Our focus here will be two fino sherries from Equipo Navazos, but before describing the wines we will look into the general process for Sherry making.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes grown near the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain. The word Sherry is an English corruption of Jerez (Xérès being the French term). Sherry was originally known as sack, derived from the Spanish saca, meaning extraction from the solera.
The Sherry triangle (Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria) is an area of rolling hills and gentle slopes that gets around 300 days of sun and 70 days of rain each year. The rain comes as brisk tropical style showers that usually only occur during the winter, and the summers are extremely hot and sunny, with temperatures often reaching 40°C. Each area has its own microclimate that gives distinguishing characteristics to the sherry produced and stored there.
No additional irrigation is allowed within D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry appellation, so the unique soils perform a key role in allowing grapes to survive. The area was once mostly covered by sea and the soils consist of marine sediments (fossils and skeletons of plankton, transformed into chalk) mixed with limestone and clay.
Albariza is the lightest coloured of the soils (alba means white) and is made up of between 30 and 80% chalk mixed with limestone, clay and sand. It is very good at retaining water from rainfall, which allow the vines to survive over the dry summer months. The upper layers of soil bake hard during the hot summer, preventing evaporation, and the moist Poniente winds from the ocean form a heavy dew overnight. These factors provide the vines with moisture and allow them to withstand the extreme heat. Additionally, the soil’s white colour reflects sunlight onto the vine helping with photosynthesis, and the loose texture of the soils allows a widely distributed root system. Albariza soil is perfect for Palomino grapes, but can also be used for growing Pedro Ximénez, however these are mostly imported from neighbouring D.O. Montilla – Moriles.
Barros soils are rich and dark brown, made up of 10% chalk with higher clay content and organic matter than Albariza, occurring predominantly on lower ground, and more difficult to work. They are more fertile and give higher but lower quality yields than Albariza, producing a coarser wine not suitable for fino sherries.
Arenas soils have a slightly yellowish/reddish colour and consist of only 10% chalk, but with a high proportion of sand and some limestone. They aren’t very good at retaining water, making them unsuitable for Palomino grapes, instead they are mostly planted with Moscatel grapes. They occur mostly in the coastal areas, especially around Chipiona, Rota and El Puerto.
The main (white) grape variety used in sherry production is Palomino, which has low sugar and acidity, and neutral flavour, desirable as flavours and aromas will come from the flor yeast and solera system. Palomino has a tendency for oxidisation, so is vinified almost immediately after picking. The finest finos are made from older vines grown on the best albariza soils, while vines grown on clay soils go into making olorosos. Two other grape varieties Pedro Ximénez (PX) and Moscatel are mostly used for sweet sherries and for sweetening sherry blends, and often undergo asoleo (drying out in the sun) to concentrate their flavours and sweetness. Pedro Ximénez is high yielding but disease prone, with high sugar content. Moscatel grows best on the lesser clay and sandy sandy soils, mostly around coastal Chipiona.
The grapes are destemmed and carefully pressed without crushing the stems and pips, as these contain phenolic compounds that would give the wine a harsh character. The first juice extracted from the lightest pressings (free-run juice “primera yema”) is lowest in phenolics, so most likely to develop plenty of flor and produces the finest fino sherries. Wine destined to become fino tends to be fermented at lower temperatures, and not barrel fermented this produces wine too coarse and tannic. Juice from heavier pressings (press run juice “segunda yema”) is more phenolic and best suited for oxidatively aged sherries where the tannins will be tamed by oxidation.
The grape must (pressed juice, seeds, skins and stems) is allowed to settle overnight or for several days so that the solids sink to the bottom, and the clear juice can be be racked off (transferred) into another vat. Tartaric acid may be added if the naturally low acidity of the Palomino grape means the overall acidity is too low. A small amount of already fermenting must is added to begin the fermentation, usually in large stainless steel vats rather than the traditional oak butts, to avoid barrel fermented characteristics. Fermentation happens at relatively high temperature for white wine, between 20 and 25 C, in order to produce a neutral wine. The yeast converts most of the grape sugars to alcohol within a week while it is very active, but continues to ferment slowly for up to twelve weeks, giving a very dry neutral wine between 11 and 12%.
After fermentation the wine is allowed to settle then racked off its lees (dead yeast cells), and a film of yeast called flor begins to form on the surface. At this point all wines are initially classified depending upon their style. Wines that are light and delicate, and have a well enough developed layer of flor to be aged biologically, are initially classified a finos, or those which will age oxidatively (in contact with air) as olorosos.
Fortification and Flor
The wine is then fortified with grape spirit (typically Brandy mixed with aged Sherry in a 50:50 ratio). Sherries to be aged under biologically are fortified to no more than 15 to 15.5%, so that the flor continues to protect the wine from oxidisation, as its growth is inhibited at 16% or above. Oxidatively aged sherries are fortified to 17% or more, causing the flor to die off. Normally oxidisation is considered a wine fault, however when allowed to mature for years the wine becomes rich in flavour and well balanced.
