Andrew Jefford meets a saviour of the Sherry world, and tastes some of his selections.
Just over a month ago, I wrote in this blog about Sherry’s tragic decline, and about some of the new unfortified, terroir-based approaches of younger producers in this distinguished, chalk-soiled region of southern Andalucia. What, though, of Sherry itself? Moribund?
Anyone who’s had a chance to taste the greatest, purest Sherries will fervently hope not. For the last three decades, though, the challenge has always remained the same: renovating the wine’s image, and making it a source of youthful gastronomic curiosity. Many have tried; most failed.
Not, though, Jesús Barquín, and his collaborators in Equipo Navazos, a singular Sherry bottling and exporting company which only celebrated its tenth birthday last December, and yet which may now sell more bottles of old, pure, unblended Sherry than any rival. (Singular, not least because it actually buys the sherry from those rivals.)
A word on intriguing names, first of all. Jesús (who has long been an atheist) points out that his own first name is a common one in Spain, and carries no more religious overtone than does ‘Mary’ in English. Navazos, meanwhile, is the traditional name used for vegetable allotments in Sanlúcar de Barrameda whose sweet ground water is lifted up through the sandy soils, unlikely as it may sound, by tidal pressure. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, moreover, the primary Equipo Navazos series of releases has been called ‘La Bota de …’. The Navazos approach may be innovative, but the great historical and cultural traditions which lie behind sherry and the Jerez region is very important to Barquín and his collaborators (the Equipo).
Every wine region needs a few extraordinary individuals to champion its cause, and Barquín is one. His family background was in gastronomic grocery stores, and he grew up going to restaurants with his parents and eating well. His keen intelligence, though, swiftly propelled him through university law studies to a professorship, though he might easily also have pursued scientific studies. He’s a criminal lawyer who has written two books on torture and mistreatment, who is interested in the limits between torts and crime, and who has recently been researching alternatives to prison.
Along the way, he spent a lot of time in Brussels, Strasbourg and Florence, researching the relationship between Spanish law and European law … and visiting French and Italian vineyard areas. He became, in other words, a wine fan in the kind of deeply committed, comprehensive and scholarly way you might expect of a law professor.
Since his University base was in Granada, it wasn’t long before he emerged as one of Spain’s leading experts and writers on sherry – a wine which, with all its complicated austerities, has always seduced the academic mind and palate. He also forged a close friendship with Eduardo Ojeda, one of Jerez’s leading tasters and blenders, who works for the notably successful Estévez group, owners of Valdespino and La Guita Manzanilla.
One day early in December 2005, Ojeda had to drive over to Sanlúcar to taste 400 casks of Manzanilla at the small bodega of Sánchez Ayala, and he invited Barquín to go with him. After they had cantered through the Manzanillas, they started tasting other things in the cellar, and discovered a ‘shrinking’ Amontillado solera which had been untouched and unrefreshed for 20 years.
“The casks were beautiful,” Barquín remembers. “But since there was no market for Amontillado, the owner had instructed that instead of refreshing the angel’s share, the solera should be topped up from existing stocks, so the original 74 casks were now 69 or 65, I can’t remember.” Forty years of crisis had left Jerez and Sanlúar littered with treasures of this sort. That was when the idea dawned on Barquín: why not buy a cask? He and Ojeda could then sell the bottles to their friends. The owner, cement producer José-Luis Barrero, wanted to give Barquín and Ojeda the cask, but they insisted on paying for it. In the end, they bought two, and that became Equipo Navazos’s Bota de Amontillado No. 1.
Now we’re well into the 60s in the Bota de … series, and there have been copious other releases via the ‘Manzanilla I Think’ range (the name a homage to Charles Darwin), plus unfortified Montilla in the Ovni range (an extraterrestrial reference, but also an anagram of ‘Vino’), plus Spanish brandy (Navazos-Palazzi), plus Cava whose production methods involve some use of flor yeasts and sherry wines in the dosage, made with the boutique Catalan producer Colet. Phew! The complete range exceeds even that of Penfolds for numerical and conceptual complexity, and you probably need to be a professor of something or other to understand its nuances fully.
