Walking through the imposing, historic bodegas in the Jerez region of southern Spain, with decades-old barrels surrounded by musty walls, it’s hard to imagine new techniques taking root in a place that prides itself so deeply on its traditional style of winemaking. But in recent years, producers are finding a new way to tell the story of sherry wine through their en rama bottlings.
Unlike the low-intervention, almost laissez-faire styles of wine that have captured oenophiles’ attention over the past decade, winemaking in the “Sherry Triangle” of southwestern Spain is a carefully calculated and orchestrated dance.
In sherry production, wines move through a system called solera, in which several rows of barrels are stacked on top of one another, almost like a pyramid. The youngest wines, after being fortified, enter the solera on the top row. As a portion of finished wines are removed for bottling from the bottom, younger wines are fractionally moved down into barrels containing older wines, and a continual blending process occurs.
Some styles of sherry are aged—either partially or fully during its time in the solera—under a blanket of yeast known as flor. This layer protects the sherry from air and oxidation. Wines labeled as “fino” or “manzanilla” (the term for a fino wine specifically from the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda) spend their time completely under flor —a process known as “biological aging”—for a minimum of two years, but most producers opt for at least four. These are the freshest, most lively styles of sherry and exhibit a salty and nutty quality. Amontillados and palo cortado sherries see both flor and oxidative aging. Oloroso sherry, on the other hand, is aged completely oxidatively and doesn’t spend time under flor. Also considered to be dry sherries, these last three exhibit varying levels of richness, nuttiness, and complexity. Sweet styles made with Pedro Ximénez wine grapes round out a bodega’s offerings.
Sherry’s identity, for the most part, relies heavily on the aging process, unlike most regions where the concept of terroir is the message winemakers want to convey. However, en rama (raw) wines—usually finos and manzanillas that are basically bottled straight from the cask and undergo only the roughest filtration to remove undesirable matter like yeast chunks or dead bugs—are the new storytellers of the region.
Bodegas Barbadillo, founded in 1821, was the first to experiment with en rama in the region. Back in the 1990s, the market demanded sherries that were very plain and essentially devoid of color, according to the winery’s director Armando Guerra. Although these heavily filtered styles were in vogue, Barbadillo felt they weren’t the true expression of manzanilla. Using some of the oldest wines in their bodegas, winemaker and director of production Montserrat Molina bottled the first en rama sherries in 1999 as a way to capture what she considered the truest expression of the wine. The first releases contained a three-month expiration date, as Molina was unsure if they would remain stable.
The straight-to-the-bottle approach piqued interest and a few trials locally, but it wasn’t until about a decade ago that the concept of en rama really took hold. At González Byass S.A.—a holding company in Spain for some of the most well-known sherry producers—a tasting session between Antonio Flores (master blender at sherry producer González Byass Jerez) and Martin Skelton (managing director at wine distributor González Byass U.K., a subsidiary of González Byass S.A.)—generated discussion about a new style of fino.
“On one of Martin’s many trips to the bodega in Jerez, he and Antonio were sampling Tio Pepe Fino straight from the barrel and lamenting that they couldn’t share this experience with consumers back in the U.K.,” says Mauricio González-Gordon, chairman of González Byass S.A. “The conversation progressed as they questioned what would happen if they took a risk and bottled Tio Pepe without the usual filtration and clarification needed to keep the product fresh and stable on shelf.”
Like Barbadillo, they put a three-month expiration date on the first few releases, and like Barbadillo, realized the en rama wines kept evolving and revealing new layers of potential. The year 2019 will mark the 10th bottling of González Byass’s Tio Pepe En Rama, and many other bodegas also now produce an en rama sherry.
Each bodega takes a different tact when considering what story they want en rama wines to convey.
González Byass wants drinkers to experience its Tio Pepe Fino in its purest form, “as if they were standing in the bodega tasting it straight from the cask,” describes González-Gordon. Once the summer heat subsides, winemaker Flores earmarks about 200 casks that will potentially be used for the en rama wines. In April, a final tasting session takes place, and the 200 casks are whittled down to approximately 60 of the best, resulting in the final blend.
“The annual bottling is in the spring, when the flor growth is at its thickest on the barrels of fino, so the wine would be at its most pungent,” González-Gordon says. “This gives the unique intensity to the fresh wine. The ‘best casks’ are those with most even and unbroken veil of flor over the top of the wine in the cask, meaning that they have the most characteristic and intense flor character.”
Barbadillo opts to bottle an en rama for each season, to showcase how the wines vary throughout the year and the effect of the fluctuations of the flor. Along with this novel approach—a benchmark of the bodega—an entire solera has been built exclusively for the en rama wines.
Lustau, which owns bodegas in the three sherry towns, is the closet to the traditional idea of terroir. The wine house produces en rama sherry in three separate bottlings, one from each of the cities that make up what is known as the Sherry Triangle: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. “We take out about 1,000 liters of wine from each town,” notes Lustau winemaker Sergio Martínez. Quantities are very limited; only about 2,000 bottles of each are produced annually. (By comparison, bottle production for the González Byass en rama in 2018 was 18,000 bottles.)
“The popularity of sherry among a younger consumer and their noticeable interest in learning about its complex aging system has most likely sparked curiosity in these wines that are closest to their natural state,” says Martínez. “Upon learning about filtration and how it alters the expressiveness of biologically aged wines, an interest in tasting the ‘raw’ wines has led to a following for en ramas.” González-Gordon says González-Byass’s production has increased 1,400% from its initial public offering of 1,200 bottles in 2010, and today the wine portfolio exports to 18 countries.
Today, as more attention is being paid to the unfiltered sherries, bodegas continually think how to keep pushing boundaries. Last year, Barbadillo began releasing en rama wines that illustrated how the effects of the two major winds—the poniente (cool and humid) and levante (hot and dry)—affect wine development in the cellar. The structures were designed so the winds would blow through and provide stable temperatures, explains Guerra, and depending where a barrel is placed, the wine will emerge with different characteristics.
“En rama is the purest essence of sherry wines. It will first surprise and then captivate, an experience like no other in the wine world,” says Martínez. “Despite the fact the solera system provides consistency in personality, en rama wines go beyond, bringing to us a new layer of identity, every year and every season, giving the opportunity to the consumer to enjoy a total new wine.”
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