food in the arts

 
     
     
 
SHERRY/  FOOD FILMS/ SPANISH FOOD/ VELASQUEZ/ DALI/ SANCHEZ

Despite the seeming ‘anti-culture’ of the large, international sherry producers, a very human affair often exists behind the scenes. The almacenistas are the families responsible for making and maturing some of the most distinctive and individual wines in Jerez.

A character in TS Eliot’s The Family Reunion declared that ‘All that a civilised person needs is a glass of dry sherry or two before dinner.’  In that case, he might well have been thinking of the Andalusian’s favourite tipple, fino,  where the heat beads the copitas chilled contents with condensation and the tasty tapas soak up the alcohol. Those in the know maintain that however much you drink, you get no hangovers from fino, so pure is the wine.

Visitors to Jerez are always struck by how different it is to any other town in southern Spain. Majestically circling the edge of town, canopied seas of dark green leaves clothe the knotted vines, their growth sustained by the parched, chalky white soil.

Among the town’s cobbled streets, tree-lined boulevards and whitewashed houses with their geranium-filled flowerpots cascading from wrought-iron balconies, tower the monasterial bodegas. Their stuc­coed white walls enclose a country house setting of elegant green-lawned gardens and formal, flagged courtyards. It is all a bit remi­niscent of old England -and for good reason, for it is here that the sherry barons have set up shop and here that the fusion of Spanish and British blood works its magic. Add to this the stunning legacy of Moorish architecture and the liquid gold from which it takes its name and Jerez has an unbeatable combination of attractions.

Operating in the region alongside the multinationals are some 40 small, tradi­tional, family-owned almacenistas - a word of Moorish origin from al majzan or ‘deposit’, now meaning warehouse or stockholder. The role of a quarter of these families is to make, look after, nurture and mature Sherries until they are deemed at their peak and sold for bottling by the big sherry houses. In turn their livelihood has been assured by the inspired marketing brainwave of the century-old sherry house, Emilio Lustau. By linking its label with the name of each particular almacenista, Lustau has moved to ensure that the danger of losing these distinctively individual wines to the blends of the major producers – or forcing the almacenistas to sell their land if the going got tough – has been avoided.

Lustau operates as the sole marketing, distribution and bottling agent for ten almacenistas: these sell half of their output to the company, which then finds a suitable market in Spain and abroad, thus acting as a sort of co-operative. The almacenistas, own names are stamped beneath the Emilio Lustau brand, together with the sherry’s origin, style and the number of butts of the solera from which the wine is drawn off.

‘The beauty of this system is that family-owned businesses can continue to survive, as they have done for decades, and concentrate on what they do best – tending and harvesting their vines and maturing their sherry – without being swamped by the big players,’ says managing director Manual Arcila. ‘As the only bodega to commercialise the almacenista wines unblended, we put in an enormous effort into maintaining these different styles, because so many of them have already disappeared. If we didn’t, the consumer would lose out, because there would be no range and no choice,’ affirms export manager Jane Ward.

The Manuel Cuevas Juardo bodega in Sanlucar de Barrameda is one of the oldest, formed in 1889 as Nuestra Senora de Pilar. Fifty years ago, Don Manuel Cuevas Jurado purchased the bodega with profits from his grocery wholesale business. It is quite natural for a grocer to become an almacenista in Sanlücar and for centuries local inhabitants even paid for their groceries with wine.

The thick walls and high vaulted roofs of the three cellars ensure good air circulation and a cool, humid environment for its precious cargo. Set high up near the roof are shaded openings which let the air circulate but keep the sun out. The floors consist of hardpacked soil and are sprayed with water on the hottest summer days, to keep the temperature down and the humidity up.

Since his 92-year-old father passed away, Manuel Cuevas Galvez, a spring chicken at 66, has taken over the running of the bodega with his younger sister -assisted only by his cellar master Pepe and five harvesters who pick the grapes. Accommodated within the 7,000 square metres of cellarage are between 2,000-2,500 butts of grape must.

Manuel can recall that, 20 years ago, the bodega pressed its own grapes. with the juice filling 15 butts a day. Nowadays, though, economies of scale have necessi­tated the formation of a farmers’ co-operative, which buys all his grapes and from which, in return, he buys back new wine. The quantity Manuel is allowed to buy is related to the amount he sold the previous year, so that his stocks are main­tained at a consistent level.