Flor is the veil or film containing several strains of indigenous yeast that forms on the surface of the wine, making up an ivory coloured, wrinkled and waxy foam up to around two centimetres thick. Under aerobic conditions, once no sugar is left for alcoholic fermentation, it starts feeding off alcohol in the wine and oxygen in the air (technically it is oxidising ethanol) to produce acetaldehyde (ethanal) along with other by products. Acetaldehyde gives certain sherries their distinctive characteristics, identified as a but like smell in oxidised wines.
Flor requires precise levels of alcohol, temperature and humidity to thrive, and is sufficiently sensitive that the conditions in an individual Bodega and the sherries’ position within can noticeably influence the final product. Flor favours cool to moderate temperatures and high humidity, so consequently grows more vigorously in spring and autumn, dying back in winter and summer.
Climatic differences over the region influence flor growth, giving subtle stylistic differences between their wines. Within the Jerez region, flor grows more thickly and evenly in the cooler and more humid coastal towns Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa María, than in Jerez de la Frontera. In Montilla there is a hotter continental climate, reducing the flor a scum like film during the hottest months, whereas in cooler Jerez it grows year round.
Left to its natural conclusion, the flor would die, before having a distinct influence upon the wine, once the nutrients in the wine had all been consumed, but is kept alive for years by continually replenishing the butt with younger wine containing fresh nutrients. This method of fractional blending is the basis of the solera system, which as well as maintaining the flor, maintains a consistent style for other sherries.
Barrels are arranged in groups called criaderas (nurseries), with the barrels in each containing slightly older wine. The oldest criadera (itself called the solera) holds wine ready to be bottled. Periodically a fraction of the wine is extracted from the solera (called the saca) and replaced with an equal fraction of wine from the first criadera, which holds the next oldest wine. The first criadera will be replenished with with an equal fraction of wine from the second criadera, and so on. The last criadera holding the youngest wine, is replenished with new wine (called sobretabla). This process of extracting wine and replacing it with wine from the next youngest criadera is called rociar (to wash down). The wine is extracted and replenished using special tools called the canoa (canoe) and rociador (sprinkler) whose purpose is to disturb the delicate layer of flor as little as possible. A saca (extracting a fraction of the oldest wine) and rocío (replenishing the barrels) takes place a number of times each year, typically between two and ten, depending upon factors such as the activity of the flor. By law the a maximum of 35% (roughly 1/3) of the wine may be extracted from each barrel, so as to retain the style of the wine, but typically only between 10 and 15%. It is uncommon for wine to be extracted from all barrels in the solera each time.
A solera system is commonly represented as tiers of barrels stacked on top of each other, with the solera at the bottom (solera is derived from the suelo – floor). In practice barrels are usually stacked in blocks, and this arrangement is only the case in smaller bodegas. Solera systems may contain hundreds of barrels, sometimes a whole room is filled with a single criadera, and the biggest solera systems may be spread over several buildings. Apart from size, for stability to be maintained, barrels can only be stacked three or four tiers high. Fino and Manzanilla barrels are best placed near the floor where it is cooler, and barrels containing oxidatively aged sherries higher up.
The number of tiers in a solera system depends on both the style of wine and preference of the bodega. Fino and manzanilla solera systems usually have more criaderas than those for oxidatively aged sherries such as oloroso, and older wines generally have fewer criaderas. A typical fino solera system has between three and seven criaderas, a manzanilla solera system at least nine and up to twenty.
Wine at the bottom of the stack is drawn off to be bottled, with even wine bottled at a very young average age theoretically containing a small proportion of very old wine. This is a continual process, with many solera systems being centuries old. The goal is to add complexity and migate the risks of bad vintages.
There are two main types of sherry, those aged biologically under flor, and those oxidatively (in contact with air), giving a distinctive difference in character. The former category includes Fino and Manzanilla sherries. Fino sherries are pale with fresh and nutty flavours, with the flor yeast also giving a bitter character. They are usually aged from two to ten years. Manzanilla sherries are basically Fino sherries produced and matured around Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which is closer to the sea than Jerez and has a cooler and more humid climate. This results in thicker flor growth that protects the wine from air still more, producing slightly lighter sherries which are very dry and saline, and fresh, zesty characteristics. In the latter category, Oloroso sherries are dry and spicy, dark in colour, with a rich taste of raisins and walnuts, and are usually aged anywhere from five up to twenty five or more years.
A third type of sherry is initially aged under flor for a period, then aged with air contact. After an initial period of biological aging, the flor may be intentionally be disturbed and removed, or die naturally once its supply of nutrients has been exhausted. Either way the wine will then be refortified up to 16% or more to prevent the flor regrowing, and aged oxidatively to become Amontillado, dry and darker in colour, with a rich, nutty taste. Fino beginning to take on some characteristics of an Amontillado may be bottled as Fino Amontillado, or if from around Sanlúcar de Barrameda as Manzanilla Pasada.
Sometimes the flor dies off unexpectedly, before again being refortified and aged oxidatively, to become Palo Cortado. Traditionally Palo Cortado would originate as a Fino that deviated unintentionally due to unplanned yeast activity, unusual grape juice characteristics, a slightly faulty cask or ambient conditions influencing the flor. Nowadays winemakers will more often take decisions that encourage the conditions necessary for the transition into Palo Cortado to occur, although many would prefer you to believe they still use traditional methods. Palo Cortado should have the aromatic refinement of an Amontillado on the nose with the structure and body of an Oloroso on the palate. Compared with an Amontillado it will have spent less time under flor (one to three years) and the base wine will have been slightly more delicate (having originally been destined to become Fino).
