Visiting Fernando de Castilla

Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla produces exceptional sherries thanks to the passionate work of Norwegian born, long term Andalusian resident and true gentleman, Jan Petterson. With care taken from vineyard to bottle, these sherries and brandies are of serious quality, but the bodega remains a relatively small, artisan producer.

Jan Petterson

Despite being a relatively young bodega in its current form, Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla’s story goes back to 1837, with Lorenzo Cosme of the aristocratic Andrada-Vanderwilde family. Lorenzo came to Spain in the XVI century as one of the Flemish knights accompanying King carlos V as he took possession of Spanish territories. Lorenzo established a small bodega, and for over 200 years since his descendants have grown grapes and produced wines for the production of sherry. In the 1960s, the family bought an old bodega built in 1794 from Pedro Domecq on Calle Jardinillo in the Barrio Santiago district of Jerez, which had previously housed the Fino La Ina solera.

Fernando Andrada-Vanderwilde, who had worked for González Byass in Public Relations, wanted to produce the finest Jerez brandy possible, so bought from Marques del Real Tesoro a very old Gran Reserva brandy solera. He launched his new brandy in 1972, naming it Rey Fernando de Castilla, after the XIII century King Fernando III, the ‘Saint’ of Castilla. King Ferd’ had reconquered much of Western Andalucía from the Moors, and furthermore recognised the quality of the region’s terroir and climate for exceptional wines.

In 1999 Fernando sold the bodega to a group of investors, that included the Norwegian born Jan Petterson, long term Jerez resident after emigrating there with his parents as a boy. Before long in 2000, Jan, who had worked for the previous 14 years for Osbourne, bought out the other investors. He also bought the neighbouring bodega and soleras of a retiring almacenista, José Bustamente.

Electric Pump

Jan focused entirely on the production and ageing of high quality sherries, minimally filtered with no clarification agents – the traditional way, but at the time unusual. They take their time to do things properly, without cutting corners. One concession to modernity they do employ is of electric pumps using food grade pipes for the rocio and saca – running of the scales in the bodega. Though relatively small, the scale of their production is such to make this concession is necessary if they are to sell their sherries at reasonable prices. The sherries and brandies are all aged longer than required by the Consejo Regulador, and are mostly unblended, coming from single soleras.

The bodega produces two ranges of sherries, the standard high quality Classic range between 2 and 9 years old, and much older Antique range, aged from 8 to over 30 years old. Their Reserva and Gran Reserva brandies are produced from only the finest quality, single distillation, ‘holandas’ spirit, lower in alcoholic strength but with more flavour and aroma. There are also some innovative single cask releases. These sherries and brandies are of serious quality, but the bodega remains a relatively small, artisan producer.

Enjoying a Copa with Jan Petterson
Fernando Romero

 

Our visit was hosted by Fernando Romero, as Jan was preparing to depart on a fishing trip to Austria the following day. Jan, a lovely gentleman, still found the time to chat with us and enjoy a few copas in the tasting room after our Fernando had showed us around the bodega.

Fernando spoke about the factors they consider most important in producing quality sherries. Well maintained facilities are vital, as well as quality casks, with older casks giving less complexity from the wood, but greater complexity from the age of the wine. Their oldest casks are 40 to 50 years old for sherry, with their brandy casks ageing up to 98 years old. They consider that longer aged sherries have superior complexity and quality. Though many of their sherries would qualify for a V.O.S. or V.O.R.S. classification, Jan has opted to forgo this system, believing that it does not properly express what makes sherry special. While age is a factor, it is one amongst many – age is not necessarily a sign of excellence, and exceptional sherry needn’t be old. On top of that, V.O.R.S. indicates only that a sherry is of 30 years or older, not a true reflection of the ancient age of some much older sherries. To maintain the average age of the wine, their Antique Fino is bottled only once a year, taking a saca of only one fifth, rather than the permitted third, three times per year.

Fernando de Castilla Cask Aged Bruichladdich

The trade in sherry butts for whisky maturation is widely held myth, as nowadays solera barrels are repaired for many years, making them unavailable for whisky maturation. Historically sherry would have been shipped overseas in the barrel, so the resourceful whisky industry reused them for whisky maturation. Fernando said that when then do occasionally have barrels available, they are sold only to the Islay distillery Bruichladdich. He showed us one special Fernando de Castilla cask aged expression Bruichladdich had produced, which is amongst several others.

Fernando said that better quality materials give better results, so their base wines are produced from grapes grown in Jerez Superior, which is considered the best within the region. Specifically they come from the Pago Carrascal, furthest in inland, with least influence from the cool sea air, giving earlier ripening grapes and more robust wines. Whereas most smaller bodegas rely on cooperatives for their base wines, Jan has formed a partnership with a local grape grower, giving them a consistent supply of high quality grapes.

Brandy Soleras at Fernando de Castilla

Another important factor is the alcohol used for fortifying, typically produced using continuous distillation column stills from the Airén grape. Fernando told us that instead, they fortify with high quality Brandy de Jerez, consisting of 80% from a single pot still distillation. The resulting ‘holandas’ are are grape spirit of up to 60 to 65% alcohol, which must represent at least 50% of the final brandy, the remainder from higher strength, fairly neutral grape spirit. ‘Holandas’ refers to Holland, the country where most exports of Brandewijn ‘Burnt Wine’ were destined. These holandas are prized for their superior aromatics and flavour profile, as although double distillation produces a smoother spirit, some of this character is lost. Roughly three litres of wine, produced using four kilograms of grapes, must be distilled to get one litre of brandy.

