Visiting El Maestro Sierra

A story of triumph against archaic expectations of class and gender, beginning early in the 19th century with working class master cooper José Antonio Sierra – ‘El Maestro’ Sierra are all about their very old wines, preserving some of the oldest soleras and wines in the Jerez region. Led by a succession of formidable women, their traditionally made ancient sherries are a real treasure, of astonishing quality and complexity.

El Maestro Sierra Wines

El Maestro Sierra’s story begins at the beginning of the 19th century, with master cooper José Antonio Sierra, who ran a prosperous business, La Merced, building barrels for González Byass. Here, his fellow coopers respected his skill and nicknamed him ‘Maestro’ Sierra.

In 1830 José Antonio realised his long held dream to establish his own bodega and become an almacenista, no easy feat in the days when the sherry industry was still ruled by aristocratic families, who would have been disdainful at the thought of a humble working class cooper joining their ranks. He acquired a bodega in the Plaza Silos, superbly sited high up in what were then the outskirts of Jerez, well exposed to the cooling Poniente winds from the Atlantic, only 10 to 12 kilometres away. In honour of José Antonio’s struggle, the bodega’s old labels portray a hunting scene, with the ‘little rabbit’ El Maestro Sierra, being perused by riders of the nobility.

El Maestro Sierra Bodega

José Antonio died without any children of his own, so the bodega passed onto his wife’s niece, Carmen Casal Soto. After losing her husband soon after, she formed a company with her children, of whom her son, Antonio Borrego Casal, took charge of the bodega. The bodega established a good reputation under Antonio Borrego’s charge, passing onto his widow Doña Pilar Plá Pechovierto when he died in 1976.

Pechovierto was a formidable woman who filled the Maestro’s shoes with ease, in masculine days whence for women to work in the bodegas was frowned upon. She was accompanied at work by her 80 year old mother, as it was considered scandalous for a women to be left alone in the winery with four men, decisively taking the helm of the business. She initially continuing to supply larger bodegas as an almacenista, Gonzalez Byass with Fino and Domecq with Oloroso. After the demise of the original Domecq family business, she began a new partnership with Lustau, who marketed the Oloroso Reserva with the label ‘Viuda de Antonio Borrego’ under their Lustau Almacenista range. In 1996 the Consejo Regulador reduced the amount of stock a bodega must hold to be licensed as a shipping bodega from 12500 to only 500 hectolitres, allowing El Maestro Sierra to start bottling sherry under its own name.

El Maestro Sierra Bodega

At over 90 years old, Pilar remains actively involved in the business, alongside her daughter and fifth generation of the family to be involved, Carmen Borrego Plá. Carmen holds a doctorate in History of the Americas, on which she’s written various books, as well as on wine, nevertheless managing to work full time at the bodega with as much commitment as her mother, assisted their capataces (cellar masters) Juan Clavijo and laterly Ana Cabestrero. Ana slots perfectly in at this long time woman led bodega, another strong personality who took over from Juan Clavijo after moving from the Ribera del Duero over 10 years ago. Carmen Borrego hopes that one day her goddaughter might take over the bodega, as she has no children herself.

El Maestro Sierra sold its vineyards in the 1930’s and 40’s, as was the case with many bodegas in Jerez, and now purchases ready fermented base musts from the local Cooperative Nuestra Senora de las Angustias, with whom they have a long standing relationship. They have an agreement to source grapes from the same vineyards every year, mostly from the Pago Balbaína, but also from Miraflores y Trebujena.

El Maestro Sierra are all about their very old wines, preserving some of the oldest soleras and wines in the Jerez region, due to having been more or less silent over more than 30 years. In contrast to other more generous bodegas, they remain judicious about how much they release each year to maintain the high average age of the soleras.

El Maestro Sierra Cooper

Our visit was hosted by Jaime, who now works full time here, but has worked at a number of bodegas in the area. This is quite an old fashioned bodega, and whenever possible traditional methods are used. Running of the scales in the bodega every four months is mostly done by hand, although electric pumps are sometimes used, presumably for the larger soleras. The wines are minimally filtered, bottled without any sulphur added to the wines, and labelled by hand.

