Jerez: The Soul of an Enigma – Part II: Bodegas Williams & Humbert
The classical image of wine country is one of idyllic vines planted in serene and beautiful environments, and quaint winery buildings in which a passionate French guy offers you glass upon glass of delicious wine. Visiting a sherry bodega is completely unlike this pastoral scene. Situated in the town of Jerez, and therefore removed from the actual vineyards where the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes are grown, the sherry bodegas rise out of the small and largely visually uninspiring town as strange and obscure beacons.
Taking a cab from my hotel and around the ring road that encircles Jerez towards my first appointment I was treated to vistas of factories, run down buildings and a general lack of coherence. Driving up to the Williams & Humbert ‘bodega’ was more like driving up to the corporate offices of a car manufacturing plant than anything resembling a winery. It was at this moment that I began wondering what Jerez was all about and whether I would be inspired during my visit.
However, the exterior of Jerez belies something much deeper and engaging – and it is only in the bodegas’ interiors that one can fully appreciate what sherry is all about. So, after meeting with Edward Butler, regional sales manager, in the office, we wandered over to the wine cellar itself. Stepping into this structure conjured images of the belly of a tanker filled to the brim with treasures destined for other lands. In fact, the Williams and Humbert ‘cellar’ is absolutely mammoth, spanning a full kilometer from end to end. With an annual production of one million bottles, it is not surprising that the facility is so vast. But to stand on a platform overlooking row upon row of soleras is a sight I will not forget.
However, as I alluded to in part I of this series, the antique barrels that comprise the solera system are unlike anything else in the wine world. These are truly creatures of mythology and the sight and smell of them invokes images of an *ancient* subterranean world.
Williams & Humbert is one of those Bodegas I alluded to in my first article in this series that was founded by one of the great British admirers of the fortified wines of Jerez. The legacy of the original founder, Sir Alexander Williams, was eventually acquired by the Medina family in the 1960’s and a Dutch multinational purchased half the shares in the late 1970’s. This partnership saw tremendous growth in the company, which became one of the leading exporters of Sherry. Recently in 2005 the Medina family required the 50% share held by the Dutch multinational and now fully control the company. It is clear that Williams & Humbert has always been business minded and focused on export markets, and so it was that I became very curious if the quality of their wines would stand up against some of the smaller and more artisanal producers.
I was led through my visit by Edward and an extremely passionate and friendly man. I found Edward to be both extremely engaging and an individual with an honest love for what he was doing. Big company or not, this is a rare thing and I really appreciated it. We were accompanied in our tour by the venenciador, a man with a stoic and prideful demeanor. As he poured me samples of sherry from a plethora of barrels (all of which he knew perfectly) his gravitas never waivered.
While touring and tasting from the casks I learned of the shockingly high annual rainfall in Jerez – not that much less than Vancouver. I also learned that W&H make wines both from grapes grown in their own vineyards (about 30% of production) and purchased via long term contracts. Interestingly, Williams & Humbert also maintain a full-on cooperage in their bodega in order to repair and maintain their greatest asset: the aging barrels themselves. They also serve as cooper to some smaller bodegas without such facilities.
The first wine I tasted out of cask was the Dry Sack Fino. This wine was bold with a huge flavour and high acid. The yeast brought a floral and fruity element to the wine that really impressed me. The yeast flavours underlay a savory and lightly nutty character. I also had a chance to taste the flor itself, which was a unique experience that demonstrated the particular qualities the yeast brings to the table. I would rate this as Very Good+ to Excellent. I would also note that the Dry Sack Manzanilla (not not the Fino) is now available in BC at the BCLDB for something like $15-$20 a bottle.
Up next was the 12 year old (average age) Williams & Humbert Collection Oloroso. This was one of Edward Butler’s favourite wines. For me this was all about balance and freshness with clean nutty flavours driven by acid. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have more opportunities to taste younger Oloroso compared to older Oloroso here in the province because there are dramatic differences that make each wine suitable for a completely different purpose and palate. This was made in a fully dry style. Excellent.
I also tasted the famous Dry Sack sherry, a cream style blended sherry. This was definitely good for the style and I can understand how this appeals to certain palates. It offered slight residual sugar which I think makes it more suitable as an aperitif than as a meal-based wine. Very Good.
The 12 year old Amontillado was drier and tarter than the Oloroso, but not quite as complex or deep. Very Good+ to Excellent.
I also got the opportunity to taste the Dry Sack Solera Especial, a 15 year old version of the classic Dry Sack. This was very long, deep, rich and balanced, and in fact it is the best cream sherry I’ve tasted and certainly the most balanced. Very Good+.
We moved over to a very cool product Williams & Humbert decided to produce as an attempt to be forward thinking and experimental. The Ron Dos Maderas PX is based on a rum imported from the Caribbean but then aged in the Solera system using sherry casks. This is aged for 3-5 years in Jerez in Pedro Ximenez casks. This is truly a superb rum with character that can rival very good scotch. I very much wanted to bring a bottle of this home but realized that it would fill my entire Canada Customs exemption. Too bad, because I rated this Excellent to Excellent+.
The final leg of my journey through the soleras led me to Williams & Humbert’s extremely serious VOS and VORS sherries. For those in the BC market who have only tasted such wines from Gonzalez Byass (which I would add are sweetened with Pedro Ximenez), these wines are traditional and very dry sherries that go far beyond what Byass offers.
The VORS (30 year old) Amontillado Jalifa was very dry and nutty and dense in colour and aroma, and yet light in the mouth. This is a wine geek wine and it offers tremendous complexity for the price. I would be shocked if you could find a wine as complex and as able to pair with cheese as this wine. Excellent and available now at the BCLDB for $25 a ½ bottle.
The VOS (20 year old) Dos Cortado is a Palo Cortado that was probably the most complex wine I tasted at Williams & Humbert and my personal favourite. This is a chameleon like wine with some serious depth and concentration. A wine geek wine par excellence and W&H was kind enough to offer a bottle of this for me to bring back. Unfortunately this is not available in BC right now. Excellent.
The VOS Don Guido Pedro Ximenez, however, is available in the province. If you have only tasted basic sweet sherry then you do not yet understand the depth, concentration and profundity that can be achieved with a truly great Pedro Ximenez. This wine is made for ice cream and is smooth, very balanced and has superb density. Yet, it does not sacrifice too much acid and avoids becoming cloying or gloppy. This style is one of the world’s long lost dessert wines. Excellent to Excellent+. $25 a ½ bottle at the BCLDB.
After tasting through a staggering range of sherries in nearly every style I found myself feeling surprisingly satisfied with the very high quality of wine I experienced across the entire range. While the top VOS and VORS wines are assuredly the best of the bunch, the dry sack Fino and Manzanilla surprised with the excellent quality for the style at a very reasonable price. More importantly, these are real sherries, and Williams & Humbert has avoided dumbing down their wines even while growing consistently as a company. Being large and maintaining honest quality is not an easy task, but this bodega has managed to achieve just that. An auspicious start to my visit.