This is something I wrote for Root + Vine magazine, the vinous off-shoot of Root + Bone magazine (which is always worth reading).
I tend to base family holidays around wine much to my six year old daughter’s annoyance. On a recent visit to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, we spent a wonderful (for me) afternoon at Hidalgo La Gitana. Fermín Hidalgo (below, stopping for a restorative plate of jamon and a copita at 11am), oblivious to my six year old daughter’s increasingly sulky antics, gave me sherry after sherry to try. With his venencia, that cup on a stick thing that you have to learn how to use if you want to be taken seriously in sherry, he delved into different casks and brought out treasures including a 90 year old pedro ximenez, a 50 year old amontillado and manzanillas with tiny bits of yeast floating in them. Until recently this last wine was an experience for visitors only, most manzanillas are sold filtered and blended, but now you can have something like the full venencia experience in the comfort of your own home. Just look for the words ‘En Rama’ on the bottle.
The word ‘rama’ literally means ‘branch’ or ‘on the vine’ which translates roughly as ‘in its natural state’. There’s no legal definition but the best way to think of En Rama is an attempt to preserve that straight from the barrel magic. They tend to be only very lightly filtered and are often from a single cask. The first sherry labelled En Rama was launched back in 1999 by Barbadillo but it was when Gonzalez Byass launched its Tio Pepe En Rama in 2010 that the style really took off. It was a revelation trying it next to the ordinary Tio Pepe, the world’s best selling fino.
Martin Skelton from Gonzalez Byass told me that the sherry changed in the 70s and 80s. Finos used to be closer to amontillados in colour and flavour but with new technology such as temperature-controlled fermentation and sterile filtering they became the pale products like Tio Pepe or Manzanilla La Gitana that we know today. Don’t get me wrong, these are delicious wines: consistent, moreish and excellent value for money, there’s nothing better for knocking back well-chilled on a hot day. En Ramas tend to be fuller, richer and darker, in short wines to consume slowly.
En Rama is also the answer to a marketing problem. How do you get wine bores interested in a product that by design is unchanging? En Rama solves this at a stroke because each year is different. The back of the bottle will have the saca date, when it was taken out of the barrel. You can drink your wine young to get all that fresh flor flavour or keep it in bottle for richer, nuttier aromas. They are wines for people who are happy to have a bit of inconsistency.
The En Rama revolution, if you can call it that, has raised quality across the board. Many wines don’t have En Rama on the label but nevertheless are now bottled with less or no filtration. I can’t claim this as objective truth, apart from the fact that I drink a lot of sherry, but the big brand pale sherries now seem to me to have more flavour than in the past.
There is the feeling in the sherry business that something was lost when production was industrialised. Now in an effort to reposition itself as a fine wine, sherry is rediscovering its past and this means making a virtue of the raw materials. Some bodegas are returning to single vineyard wines. Hidalgo were market leaders here with their always excellent Manzanilla Pastrana. The first thing Fermin Hidalgo did when I visited was to take me out to the vineyards (thankfully there was a dog for my daughter to play with). Unusually amongst sherry companies, they only use grapes from their own vineyards. All their finos are made from free run juice and fermented using natural yeasts.
Some producers are taking the return to sherry’s roots even further. A 10 minute walk from downtown Sanlúcar, I met Ramiro Ibáñez who makes recognisably sherry-style wines but outside the DO (Denominación de Origen, like a Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in France) because they are so unconventional. He doesn’t just use palomino grapes but a whole range of different varieties that for the most part disappeared after phylloxera hit in the 19th century. He doesn’t fortify his wines instead the strength comes from drying the grapes in the sun, a practice known as asoleo. And finally his wines are single vintage. According to Ibanez these are all practises that were once routine but disappeared. In contrast to the giant cathedral of the Hidalgo bodega, he works out of an old fisherman’s cottage by the Guadalquivir river. With his lighter manzanilla-style wines you can really taste the difference between different vineyards but his crowning achievement is a palo cortado made from rare grape varieties.
Afterwards, much to my daughter’s relief, we went for lunch at the nearby Bar Bigote. Here manzanilla was €1.20 a glass, the same price as beer but the sherry is aged for five years before it is sold. Clearly this is not sustainable. En Rama is a much needed attempt to push sherry upmarket where it belongs and finally it seems to be working. Sherry has seen some tough times but Fermin Hidalgo thinks the worst is over, sales by volume may still be declining for the region as a whole but they are picking up by value. According to IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record) premium sherry sales doubled between 2011 and 2015.
Andrew Ward who runs a great blog on sherry bars in Madrid, ‘Under the Flor’, told me: “There is indeed a lot more interest in sherry in Madrid these last two or three years – wine stores and restaurants almost always have a big selection these days”. And talking with London restaurateurs such as José Pizarro, I discovered that there is a confidence in the category that wasn’t there even two years ago. According to Pizarro it is the young customers who are the most adventurous. People who drink natural wines aren’t going to mind a bit of yeast floating in their fino. Ibáñez is even more confident: he told me that sherry is actually on the verge of new golden age. It certainly tastes that way