “dirty dog”)—one of the newly allowed grapes—that is 100% whole-cluster fermented, spends 10 months under flor and is aged in a chestnut cask. It was bright, fresh, mineral, floral, and I could not believe it was a Jerez wine. It blew me away.
“The future of Jerez is non-fortified wines. But alternative varieties and field blends are also the future,” Moreno says.
Moreno previously worked for large, industrial wineries, living half his adult life in Australia, only returning to Spain in 2020. He’s seen everything and knows all the tricks, but he’s extremely low intervention. Moreno is what we might call “post-natty”—using natural wine techniques like skin contact, carbonic maceration and aging in clay tinaja, but also employing the traditional Jerez aging under flor.
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Currently Moreno is experimenting with Portuguese varieties, such as Arinto, Encruzado and Baga. “Arinto is the best grape variety for climate change on the Iberian Peninsula,” he says. His Destellos 2022 is a blend of Palomino with 15% Arinto, fermented in chestnut amontillado or manzanilla barrels.
Moreno and I visited a new vineyard near El Puerto de Santa María, on an estate with a house that dates to the 12th century. We met his partner in the new project, Thomas de Wangen, who owns the property and produces the Diatomist label. After a tour, we all sat under the shade to drink some wine and eat jamón and cheese. Moreno opened his La Esencia 2022, a claireté made with an unheard-of blend of Tintilla, Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, Perruno, Arinto and Baga—aged three months in clay pots. Again, it was like no wine I’d ever tasted from Jerez. “What I do is different than everyone else,” Moreno told me. “The beauty of this region is there is so much potential. You can make so many things.”
“There’s no reason Jerez can’t be as prestigious as Ribera del Duero,” de Wangen chimed in. “Well, Ribera del Duero, but, you know, cool.”
You can follow Jason Wilson on Wine Enthusiast and click here to subscribe to his Everyday Drinking newsletter, where you’ll receive regular dispatches on food, travel and culture through the lens of wine and spirits.
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Published: December 4, 2023