Fernando de Castilla’s own Brandy de Jerez is distilled in wood burning stills, before first being aged in single new American and Limousin oak barrels for five years, giving the brandy a vanilla profile, then subsequently in a solera of old sherry butts. There is huge evaporation from the brandies, such that at fifteen years old, 50% of the brandy is lost to the angels. We were honoured to taste from the Único Solera of 15 casks, started in 1975 with no sacas until 2001, and only 350 to 500 bottles per year. This was astonishing, worthy of innumerable superlatives which my scribbled note cannot possibly do justice.

Fernando Romero

The final factor Fernando mentioned was in keeping any unnatural processing to a minimum, including no addition of sulphur at the winery. He explained the system of numbers for marking the level on the casks. 36 signifies a full cask, however the maximum level to which the cask is normally filled is from 28 to 31. For their older Antique range, the casks are mostly only filled from 18 to 20, this low level allowing more oxidation due to the larger surface area. The traditional aspia tool is used to measure the level of the casks, which incidentally are painted black to help quickly detect leaks, as they shine if a leak occurs.

Another innovation embraced by Fernando de Castilla is to use clear bottles for bottling their Antique range, showing off the fantastic colour and richness of their wines.

For a sherry obsessive, it was exciting to see a number of casks branded with the logo of Equipo Navazos, the group of sherry aficionados founded by Law Professor and Sherry expert Jesús Barquín and technical director of Grupo Estévez, Eduardo Ojeda in 2005. Using their combined expertise and intimate knowledge of cellars of Jerez, Sanlúcar and El Puerto, and from all around Montilla, they have sourced countless brilliant sherry butts with volumes too low for commercial bottling, and have firmly established a reputation for exceptional and distinctive fortified wines. Fernando pointed out a few casks in the bodega that were either owned, or were bottled for Equipo Navazos. Apparently Fernando de Castilla is one bodega where Equipo Navazos regularly host guests, the reason some casks are nicely branded with their logo, rather than the more typical chalk scribbling.

Equipo Navazos Butts at Fernando de Castilla

Most of the wines we tasted straight from the barrel, with the exception of the fino, which Fernando doesn’t like drawing from the barrel as he’s nervous about damaging the delicate layer of flor. Jan later mentioned that the Antique Fino cannot be classified as ‘en rama’ only because it is fortified to 17 degrees alcohol. Fernando de Castilla do bottle a Fino en rama, consisting of 50% from both the solera of the Antique and Classic Fino. We tasted the Spring 2016 saca of the Fino en rama, and subsequently bought a bottle of the 2015 saca from fabulous Aladdin’s Cave that is Licores Corredera.

Fernando de Castilla Antique Fino

Fernando de Castilla Antique Fino

Very coppery, orange wine colour, medium intensity.

Super pronounced, jumping out of the glass even when fridge cold. There’s a musty, rotten orange sensation, with lots of flor influence and fermenting yeastiness, reminicient of wet dog hair. Hazelnut and brazil nuttiness meld with saltier marine notes, rock pool crustations and shellfish, followed by some sweeter, faintly floral hints of sea herbs, scrub and moorland.

Bone dry on the palate, but with lots of body and richness. Still quite musty, with dried orange zest, dry spices of clove, cinamon, cumin and fennel. Green almond and lime juice give a bitterness, and there’s some oxidative, amontillado like hints. Salty and lasting finish, with some oily hints that together make one think of fish and chips.

Outstanding, a intriguing and multi layered experience, offering an unusual richness and maturity, certainly towards the amontillado end of the spectrum.

Fernando de Castilla Fino En Rama saca de 2016 and 2015

Fernando de Castilla Finos En Rama

The 2016 saca had a deep almond and amber colour, with golden hints. In contrast, the 2015 showed a more coppery, brassy gold.

The 2016 saca was much more restrained and subtle on the nose than the Antique Fino. Musty almond shell, with an almost salty dry cured Jamon, charcuterie note. There’s sea shell and rock pool crustation, pronounced flor and bodega character, followed by hints of scrub and sweet hay.

The 2015 saca showed quite differently, quite full, with lots of sweet hay and straw, giving a rich and honeyed character. Still with the characteristic yeastiness and flor, but more sponge cake dough like in profile. Floral honeysuckle and beeswax, with hints of tropical and stone fruit, and lots of waxy lemon citrus, lemon curd, and baked apple.

On the palate the 2016 saca has a distinct drying bitterness, green almond, green tomato and salty green olive water. There’s olive oil oiliness that combines with salty and yeasty sourdough, and chalky Albariza minerality, to give a lovely moreish mouthfeel.

In contrast, the 2015 saca seemed much less saline and savoury than the 2016, with lots of lemon juice citrus, though not too sharp, reminiscent of preserved and salted lemons. The flor and bitter almond character come through stronger than on the nose.

Not as lasting on the palate as the Antique, the Fino en rama is less challenging and more approachable, whilst retaining sophistication and complexity. Interestingly, the 2016 and 2015 sacas of the Fino en rama were distinctly different, with the 2015 different again to my reasonably clear recollection of another recent tasting, for which I unfortunately have no note. I’ve noticed, and discussed with colleagues, such bottle variation between sherries bottled en rama on numerous occasions previously.

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