It's mid afternoon and I'm being led into a secret part of the Gonzalez Byass cellars in Jerez by winemaker Antonio Flores.
We’re here in search of an Amontillado with flor – a layer of yeast that forms naturally on the surface of young Sherry wines aged in barrels that are purposefully not filled to the top.
After the success of Tio Pepe En Rama – a Fino bottled from the barrel in its raw state without fining or filtration, which launched at the London International Wine Fair this year and sold out in 30 minutes, the team is on the lookout for the next limited edition Sherry to bring to market.
Flores suggests that a young Amontillado yet to lose all its flor could be next year’s En Rama, which would be bottled as Tio Pepe Pasado En Rama.
Flores stops at a set of barrels and hands us each a glass. Brandishing a venencia – a silver cup fastened to a long whale bone handle, he dips it deep into the barrel and pours it swiftly at height into one of the tasting glasses with the grace of a bullfighter.
It’s a wonderful golden colour but the flor has already fallen away so we swiftly move on. Two more attempts prove fruitless, but eventually we hit upon an exciting discovery: a seven-year-old Amontillado. Atop the golden liquid is a thick layer of flor. We may have found the next En Rama.
Jubilant from his discovery, Flores leads us to another secret cellar and fills our glasses with a 60-year-old Amontillado. In the muted light the copper wine glints like a new penny. It smells like a varnished desk. Full-bodied and with a long, nutty finish, it’s the most complex Amontillado I’ve ever tasted.
Flores paces up and down, looking for a particular barrel. Locating it, he plunges the venenciain. The Sherry is deep mahogany – a 100-year-old Palo Cortado. It’s incredibly intense and concentrated, but the oak is overpowering, rendering it undrinkable. Not all wines can stand the test of time.
Determined to show us an old wine still very much alive, our next barrel sample is one I will never forget; an Amontillado from 1850 made by the winery’s founder, Manuel María Gonazlez. Heady on the nose, it smells amazingly youthful for its 160 years, with aromas of salted caramel and hazelnut. On the palate the acidity is astounding, and it has excellent body and depth of flavour. The sandlewood finish remains hauntingly in the glass.
In our final clandestine barrel room deep in the bowels of the winery, we end with a trio of sweet Sherries. The first is a 25-year-old sweet Palomino, made and aged in the same way as a Pedro Ximenez.
Tawny with a yellow rim, it has a Moscatel grape-like quality with a tropical fruit finish.The 75-year-old PX is as black as crude oil and equally thick, while the 85-year-old Moscatel has a lifted, floral quality and coffee finish.
Our palates fatigued by the liquid history lesson, we follow Flores out of the barrel room and into the glaring sunlight, and I feel as if waking from a dream.
Written by Lucy Shaw