Sherry Country – Part II: The Cask of Amontillado
Alex Russan, Santa Monica resident, coffee broker, and wine importer, is more than obsessed with Sherry. So much so, that he recently started a company named Alexander Jules to function as an importer and sort of independent bottler (no different from Scotch bottlers such as Signatory, Gordon & McPhail, etc) for his favorite sherries, identifying his favorite soleras, tasting through each and every barrel, and forming his own selections, blending his favorite barrels to produce something unique. I suppose that you could also compare this selection and blending process to what brands such as Pappy Van Winkle do with Bourbon. Currently, while the amazing fortified wines of Jerez and Sanlucar are enjoying something of a renaissance (particularly amongst collectors, connoisseurs and big city restaurants), let's just say that we don't have hundreds of people calling us regularly, asking us in person, for the latest new Sherry release...yet. However, the mere fact that Alex is crazy enough to start his company based on the selection and sale of the highest quality Sherry he can find - this is worth supporting. Our goal is - as it is with spirits of all types - to be at the forefront here, to establish ourselves in Jerez, and be well positioned when demand inevitably catches up to the astonishing quality of these inimitable beverages. Just as we do for Scotch, I would love to begin identifying excellent soleras, and either create a blend or bottle a small amount from a single standout cask, to make available for K&L customers. Do I think this is worth doing? Absolutely. Will it be commercially viable? I think so. Pues, vamos a ver (translation: we'll find out).
Our barrel tasting took place at Herederos de Argueso. Originally founded in 1822 by a northern Spaniard, Argueso is considered to be one of the great producers of Manzanilla, that specialty of the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda which is the lightest, crispest, most thirst quenching of all the Sherries. Due to the seaside location, temperatures here are more constant: less hot in summer, less cold in winter, which encourages year 'round flor development as you can see in the demonstration barrel below:
When the Manzanilla ages some years and loses its flor, it turns into an Amontillado: a Sherry that is favored by Sherry connoisseurs (see, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado) and develops burnished, nutty flavors, intense citrus candy qualities, and retains its salinity, all of which add up to quite the amazing drink. Argueso makes my favorite amontillado - it's an older average age than it's price would normally dictate (probably close to 15 years old, with older wine added) and is just delicious. A selection of this wine is available under the Alexander Jules label , and soon we will likely see the regular bodega bottling as well.
In addition to this bottling, Argueso has stocks of extremely old Amontillado, or VORS (Vinum Optimum Rarum Signatum) which is tasted, carbon dated, and certified by the Jerez consejo, or regulatory board, to be older than 30 years of age. This is, quite simply, my favorite old Amontillado. It's so concentrated, so unapologetically salty, so fiercely individual an Amontillado, that it begs to be tried. It's a challenging Sherry, and not everyone will like it. But it is simply a marvel, and several days ago Alex and I had the privilege of tasting it 26 times. That is because it is a solera of 26 botas (approximately 600 liter barrels), and we wanted to understand the solera, the subtleties of barrel variation (if any existed), and how we may move forward to begin working towards a selection from such an amazing pool of possibilities.
What became immediately apparent was the following: not all barrels are equal. Just as in a winery, or in a Bourbon or Scotch warehouse, due to varying rates of evaporation, location of an individual barrel, and a range of other factors, different barrels develop in unique ways, resulting in varying flavors. We fully expected the variation we encountered while briefly tasting a small portion of the 44 barrel San Leon Reserva de la Familia solera (an awesome Manzanilla pasada that, hopefully, one day, we may also select for a special K&L bottling). However, the degree of variation in the old Amontillado barrels was fascinating. All of them delicious, just some, perhaps, more delicious than others. Common descriptors we found were: salted toffee, candied citrus, oolong tea, roasted hazlenuts, amongst others I cannot remember. Some barrels were a little bit softer, fruitier and less angular than what I expect from this Amontillado. Others were just how I remember the finished, blended product, incredibly salty, pungent, woody and singular if very challenging. Finally, there was a small handful of barrels which combined the slightly friendlier quality with the characteristic salinity, amazing purity of fruit, intense mid-palates and finishes that would not quit. Two barrels in particular stood out, and we are determining whether to blend them or bottle them individually. Keep in mind, however, that due to Sherry consejo rules, as well as out of respect for the winery, the rarity of their wine and their desire to maintain soleras of very old stock, we are only able to blend or bottle about 10% of the contents of any barrel. So if we go with one barrel, we will have something to the tune of 50-60 bottles, double that if we blend two barrels.
All this begs the question: Who out there is interested in a cask of amontillado?
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For more posts on my recent trip to Spain, please see blog.klwines.com