We have, in other words, come as far from Croft Original Cream Sherry as it is possible to go — which of course was exactly what Sherry needed. I review some of the latest releases below.
I was puzzled, though, as to why Sherry’s leading companies should be so happy to have Barquín and Ojeda siphon off, bottle and sell some of the greatest treasures in their bodegas. “We need the right sort of competition,” says, simply enough, Ojedo’s own employer, José Ramón Estévez. “It’s opened a lot of doors for us,” says Jan Pettersen, owner of the small, classy bodega called Fernando Castillo, another supplier. “It positions you as being a great producer of Sherry.”
How far will Equipo Navazos go? Both of its directors, after all, are moonlighting from their main jobs, and have (they say) no intention of quitting them. Academic life leaves Barquín some free time, and he’s prodigiously energetic (and a gifted salesman). He’s become a leading figure, thus, in the disaster-striken sherry world: someone with optimism, vision, drive and probity, as well as possessing an assured intellectual command of international fine wine culture, its needs and interests. Actors of this sort are rare. We will hear more, I’m sure, of Jesús.
A Taste of Equipo Navazos
A selection of the finest wines from two tastings, one in London in December 2015 and one in the Sherry region in February 2016.
La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada 59, Capataz Rivas
Deep gold in colour, with scents in which the bready tide of flor has receded and settled into something harmonious and rounded, almost hinting at aniseed, honey and pollen. It’s genuinely and palpably saline on the palate, smooth, almost fat, alluding more to nuts than bread, with seaweed and umami notes, too: long, warming, intricate and deep. There’s a soft bite at the end. Eminently gastronomic. 94 points
La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada 60, Bota Punta
A ‘bota punta’ is the final, ground-level cask at one end of a solera: different by nature (since it is sampled more often, and may be exposed to different environmental conditions to the rest of the solera) and different by tutelage (often refreshed by the cellarmaster or capataz from the solera itself, rather than from younger criaderas). Absolutely grand, not so much in terms of its aromas, which are harmonious, arresting and tangy, but in terms of its concentrated, challenging and highly detailed flavours: fresh, mouthwatering and tongue-coating, a kind of Japanese banquet reduced to a single glass of wine, with a cascade of tuna flake, seaweed, ginger and green tea allusions. 96
La Bota de Fino 54
This single-vineyard Macharnudo Alto wine is a characterful clip from the Valdespino Inocente solera and second criadera. Resonant scents and flavours which evoke disparate notes (seaweed and green tea, but also mushrooms, sweet dust and wet plaster), bound up into a softly tangy, low-acid, nourishing and mouthfilling palate. 92
La Bota de Amontillado 58
A very fine, beautifully aged and refreshed Sanlúcar Amontillado: pale amber in colour, with penetrating dried apricot and dried cep aromas, then a strong, masterful, sword-waving palate: the concentration and aromatic refinement of the wine is such that we are approaching the limits of the sippable (a limit which many ancient sherries stride across, of course). This will send your salivary glands into orbit. 95
La Bota de Amontillado 61 Bota NO
A bota bearing the inscription NO is one that is not refreshed – because it has special qualities of some sort which the cellarmaster wants to preserve. This Amontillado, full of the thin, sharp character of Manzanilla which has gone beyond the age of flor, carries the heavenly cathedral scent of Sherry bodegas themselves: a combination of dried summer fruits, sweet dust and clean hessian fabric. On the palate, it is very beautiful but almost caustic in effect: a great sweeping scythe of saline acidity and dancing, firelit dust. Daunting but finally rewarding: a conversation stopper. 96
La Bota de Pedro Ximénez 56 Bota NO
Most PX wines seem better classified as food than wine, and you need an extraordinary fondness for sugar (or syrup of raisins) to enjoy them, so in general I’m not a fan – but then I tasted this. It incarnates the raisiny ideal with much more finesse than most, while on the palate it has such huge weight, purity and density of fruit as to be almost salty, almost tannic, and in general more satisfying for wine lovers than dessert addicts. 91
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