A Master Class in Sherry Blending

Located on the fringes of downtown Jerez, in what were once the suburbs of Spain’s Sherry capital, the González Byass bodega is like a city unto itself.

Within the walls of this mammoth winery, founded in 1835, one encounters orange trees and vine-adorned cobblestone pathways connecting one enormous barrel-filled solera to another to yet another, each containing thousands of black casks filled with all types of highly aromatic Sherry wines.

From the company’s early days up through the latter half of the 20th century, the sprawling winery functioned as a home to a community: Workers lived in the bodega with their families; employees ate meals in communal groups; in fact, children of some González Byass winemakers and bodegueros (winery workers) were born and raised in the winery itself.

One such person is Antonio Flores, born 60 years ago in a room above a small barrel vault. “The original Tio Pepe solera is called Rebollo. I was born directly upstairs,” Flores, González Byass’s chief winemaker and master blender since 1980, told me in late September, during a visit the winery. “That is why people say I have Sherry and not blood in my veins.”

The son of a González Byass winemaker, Flores had invited me to Jerez to help select the barrels that will comprise this year’s production of the Las Palmas series of Sherries. In the invitation, I was told to prepare for a heavy day of tasting and a hands-on education in Sherry blending.

“To make great Sherry, you must have two things,” Flores said at the beginning of our day. “One, is a lot of chalk. You will notice that every barrel we will try today has markings indicating quality and to what wine it will go into, be it Tio Pepe or Las Palmas. Two, you need shoes with soft soles; because we will be on our feet for hours.”

Walking fromAntonio Flores, sampling straight from the solera. González Byass’s library, where I had read the original partnership proposal letter that founder Manuel María González wrote in 1836 to his British agent Robert Blake Byass, Flores explained the Palmas wines, which are, in essence, longer-aged, higher quality versions of Tio Pepe, the winery’s signature fino.

He noted that only 6,000 bottles of Una, Dos, Tres or Cuatro Palmas are made each year, and that this would be the fifth edition of the Palmas collection. “Tio Pepe is a clean, young, consistent fino. The Palmas wines live in their own world,” said Flores, skillfully pulling a sample from a cask with his venencia, a particular cup-at-the-end-of-a-stick devi
ce that Jerezanos use to take Sherry from a barrel.

For Una Palma (one palm), we tasted through a solera with an average of six years of age per barrel. We sniffed and sipped about 30 samples to select ten top barrels. These were mostly fresh, crisp wines that are deeper in character than Tio Pepe but not overly complex. For Dos Palmas, which ages two years longer than Una Palma, we did the same, selecting even richer, deeper offerings. For Tres Palmas, what Flores labeled as wines “on the border of life and death,” with no flor (the vital surface-level yeast blanket that protects finos resting in barrel from oxygen exposure), we tried ten-year-old wines with beaming acidity and intensity, again selecting our top ten. For Cuatro Palmas, which is akin to aged amontillado, we chose three barrels with impeccable elegance.

From there, we retasted all of our selections, choosing the best four barrels for Una, the best three for Dos, the best two for Tres, and lastly the best one for Cuatro. With my fingers smelling like a pungent mix of nuts, honey, oak and rancio, my work was done.

As you read this, Flores and his team are busy blending and bottling the wines based on our selections that day. Las Palmas, the 5th Edition, will be available in the United States in December, and I hope you like them. They are the result of my day working as a master Sherry blender, albeit under the watchful eye of the real deal.

Published on October 29, 2015