Building a traditional manzanilla (Part one)

I’m taking a seat in a lively Tabanco, a sort of traditional bar in Jerez de la Frontera. Skin sticky, throat dry. Just arrived to town. Had a few glasses of fino from a barrel behind the counter before I decided to go to back to my hotel. A long day of winery visits coming up. Lying in my bed, I remembered something I overheard at the bar. This conversation, or rather this sentence, an older man declared to someone much younger, presumably his son. ”Hijo, la mejor manzanilla es la que no se vende,” the old man said, wagging his head towards his glass of light straw coloured wine, clearly unsatisfied with the transparent liquid in his glass. 

I faded away into sleep thinking about this sentence. ”Son, the best manzanilla is the one that.. is not for sale.” Not, for sale?  

First visit to bodega Juan Piñero

Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the sixth of August 2014. I’m about to tell you about a new discovery of mine. A manzanilla that goes by the name of Maruja, an old forgotten brand newly commercialised again, with the first wines released in the spring of 2014. 

Unusually for the people working in the very traditional sherry trade, Juan Piñero’s father was not a bodeguero, or bodega man. In fact, Juan is still in the construction business, residing in this small seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where he now also has his bodega.

Pepe, as Juan’s friends call him, had the opportunity to purchase his own bodega back in 1992. At the time the owners sold the facilities, now owned by Piñero, to one of the international beverage giants. Focusing on wines that where easier to sell, the barrels that rested in this particular bodega ran the risk of becoming vinegar. The whole two century old bodega was planned to be levelled with the ground, and become a park to the great joy of small dogs and pigeons.  

Juan Piñero, being in the construction business, was quick to hear the news and took the opportunity to buy the bodega facility and all the barrels inside. Barrels of manzanilla that had rather ironically, slowly turned precious, simultaneously as the owners where taking turns in wanting to get rid of them.

Piñero also bought the rights to the brands, nothing strange, in the sherry industry brands are swapped between companies like playing cards, in fact today few remain in the hands of the original creators. He never used these brands as since the purchase, the sacas, or finished wines have been sold to other bodegas. As an almacenista, or sherry wholesaler, Piñero developed a good reputation getting orders from high-profile bodegas such as Fernando de Castilla, El Maestro Sierra, Tradition and Urium. 

All that is over now, Piñero decided last year that they want the credit for all the hard work they put in and have started reviving the old brands one by one. In charge of the wine making he hired the young forward-thinking enologist, Ramiro Ibáñez. 

Immediately when I meet Ramiro I got the impression that he approaches sherry-making from a different angle, a more intellectual one.

”I don’t agree with the industrial thinking that emerged in the seventies, therefore I’m taking two steps back, to the now almost forgotten roots of manzanilla,” Ramiro said when I asked him if he could define what he does as clear as possible. 

”From 2014 its all bottled and sold by us”, Ramiro said, clearly proud. In fact, with an almost naive, albeit charming, confidence in that the market will recognise the quality of his wines. This was clearly not the time to discuss the fact that sales of sherry has declined globally since the late seventies. But things have changed, some see a light in the end of the tunnel where almacenistas will play a different role.  

Almacenista... revolution?

The reason why the wine maker Ramiro, was almost ecstatic by the fact that they now bottle and sell their own wines is because this is an entirely new thing for almacenistas to do. Just last year is was illegal to do so, perhaps the implications of this change of legislation has been debated much less than its potential effect on the sherry business would suggest.

Few people know about the vivid debates that just unfolded between the power-families and control organ of the sherry region. Lobbied by the large bodegas there was a law in place stating that a bodega must own 500 barrels in stock to be allowed to bottle their own wine, in this way securing their supply of cheep aged wine from the almacenistas.

In the sherry region the botas, or barrels are filled with roughly 415 litres of wine, so 500 barrels equals a quantity of 207.500 litres! Of course, only the ”nobility” could afford this, and indeed that was the- entire point. 

As a blitz from the sky the quantity of barrels was changed in 2013 to only 50 barrels, opening up the competition for all the tiny almacenistas. The future will tell if this is just as game-changing as the first wave of Burgundian domaine-bottled wines of Ponsot and Rousseau in the 1930s. May I point out that some of us, do believes so. 

Click for the second part of the article, Ramiro will unfold the reason why the best manzanilla is the one that is not for sale..