Manzanilla sherries are conventionally drunk young and fresh, however en rama bottlings can offer excellent potential for bottle ageing, and here we have a fascinating side by side insight into the evolution of three sacas from the same solera system, bottled over the course of half a decade.
Manzanilla sherries are basically Fino sherries, but are only allowed to be produced and matured around Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which is closer to the sea than Jerez and has a cooler and more humid climate, with more consistent temperature than bodegas further inland. This results in thicker flor growth that protects the wine from air still more, producing slightly lighter sherries which are very dry and saline, with fresh, zesty characteristics. Sanlúcar de Barrameda’s proximity to the sea typically gives Manzanilla more coastal, sea breeze, saline and iodine characteristics than Fino sherries. Chamomile, for which Manzanilla is the Spanish name, is another aroma typically associated with Manzanilla.
Manzanilla sherries are made from the Palomino grape and are biologically aged, that is under the veil of flor yeast that forms on the surface of the wine, protecting it from oxidisation. Left to its natural conclusion, the flor would die before having a distinct influence on 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 system of fractional blending is the basis of the solera system, which as well as maintaining the flor, maintains a consistent style. The barrels are arranged in groups called criaderas (nurseries), with the barrels in each containing progressively older wine. The oldest criadera (itself called the solera) holds wine ready to be bottled. Manzanilla solera systems typically have more criaderas than those of Fino, with at least nine, and up to twenty. The flor in Manzanilla barrels normally lives for six to eight years, after which the nutrients in the wine of the oldest criadera will become too depleted for it to survive, gradually fading and exposing the wine to oxygen. Consequently there are four classifications of Manzanilla corresponding to the development of the flor. Traditional Manzanilla must be matured for at least 2 years under flor, but is usually bottled at 3 to 5 years old (sometimes known as Manzanilla Fina to distinguish it from Manzanilla Pasada). Manzanilla Pasada is bottled at around 6 to 7 years old, when the flor starts to fade and expose the wine to oxygen. Once the flor has completely died off at between 8 and 12 years old, Manzanilla Amontillada has more distinct oxidative Amontillado characteristics, and the rare Manzanilla Oloroso undergoes even further oxidative ageing without flor.
Sherry wines have normally been bottled only after intensive stabilisation to remove impurities and flor residue, satisfying the demand for pale and consistent wines that are stable with a long shelf life. Stabilisation refers to the cleaning of wine, and can be done using several different methods.
Fining works by adding a fining agent to the wine that gradually settles to the bottom, binding to oppositely charged suspended particles and solids on the way, so that the clear wine can be separated away. These fining agents include such appetising substances as bentonite (a fine clay), casein (milk protein), gelatin, egg white, isinglass (originally from dried fish swim bladders, but now synthesised), and silica. Chill or cold stabilisation is another commonly used process, where the wine is cooled to 6-7°C until the tartaric acid starts to crystallise and precipitate, allowing the wine to be run off.
Plate filtration uses a physical barrier like a sieve to remove particles over a certain size, usually cellulose sheets that will allow through only particles smaller than, typically, 0.45 microns. Most En Rama wines are filtered using a coarser 1 micron filter that only removes the biggest clumps of particles, and even some visible particles may pass through. Alternatively, activated carbon can be used, a material with a very large internal surface area and pore structure, making it very effective at absorbing even the smallest particles. Either method will remove yeast, bacteria, and even colour, and if used too aggressively can have the unbiblical effect of practically turning wine into water!
Unfortunately these processes also remove much of the colour and flavour characteristics, and previously the only chance to experience sherry in this unadulterated form would have literally straight from the cask at the bodega in Andalucia, or from shops selling sherry on tap.
‘Rama’ is the Spanish for branch, with ‘en rama’ translating literally as ‘on the vine’, suggesting the wine is in its natural state, straight from the cask. Historically the wines would only have been available in this way, with ‘en rama’ essentially a modern marketing term inferring that the wine has been bottled with only minimal stabilisation, as close to the natural experience as possible.
The term ‘en rama’ tends only to be used with biologically aged sherries like fino and manzanilla, which may contain leftover flor yeast and tartrate crystals that look unappealing to many consumers, along with a slight risk of the flor growing again in bottle. To avoid these problems most en rama sherries undergo gentle filtration to remove only the biggest particles, remaining unfined. Many oxidatively aged sherry wines are also bottled this way, but rarely say so on the label, as without the presence of flor this is less important. Flor favours cool to moderate temperatures and high humidity, so en rama wines are generally bottled in the spring and autumn, when the flor grows most vigorously and is least likely to be damaged. Wines bottled en rama tend to be from solera systems or sacas selected as especially fine or distinctive.
Conventional wisdom says that fino and manzanilla, and especially those bottled en rama, do not age well in bottle and are best drunk as fresh as possible. While biologically ageing under flor, fino and manzanilla are protected from oxygen, but once filtered and bottled this protective layer is lost, exposing them to air. Exposure to oxygen causes the wine to change, however that’s not to say they’ve gone bad, just different, losing some of their youthful freshness and intensity, and even improving from a softening of their initial harshness and becoming better integrated.
