Unfortified wines in Sherry country

While sherry sales have declined for years something new is emerging. From one of my numerous trips to the sherry district in the past I remember Bodegas Ferris showed me some plantings of the tintilla de rota grape. Now this grape plays a major part when un-fortified wines are gaining ground.

Last week I took a day trip from Zahara de los Atunes down the Costa de la Luz. I visited a few producers in the Cádiz province, and tasted wines from some more. In El Puerto de Santa María municipality, on the road between Jerez and Rota, the bodega of Forlong was hard to find, but with a little telephonic help I managed. Here Alejandro Narváez and Rocio Áspera are making wine from 3 hectars, only one in production though, but they also count on vineyards in Jerez and Trebujena. They neither buy nor sell grapes.

2015-06-30 12.00.34 Alex in white albariza vineyard

For red wine tintilla de rota that is the star grape, with its nice acidity, its spiciness and its local pedigree. For the whites the first grape is sherry variety palomino fino, but its collegue pedro ximénez is also grown. The tintilla de rota is «technically a clone of graciano», explains Alejandro, or Alex, «but where graciano has four pips the tintilla has only one». They use spontaneous fermentation, and sulphur levels are quite low (typically 40-55 mg/L). It’s not that difficult to maintain an organic agriculture here, according to Alex. There was already a good eco-system, as it is near the Doñana ‘marisma’ (wetlands) and a natural lagoon, and the wind and the sun in the vineyards. The biggest threat is a frog that goes after the leaves.

The property was bought in 2007, and Alex and Rocio named it Forlong – after Forlon, the previous owner – but added a ‘g’, since the Spanish pronounce it like that anyway. The small bodega house is built with the estetics of a coastal sherry house, with beams under the roof, but without the openings, since they don’t wish to grow ‘flor’ (the yeast that is helped by the Atlantic breeze). The bodega has some big century old tinajas (clay jars), and some barrels. It’s somewhat provisional though, as a new storage room is now under construction.

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We tasted their three wines, a white, a rosé and a red. The white, from 85% palomino and the rest px, was very expressive, with aromas of white flowers, lychee, yellow apple, with some mineral character from the albariza (the white calcareous soil that reflects the sunlight), and some saltiness in the aftertaste. In this area you often hear that palomino is a neutral grape with little acidity and character. Alex and Rocio want to change that idea, and this wine is a welcome contribution.

An interesting rosé from cabernet sauvignon had been fermenting for 15 days at low temperatures. It was light in colour, with smells of strawberries, red berries, and of underwood and mushroom too. Quite slender and with good acidity, and the slight CO2 content also contributed to its freshness and general appeal. The red wine – a syrah, merlot, tintilla blend) that had been in clay for 6 months and 3 more months in oak of varying ages and origins – was also interesting, round, and with a dense fruit, though it might be that with a lower alcohol degree than 15˚ it would have been even better.

After a couple of hours Miguel Gómez shows up. He is renting space at Forlong, where he makes his Mahara wine. He has two more projects, the Alba Viticultura in Sanlúcar and another in Ronda (Málaga). Here in the Cádiz province he has 5 hectars of vineyards, expanding a little each year, works by gravity, and the vineyards and wine are «never touch by a machine». About its «organicness», these vineyards are now in conversion, while in Ronda biodynamic technices are already employed.

2015-06-30 13.42.38 Miguel takes a sample from a 12 year old Hungarian barrel

We tried two samples, one from a 12 year old Hungarian barrel, and one from an American one. All barrels are in fact used when bought. It’s interesting to see two samples that different when they come from one vineyard and are treated the same way. The one from the Hungarian barrel is more soft, rounded, and full, while the other is more spicy, salty and floral on the nose, and in the mouth it’s more aggressive, even more concentrated.

For the final wine all 14 barrels will be blended, «as they are after all from the same vineyard, and together they will express the characteristic of that vineyard». Until now there has not been added any SO2. Maybe he will add a tiny amount before bottling, maybe not. The wine clocks in at a mere 12˚ alcohol.

2015-06-30 14.04.21

Miguel goes out for a while, and from the car he comes back with a plastic bag filled with ice and with two bottles. These are a white and a sparkling wine from his Sanlúcar project called Alba. We decide to go into the vineyard to taste them. The sparkling wine is light and appealing. The still version has been under flor for 8-9 months, a golden, tasty wine, salty as a manzanilla and bottled ‘en rama’, unfiltered.

The vineyard is not where they come from though, they grow in Miraflores and Maina near Sanlúcar, while we are now in the famous pago of Balbaina, the jerezano vineyard that is closest to the coast. But it’s scenic, and we can see one of the reasons that his red wine has such a low alcohol: The grape clusters block for the sun, so in the middle of the day the sunlight is mainly reflected from the albariza soil. The Poniente wind also contributes to a slower maturation.

2015-06-30 14.21.28        2015-06-30 14.31.04

Miguel rents this part of Balbaina. While we are out there sampling some delicious white and sparkling wine owner Martín comes to join the fun.

Before I went back to Zahara I visited Armando Guerra’s place in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the Taberna Der Guerrita. This is a wine bar, a small restaurant, a shop – a real oasis and nothing you would expect in the capital of Manzanilla, where people stare at you once you order a red wine in a bar, assuming you mean a «tinto de verano» (a low alcohol drink that is taking over for sangría). Armando used to sell his «own» table white wine and amontillado («own» because they were brands and made by R. Ibáñez and Delgado Zuleta, respectively). But he is running the taberna, he sells and serves the wines he likes himself – and he receives a lot of attention for his ambitious series of wine tastings involving many great producer and journalist names from Spain and abroad, and the proprietor too.

2015-06-30 16.05.23    2015-06-30 16.12.21

Armando with a glass of «unfortified manzanilla» in front of his small wine bar

We tasted some wines and talked a little about the industry. It is well known that sherry is losing ground in many markets, so many producers, with Barbadillo as the most famous wine and the greatest commercial success, have started to produce unfortified wines from the area. Today the ones that put all their effort into these wines are the flagbearers for quality, such as Luís Pérez, Ramiro Ibáñez, Forlong, Mahara, Alba, Huerta de Albalá, and not least Equipo Navazos.

There is no D.O. for wines like this in the Cádiz province. Both Miguel Gómez and Armando Guerra says that this could be both positive and negative. In general it will help the big bodegas as these people will put a stronger quality focus on the vineyards, Armando suggests. Both admit that the wine doesn’t sell itself, but on the other hand there are no rules, and the new growers can contribute to define the «future». It would not surprise me (even with the mighty families of the Marco de Jerez around) that a new regulation would be built upon the red grape tintillo de rota and the white palomino fino, but with possibilities for several «caprichos» too.

3 comments

  • Great article. Love the work Forlong is doing…
    I just wanted to mention Maurer and Sons with their new De Raiz 2013 a coupage of Syrah,merlot and petit verdot should also be considered as part of this promising future for Tintos Jerezanos de añada con calidad.
    Without a doubt they are true people and make true wines out of love.

  • Vidar Kenneth Johansen

    Thanks a lot, Marco! I didn’t have more than one day for visits this time, but I will take your advice and ask them if they can receive me next time in the area.

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