Manuel insists that to produce a good sherry, maturation techniques are as - or even more - important than the quality of the grapes. Maturing the sherry is a very delicate process,’ he emphasizes. You have to be alert all the time, constantly examin­ing the butts to ensure the flor (the film of yeast that covers maturing finos and manzanillas, giving them their distinctive rancio character) is right. If it isn’t growing properly, we have to move the butts to a different part of the cellar, where the condi­tions might be more favourable. Its no different to nurturing my own sons - they all demand continuous care.’

50% per cent of Galvez’ yearly output of 700 butts is committed to Lustau, a further 25 % goes into unbranded wine boxes for home consumption and the remainder is sold to other bodegas for their own blends. The almacenistas retain an admirable loyalty to their marketing parent. Manuel tells the story of a Swiss buyer who rang him under the assumption that he could buy his wines cheaper direct. ‘I told him our wines were very expensive because they were the best, so they should go straight back to Lustau.’

Bodega tours are an important feature of cultivating the taste for sherry among foreign visitors, who on returning home – it is hoped - will boost export sales. Manuel recounts a visit from some 60 members of the Nippon Bartenders Association, who after three hours of sampling his manzanillas, six-year-old manzanilla pasada and rare 20-year-old manzanilla amontillada, ‘rolled out like one of my barrels,’ and much in need of their supper to follow.

The straw-coloured manzanilla is particularly delicious: bone dry, light and fresh with a salty tang that comes from the moist sea breezes that fan the skins of the ripening grapes. Oriental tourists have long been attracted to both fino and manzanilla because of their similarity to rice wine and sake. With the growing popularity of eastern cuisine - particularly Japanese - in Britain, Europeans are discovering how perfectly its lightness and dryness are suited.

In Jerez, one of the most historic almacenista bodegas is Pilar Aranda y Latorre. Its round pillars, kerosene lamps and butt-branding irons are souvenirs from a past age. The bodega is named after the gran senora, Dona Pilar, who took over the family business after the death of her father in 1946. Don Fermin had trained her well and she was renowned for her ability in selecting the best mostos and nosing wines.

By all accounts, she was a great character and a very strong woman - staying at home was definitely not for her. She also knew how to select people who could help her in the business, such as Manuel Gonzalez-Gordon. Her grandson recounts the story of a client of Domecq’s who sent his son along to buy some wine promised to Domecq. The son bragged that he could tell the difference between their wine and that of any other producer. Dona Pilar, complimenting him on his impressive powers of distinction, responded: ‘There’s as much difference between this wine as there is between you and your father!’

To commemorate her lifelong dedication to enhancing the quality of sherry, the consejo regulador. the region’s governing body, named her capatáz de honor (honorary cellarmaster) at the I975 harvest festival.  

Dona Pilar’s grandson, 34-year-old Fermion Garcia Villaescusa, manages the family business now, in between doing PR for bars, teaching art and his other passion – oil painting. ‘Painting is creative, but the bodega is conserving someone else’s creation,’ he declares. Fermin is well qualified to carry on the family tradition, having studied oenology and with 15 years of hands-on practical experience behind him. The family owns seven bodegas, three of which are rented out; the rest house 700 butts of must purchased from Gonzalez-Byass. 85% of his yearly output is resold to Gonzalez-Byass for their own blends and the remainder goes to Lustau for unblended branded bottling.

Pilar Aranda y Latorre is renowned for its unblended vintage Pedro Ximenez (PX), a rare dessert sherry, made from a single grape variety of the same name, that has matured for over 100 years, and looks and Pours like black treacle. A single sip from the four PX butts is enough to die for – Fermin says he could sell it for over €60 (£48) a bottle, but he won’t.

However, he does sell the prized Amontillado Fino under the Lustau label.

Latorre’s grandmother was equally famous for her vinegars, which register 13 degrees of acidity. ‘In the old days we used to turn the spoiled wine to vinegar, and I can also remember the mules bringing in the butts by cart,’ recounts Fermin. ‘Now we use the same must as for the sherries, to ensure the best quality. For me, the most important purpose is to defend my grandmother’s heritage and conserve the beautiful wines of Jerez.’

Susan Wolk

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Name
COSECHA Fino
Description
Bottled in Jerez by Emilio Lustau from the Cosecha range of fine quality and taste.
Alc Vol Producer
17.5% Emilio Lustau SA

LA INA

Description

Fino.

Alc Vol Producer
17.5% DOMECQ

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