A less traditional way of making a Palo Cortado style sherry is to blend Amontillado and Oloroso, however this will not give the complexity and integration of a true Palo Cortado.
Equipo Navazos is not a Bodega, but a group of sherry lovers led by wine writer Jesús Barquín and technical director of Grupo Estévez, Eduardo Ojeda, who have been producing bottlings of specially selected barrels. It started when in 2005 the group discovered several dozen barrels of an exceptional 20 year old Amontillado at Sanchez Ayala, from which drew a volume equivalent of a butt and produced 600 bottles to be shared privately amongst the group’s 30 or so members. These bottles were produced under the brand name ‘La Bota de Amontillado’, giving a nod to Edgar A. Poe’s popular story ‘The Cask of Amontillado’.
The group realised that there were numerous brilliant sherry butts lying around in the cellars of Jerez, Sanlúcar and El Puerto, and from all around Montilla, with volumes too low to be viable for commercial bottling, but too good be part of but large solera blends. In 2006 the group produced two more bottlings, but not until 2008 did the the Equipo Navazos bottlings start to be released more widely, each numbered chronologically and marked with the date of withdrawal from cask.
Their primary objective has always been passion for the unique wines of the region rather than commercial success. Using their intimate knowledge of the region, the group sources high quality and distinctive barrels from numerous Bodegas, with ongoing relationships with Valdespino and La Guita (owned by Grupo Estévez), and with Rey Fernando de Castilla, Miguel Sánchez Ayala and Pérez Barquero.
All bottlings are unfiltered, or with the lightest filtration possible, to preserve as much body and complexity as possible, in line with the current trend for en rama sherries. A transparency not traditionally associated with Sherry is also provided for the bottlings, with the Bodega, date of withdrawal from cask, number of casks used, their yield, geographical area of grape production, and and other information being openly available on the bottle or website. The group have subsequently also bottled several unfortified dry white wines made from both Palomino Fino and Pedro Ximénez, sparkling wines and Brandy.
Equipo Navazos La Bota No 54 de Fino Macharnudo Alto saca de Junio de 2014
A rare single vineyard wine produced from 100% Palomino grapes grown in Macharnudo Alto, one of the four great pagos (vineyards) that lie north and west of Jerez, and the one with the highest altitude and purest chalk rich albariza soils. Fermented in bota (barrel fermented) before being added to Valdespino’s Inoente solera. Normally around 10 years old, this is a blend of wines from the solera and second criadera so slightly younger.
Pale amber in colour, with a slightly rusty orange hint.
Pronounced nose. There’s a damp canvas, musty scout hut store room smell. Nutty walnut shell, orange marmalade, furniture polish, fresh pine tree bristles and resin. Some sweeter crusty honeycomb and fresh young honey hints, especially as it warms up. Developing.
Dry palate (but there’s an almost off dry sensation from the distinct honeycomb character), medium acidity, medium plus alcohol (but hides it well), medium plus body. Smooth honeyed mouthfeel, with beeswax, leather, and polished dry wood. Dry musty walnut and brazil nut. Lots of dry grassy, sweet hay, straw like flor character, but still some saline and slightly oxidative hints.
Outstanding, quite unusual and unexpected, with an almost mead like quality. Quite a sweet honeyed sensation on the palate.
Equipo Navazos La Bota 45 de Fino “Un fino que va para amontillado…” saca de Octubre de 2013
A very old fino from some of the best vineyards in Montilla Moriles, outside of the Sherry triangle close to Córdoba, which like Jerez have very chalky soils and a strong tradition producing fortified wine in a solera system. From 63 butts located on the third row of Pérez Barquero’s Bodega Los Amigos solera, of which 28 were chosen to represent its current state. Produced from Pedro Ximénez grapes aged under for a very long time, estimated to be over 15 years old. Pedro Ximénez typically produces wines that are richer and less saline than Palomino, but still have distinct flor characteristics. The traditional name for this type of wine would be Fino Amontillado, but as legislation prohibits this term, Equipo Navazos use the periphrasis of a fino on its way to toward becoming an Amontillado.
This wine is a medium dirty amber colour, rusty tint.
Immediately pronounced and complex on the nose. Rusty water, linseed oiled wood, dirty mechanical engine grease, muddy and leafy, reminiscent of used old oak casks and worn leather. Orange pith and zest, along with mature marmalade give some fresher characteristics, along with hints of sea salt and ground black pepper. There’s yeasty, fermenting bread dough, lees character. Hints of a Palo Cortado in style.
Dry and pronounced on the palate, with medium plus acidity and alcohol, full bodied. Salty, oily, with a composting maturity. Complex and long lasting. As it warms up there’s more brazil nut and walnut, but still retaining the salty and tangy element, even more so on the nose.
Outstanding, sophisticated, complex, mature, superb.