Bodegas Ximénez Spínola are something of an idiosyncrasy in Jerez, notable for making all their wines from Pedro Ximénez, in a region where Palomino is the predominate grape variety, with an unusual range of wines to match. A firm believer in Pedro Ximénez’s reputed Riesling ancestry, José Antonio has been inspired to make with it two unfortified dry vintage white wines, adapting the winemaking methods of the German Rhein to his native Jerez.
Bodegas Ximénez Spínola
Bodegas Ximénez Spínola are something of an idiosyncrasy in their region, notable for making all their wines from Pedro Ximénez, where Palomino is the predominate grape variety. Their philosophy is very much focused on quality and what can be achieved with Pedro Ximénez, seemingly without concern for the normal classifications and regulations. They do not submit any of their wines for age classification to the Consejo Regulador, or into any wine competitions, making them largely the preserve of insiders.
Founded by Phelipe Antonio Zarzana Spínola as an exporter of wines, the first documented sale was in 1729. There is little more recorded until 1752, when they became growers and almacenistas, finally evolving into a shipping bodega. The original bodega, dating from the 19th century, was located in Jerez’s Plaza de Mendoza. They have recently moved to a larger, though still small premises on the road to Sanlúcar, surrounded by vineyards, with much better access than the traditional narrow streets in town.
The bodega remains an independent family business, and now in its ninth generation, is run by José Antonio Zarzana, with significant business decisions made by a family board, and those on winemaking taken along with the consultant oenologist, Ramiro Ibanez Espinar, and tasting committee.
With only 234 butts in the bodega, their production is around the lowest in Marco de Jerez, the area covering the towns of Jerez, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Their annual releases are very limited, with each bottle individually numbered and signed, most are most sold directly to private clients, consequently remaining relatively unknown.
From Vineyard to Bottle
The family own 16 hectares of Pedro Ximénez vineyard in Las Tablas and the Pago Carrascal, farmed organically, although without official organic certification. In contrast, most other producers in the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry region no longer grow any Pedro Ximénez vines, buying in grapes or base wines from nearby D.O. Montilla-Moriles. Only 225 litre barrels are used by the bodega for maturing their wines, minimising losses if a barrel starts leaking.
Ximénez Spínola produce an idiosyncratic range of wines, including an unusual unfortified vintage Pedro Ximénez, made from sun dried and barrel fermented grapes, and aged for 3 months. Perhaps their most conventional wine, ‘Muy Viejo’ is made with sun dried grapes and aged in a 195 butt solera started in 1918, averaging 15 years old. Their ‘Old Harvest’ blends 10% ‘Muy Viejo’ with wine from a 1964 solera of dry, oxidatively aged Pedro Ximénez: think of the latter like an Oloroso made from Pedro Ximénez.
Ximénez Spínola also made Brandy de Jerez, with one large solera ‘San Cristino’ started in 1948. With Spain in crisis under the rule of military dictator Franco, no buyer could be found for three vintages of their wine, so Spínola distilled the wine and began the solera of 38 old chestnut casks that previously held Pedro Ximénez wines. They also make a Pedro Ximénez vinegar.
Pedro Ximénez’s high sugar content and acidity make it well suited for sweet wines. For their sweet wines, Ximénez Spínola dry their grapes in the sun on straw mats, called the ‘soleo’ system. This usually takes between 5 and 15 days, in which water evaporates from the grapes, raising their relative sugar content, whilst losing 70% of their weight. Consequently, one ton of Ximénez Spínolas grapes yields only a meagre 200 litres of must.
Numerous theories abound as to the origin of the grape’s name. A popular, though probably inaccurate story is that it was brought to Andalucía in 1519 by Dutchman Pieter Siemens, with Pedro Ximénez a Spanish corruption of his name. Along with others from the German Rhine and Moselle, he was recruited into the Spanish-German Army ‘Tercio’, during the reign of Emperor Charles I of Spain and V of Germany. Pedro Ximénez is however badly suited to the Rhine, while being ideally suited to Andalucía’s Mediterranean climate and alkaline albariza soils, making this theory unlikely.