Very young fino or manzanilla will rapidly start to lose its delicate and vibrant character once bottled, but realistically the majority of bottles available outside of Andalucía are rarely really fresh, with many bottles already having spent months or years on shop shelves. An unopened bottle of fino or manzanilla will easily last for several years without significant further deterioration, after that the delicate aromas will gradually fade, with the colour darkening and flavour developing and becoming richer, with more oxidative amontillado characteristics. Note that on the whole we’re talking here about better quality sherries that have spent a reasonable length of time ageing in the solera system. Very young, mass produced stuff is generally better off enjoyed as it was intended, and will probably only deteriorate with significant bottle ageing.
Most producers recommend drinking their wines as fresh as possible, which although giving the closest experience to when the sherry left the butt, ignores the fact many sherries can develop positively in bottle. En rama sherries, being bottled complete with living yeast particles and sediment, have excellent potential for development, evolving faster after bottling than more heavily filtered wines.
Indeed, Equipo Navazos are great advocates of bottle ageing, and have released several sherries over multiple years, each bottled from a distinct set of butts. This provides a rare chance to contrast several examples of the same base wine side by side, one having spent longer ageing in cask, the other longer in bottle.
Equipo Navazos I THINK Manzanilla
Equipo Navazos are 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.
This Manzanilla ‘I THINK’ is Equipo Navazos’ entry level Manzanilla that came about after an approach from Paul Shinnie, former owner of British importer from Rhone to Rioja, and now Spanish Wine Buyer for Alliance Wine. He proposed that a younger and more conventional Manzanilla be bottled that was more accessible and widely available than their ‘La Bota de Manzanilla’ releases. It’s aged under flor in the American oak casks of the La Guita bodega for about four and a half years, then bottled after very minimal filtration. ‘I THINK’ comes from Charles Darwin’s notebook, being the only words he wrote when first describing his theory of evolution, alongside his tree of life diagram that features on the label.
Equipo Navazos suggest of the ‘I THINK Manzanilla’ that ‘if properly cellared, this Manzanilla will gradually transform part of its freshness into layered complexity’. Thanks to, I’m led to believe, inefficient warehouse stock rotation, I’ve recently had the chance to enjoy the very first release from October of 2010, along with the latest from April of 2016, and at roughly half the age, one from October 2014. This was a fascinating chance to compare the three wines side by side, giving an insight into how it’s evolved since bottling over half a decade ago.
Equipo Navazos I THINK Manzanilla saca de Octubre de 2010
Rosé wine hued, soft amber colour. Distinctly the darkest of the three, with an obvious sediment.
Pronounced nose. Oily rag, dusty and musty Brazil nut shell, with a wet rust sensation that hints at damp dog. There’s orange zest and polished hard wood furniture, with some nutty and oxidative character.
On the palate there’s more pithy orange zest and marmalade than on the nose, with salty sea air notes, reminiscent of a salted orange gose beer. Quite a metallic, oily saline character, with iodine and waxy furniture polish.
Excellent, delicately balancing the richness of age, with complexity and sophistication, and still plenty of freshness and potential for development. Intriguing, with a multitude of facets, if maybe not elegant.
Equipo Navazos I THINK Manzanilla saca de Octubre de 2014
Pale lemon colour, heading towards amber.
Immediately much brighter than the 2010, a slight honeycomb sweetness in comparison. There’s lemon citrus juice, fresh grass cuttings and oily lawnmower, with iodine and wax polish notes. Some nuttiness, with distinct yeasty rye bread and yeast extract character.
On the palate there’s salty and saline notes, waxy honey and lemon, wax furniture polish, and hints of Brazil nut and Walnut. Dry, medium acidity, medium plus body and intensity, and a decent salty finish.
Excellent. Nicely balanced and rounded, lovely complexity, quite distinctive for a manzanilla.
Equipo Navazos I THINK Manzanilla saca de April de 2016
Pale lemon colour.
The most saline, fresh, and salty of the trio. On the nose there’s lees and white sourdough bread, with lots of freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice. Still some varnish and furniture polish character, richer and nuttier than many manzanillas.
On the palate it’s citrusy, tangy and zesty, some quince and apple, and lots of saline, salty character. Dry, medium body and intensity, medium plus acidity.
Excellent. Quite rich in comparison to many manzanillas.
All three wines were extremely enjoyable and superb value. I thought the saca de Octubre de 2014 was in a really good place, perfectly poised between freshness and sophistication, giving all the vibrancy of a manzanilla but with something extra. The saca de Octubre de 2010 was the most distinctive of the three, making up for what it lacked in vibrancy with mature complexity, though in a way I missed that liveliness, and am left wondering if I’d prefer to drink an amontillado. I suppose one might say that as with many great wines, it poise questions and divides opinion.