Cobwebs

They have a source of chlorine free water from a natural well, used to water the albero sand floors. Jaime explained this is necessary to maintain the humidity needed by the flor, especially during the hot summer, when it is done twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. He also pointed out the cobwebs on the thousand or so butts that the bodega houses, left to encourage the spiders and lizards that eat the wood devouring bugs. To this day they employ a cooper to fix and maintain the ancient casks, many of which are those made by José Antonio himself, each identified with his carved mark.

José Antonio’s Mark

El Maestro Sierra’s traditional manual methods are labour intensive, and to maintain very old stocks comes at a cost, making their wines expensive, nevertheless offering impressive quality and age for the price. The bodega produces a standard range, notably bottled with an age statement rather than classification, and the date of bottling specified on the back label.

The Fino is drawn from a solera of 6 scales, typically bottled four times a year, and averages somewhere between 4 and 6 years old, depending upon what source you trust. The bodega also keeps a solera of Fino Amontillado, its fading flor giving the wine more oxidative character. At around 6 years old, this isn’t bottled, instead being used to feed the scales of the solera of the Amontillado 12 Años. Jaime showed us an interesting view of the flor growing on the wine inside a butt, using the camera on his phone!

Flor Power

The main event however is their V.O.R.S. range, of which only 400 or fewer bottles of each are released each year. These astonishing old wines are real treasure that we were privileged to taste them from the bottle at the bodega.

El Maestro Sierra Amontillado 1830 V.O.R.S.

The Amontillado 1830 V.O.R.S. comes from a solera started in 1830 when the bodega was founded, making it one of the oldest soleras still in use, with only Osbourne claiming to have soleras started before 1800. These two 2000 litre butts were built by José Antonio Sierra himself, and have never been moved, emptied, or cleaned, with the average age of the wine estimated at over 50 years old, probably closer to 70.

The Amontillado 1830 was stunning. Hazelnut and walnut shell, dusty wood and smoke, intermingle with clove and cinnamon spices, dirty engine oil and leathery grip. Remarkable freshness given the age, orange leaf, marmalade and candied orange zest, with subtle flor and saltiness hinting back to the fino roots. Astonishingly complex and integrated, with superb length.

El Maestro Sierra Palo Cortado V.O.R.S.

Jaime noted that the Palo Cortado V.O.R.S., estimated to be over 70 years old, is traditionally priced – where Palo Cortado is now much sought after, historically this was the wine that hadn’t gone to plan, drunk by the winemaker. Nevertheless this was mindblowing.

Dusty engine oil, brazil nut shell and flesh, walnut flesh and polished wood. Sinewous, leafy and woody on the palate, with clove studded spicy orange freshness, black pepper and cinnamon, more oxidative in character than the Amontillado 1830. Stupendously complex and long.

El Maestro Sierra Oloroso Extraviejo 1|7 V.O.R.S.

The bodega’s youngest Oloroso 15 Años, also feeds the scales of a 22 butt solera, which in turns feeds the 14 butt solera of the Oloroso Viejo 1|14 V.O.R.S., that averages over 50 years old. A rare treasure is the bodega’s 7 butt solera of ancient Oloroso Extraviejo 1|7 V.O.R.S., which Capataz Ana has calculated at approximately 100 years old.

Wow. Caramel, black toffee and treacle, with spicy orange zest, waxy furniture polish and black peppery hints in the nose. Sinewous, woody tannins. Pick your own superlatives.

El Maestro Pedro Ximénez Viejisimo V.O.R.S.

We also tasted the Pedro Ximénez Viejisimo V.O.R.S., averaging over 50 years old. Thick and rich, but with a dusty dryness. Cocoa beans, high cocoa solids chocolate, black pepper, treacle and tarry notes. It’s Pedro Ximénez, like you’ve never experienced before. Rather good.

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