DNA testing has now shown that Pedro Ximénez is a descendant of the Arabic variety Gibi, once grown throughout Andalucía, and it’s been theorised that ‘pero ximén’ is a Spanish corruption of the Arabic for ‘golden drop’. However, the most likely origin of the name is with a vineyard owner who once made renowned wines from the variety, possibly nearby the historic town of Jimena de la Frontera.
Exceptional Harvest & Fermentation Lenta
Despite the probable ancestry of Pedro Ximénez, José Antonio firmly believes that the variety is a genetic descendant of Riesling, that has evolved its own characteristics. On this foundation, José Antonio decided to make an unfortified dry vintage white wine from Pedro Ximénez, travelling to Germany to learn about winemaking methods in the Rhein, once home adapting them them to Jerez.
After much painstaking experimentation, Ximénez Spínola released their first vintage of ‘Exceptional Harvest’ in 2010. Late harvested grapes picked 21 days after reaching normal ripeness, without sun drying, then fermented on their skins, stopped early to keep the alcohol level low. The wine is aged on the lees in used American oak barrels for 4 months, undergoing light batonnage (lees stirring), before bottling with only light filtration.
The 2014 vintage saw Ximénez Spínola launching its second dry wine. Fermentación Lenta is made from late harvested Pedro Ximénez grapes, 21 days after normal ripeness, which are sun dried for 21 days. The wine is fermented slowly, by daily adding 30 litre batches to 300 litre French oak barriques, in order that the yeasts consume all the sugars and leave a dry wine. The wine is aged for 6 months with gentle batonnage.
While Pedro Ximénez is commonly used in neighbouring Montilla-Moriles, the rules set by the Consejo Regulador for Jerez only allow it for fortified sweet wines, so their wines cannot have the official sherry seal. Instead the authorities recognised the value of their unique contribution to the region, granting them their own accreditation ‘Denominación Varietal Pedro Ximénez’.
Ximénez Spínola Exceptional Harvest 2015
Quite rich, deep golden colour. Glossy and oily.
On the nose there’s definite sweetness, yet still reasonably fresh. Quite intense dried & fresh tropical fruit, apricot and mango, with preserved lemons and grapey notes. Quite Riesling/Gewurztraminer like. Some herbaceous bay and thyme character, with floral honeysuckle, and hints of boiled fruit sweets and barley sugar.
Medium dry on the palate, refreshing acidity, though not too high, and medium plus body. More citrus than on the nose, with tinned syrupy mandarin segments, dried chewy tropical fruit, lemon meringue pie soaked pastry, and hints of salted caramel. There’s a touch of fino sherry and almond bitterness, combined with lime and kiwi tartness, and even some richer, biscuity digestive and rye character.
Outstanding. Good complexity, structured, and not too sweet. Enough acidity to have good potential for development.
Ximénez Spínola Exceptional Harvest 2015
Quite deep, coppery gold in colour.
Pronounced and rich on the nose. Immediately quite rich and musty, suggesting waxy honeycomb and separated honey. Lots of dried tropical fruit, dried pear and apple rings, followed by crystallised toffee apple sugar and lemon meringue syrup.
Off dry, with only medium acidity. Quite robust and structured palate, with lots of dried fruit, pear, apple and mango. Intensely appley and spirity, reminiscent of Calvados and sweet cider apple vinegar.
Superb, if quite distinctive and unusual. Savoury and serious, robustly structured with intriguing complexity. Despite the lowish acidity, the substantial alcohol just keeps this in balance.
Of the two wines, the Exceptional Harvest has more acidity to balance the sweetness, perhaps being the conventionally better balanced. Nevertheless, the Fermentation Lenta is an intriguing wine, drier and more savoury, quite a contemplative, thought provoking wine. With these two wines, Ximénez Spínola has given an eye opening perspective on what can be achieved with Pedro Ximénez, and the inspiration that José Antonio Zarzana draws from German Rieslings shines through, both wines bearing more than passing resemblance.