Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sherry comes from grapes

Forgive me for stating the obvious, here but the wines of Jerez, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Chipiona, Sanlucar de Barrameda - they all come from grapes. Of course, we all know this; sherry comes from grapes. Given the elaborate production process, though, one tends to forget that sherry is in deed a wine made from grapes, grown in a specific type of soil (ideally consisting of 60% chalk) in a fairly strictly defined zone of Andalucia, Spain. From the initial fortification of a young sobretabla, to the biological ageing underneath a layer of flor, to an extended oxidative ageing in barrels or perhaps a combination of the two, there is much to learn about the production of sherry. Along the way, it is easy to forget that vineyards were farmed, palomino (or pedro ximenez or moscatel) grapes were harvested, fermented into wine, fortified, and sold to almacenistas and shippers. Vineyards matter.

Vineyards matter, and yet, barring a few exceptions, most bodegas do not own any vineyards. This brings to mind a simple question: how much better could sherries be if more bodegas owned (and carefully farmed) their own vineyards?

That having been said, I was able to check out a vineyard owned by Curo Balbas. Curo sells fruit to Bodegas Grant, as well as some other folks as he has 50 hectares of palomino vines in some prime real estate: the pagas bibainas sub-zone of Jerez. While I do not remember exact yields, I do remember that they seemed on the high side (even for the higher production numbers I expected in this region). Vines here vary in age from 15-25 years. As it had rained recently, a walk in the vineyards was amply rewarded with a full clay cover on the sole of my shoes; imagine the top of a large muffin draping over the waxed paper liner underneath. At the winery was a simple set up for fermenting grapes. There were also some policia nacional hanging out, playing cards maybe, enjoying what was surely an out of the ordinary event here, a visit from a group of wine professionals.

A few other non-vineyard related anecdotes are worth mentioning. Curo Balbas' hands and fingers are some of the most serious vineyard worker mitts I have yet to see. This guy has done some serious pruning in his life. Also, Curo does a wonderful "curo" (sorry I couldn't resist) of olives. A terrific blend of tiny, firm olives and larger, softer ones, full of garlic and bay leaf driven flavors, were by far the best I ate all trip. Spanish gourmands agree that iberico ham is best enjoyed in Andalucia, though if you do not eat ham you can at least take comfort in the fact that other Andalucian specialties are also first rate. One of these is the olives, which in neighborhood bars are almost always free.

One more reportaje in this sherry focused run, and then we'll move on. For now, a pictorial re-cap of the visit to Curo's vines.