Building a traditional manzanilla (Part two)

Read the first part of this article for context

Entering Bodega Juan Piñero

The strong Andalusian sun is reflecting its rays on the white walls of the 200 years old bodega, or wine storage facility. Built exactly 33 meters wide to honour the age in which Christ was crucified for the sins of man. The bodega is located on the street Calle Trasbolsa, in the area of Sanlúcar de Barrameda called the barrio bajo. A location with a constant cool salty breeze from the Atlantic,  just minutes by foot from the mouth of the dominant Guadalquivir river.

Stepping inside the old building, the temperature drops due to the thick walls of stone. Only patches of light from small square windows illuminating sets of barrels here and there. It smells of wet albero, the yellow dusty soil of the same kind that is used in bullfighting arenas. It´s used for its water absorbing qualities, increasing the humidity so important for the growth of flor, the veil of yeast feeding from the wine in the barrels. And at the same time protecting it from oxidation. Decades of spilled out wines on the floor build on the aroma. Citrus, butter, yeast. Lots of yeast. The small bodega being filled with 3500 barrels with wine awaiting maturity, many under flor.

The personality of Maruja 

”Here she is, the ten classes of Maruja, our main brand of manzanilla,” wine maker Ramiro Ibáñez said overlooking several piernas, or vertical rows of barrels. ”Classes” is the traditional word for what is called criaderas in Jerez, the barrels with younger wine leading up the the final solera barrels, from where the finished wine is drawn. 

Ramiro fills my glass with a liquid that smells of fresh fruit and yeast, resembling a champagne, except with no fizz. ”This is seven months old, the youngest barrel in the line of Maruja,” Ramiro said. It sure dosen’t taste anything like manzanilla yet, but Ramiro explained that despite what some will try to have us believe, sherry is no different than other wines.

Feed the solera system with correct neutral base wine, and you might get a fine sherry in the end. Feed the system with base wines of a particulary high qualitative personality, then you are on your way to produce some exceptional, distinctive sherrys. Simple, and no different that other wines. The solera system is not turning trash to gold, just as little as the finest new oak barrel will turn a Vino de la Tierra into Pingus, one of the most admired wines in Spain.   

Ramiro takes a deep sniff in the glass more as looking for faults than pleasure. The solera system is fed with base wines of the grape clone Palomino Fino, grown on the relatively warm meso-climate of Pago el Hornillo, a vineyard close to Sanlúcar itself. It's a rather hot spot because of its marginal influence by the Atlantic and proximity of the Guadalquivir river, resulting in smaller grapes with higher sugar content. Exiting to say the least, single vineyard manzanillas are very rare on the market, lets hope for more.

The young wine is fortified to around 15 percent alcohol and then fed into the last of the ten classes of the solera system, where a fraction of the wine travels one step closer to the solera a year. Ramiro tells that the finished wine is drown from the eight classe, thus giving manzanilla Maruja an average age of eight years, a sweet spot where the aromas of flor is starting to fade away and display the minerality behind. 

In the following two classes the wine is so poor of nutrients that the flor has practically died, the wine in these barrels are therefore a manzanilla pasada, or in other words a manzanilla on its was to becoming an amontillado, a much richer, darker and fuller type of sherry. Nowadays few bodegas in Sanlúcar have ten barrels leading up to the solera, despite the traditional way is to have as many as twelve, but most bodegas settle at a much more easy handling of five classes.

Ramiro makes eight to ten sacas, extractions from the solera, a year. Here to, more that the modern day standard. One of the keys to the personality of Maruja is this practice of many classes and small frequent sacas. These are the indeed the classic characteristics that separates the feminine and dynamic style that is manzanilla from their eastern, traditionally somewhat brute, brother. The fino. 

Clarity at last 

Walking further into the bodega the question about the difference between fino and manzanilla arises. 

”This is a question that, shouldn’t, be a question” Ramiro somewhat cryptically replies. He continues ”finos from Jerez have never tasted as much as manzanillas as they do nowadays.” This is a fact known by few more than the retired folks passing their days following the shade in the parks of Jerez. Many of them will remember that the finos jerezanos 30-40 years ago where more resembling the amontillados of today, than the finos.

My thoughts went back to the old man in the bar I’ve overheard yesterday.  I was just about to ask Ramiro about it when he continued:   

”At the time a fino had only two maybe three months of pure biological ageing a year, the rest of the nine months the wines where basically ageing oxidatively!” Ramiro said, eyeing down on one of the solera barrels, I could feel he was not entirely happy about this fact. Ramiro looked up as he had remembered something. 

 ”You see, they worked the solera in Jerez very differently,” he said. "finos only had one saca a year, manzanillas had up to twelve." Apparently the quantity of times you refresh a solera system during a year affect the level of nutrients in the wines, resulting in different yeast proportions is the barrels ageing in Jerez and in Sanlúcar. And that is another key to why manzanilla traditionally is very different from a fino. The way they used to work traditionally in Sanlúcar gave a dominance of the yeast strain Saccharomyces Beticus, and in Jerez it is mainly Saccharomyces Montuliensis. 

This last sentence made me feel a bit mentally sore by the information overload, and while my fingers where pounding miserly spelled sentences on the sticky surface of my IPad, Ramiro concluded; 

”the implications of this is that brands of manzanilla that stays in the solera for longer, perhaps due to lack of sales, gets such a complex character. Citrus, tobacco and curry of old beticus dominated barrels, together with the buttery acetaldehyde and dried fruit from the montuliensis.”

-Hehe, so the best manzanilla is the one that is not for sale huh, I said, smiling. Ramiro stretched his back and responded with a blink in his eye, "Now it is."