Authenticity: an elusive, impossible concept. And yet, a compelling one. Those who have spent any amount of time pursuing an interest to the point that it becomes a passion understand that the greatest part of this adventure is the hope of encountering brief moments of authenticity. For the wine aficionado, nay lover, it is not uncommon for such moments to become the foundation for the most giving and engrossing memories.
My experience at Rey Fernando de Castilla has elusively found its way across the threshold and become one of those memories. My visit also became the lynchpin for my reflections on what authenticity means in wine, and more particularly, in sherry. Fernando de Castilla started two hundred years ago as a grower that would supply grapes to the sherry houses. In the 1960’s and 70’s they began producing bottles under their own label. In 2002 the family that owned the bodega sold it to several partners, including my host Jan Pettersen, who had himself worked at the bodega since 1983.
Jan, a Norwegian by birth, immediately struck me as a contemplative man, and as an individual bound tightly to the adventure of passion and authenticity. It turned out that my suspicions were correct, for it was Jan’s reflections on the history, business, style, and marketing of sherry that were the most insightful of not only my trip to Jerez but of my entire visit to Spain.
In fact, it was in my very first moments speaking to Jan that he confessed that sherry only found its full expression for him when it was paired with food:
The bodega itself was also a stark contrast to some of the larger more industrial complexes I encountered. Rather than perfectly delineated rows of barrels and a super efficient lay-out, Fernando de Castilla had a homier, cozier feel, with small rooms and modest numbers of barrels. As it turns out, these barrels were filled with some of the greatest sherries I experienced on my trip. The bodega is meticulous about its practices, and refuses to fine, clarify or aggressively filter any of its sherries. All of the sherries also come from individual soleras (rather than a blend of several) and are only bottled 1-3 times a year to ensure quality. For some wine lovers, such methods are often the mark of a winemakers passion for approaching something like authenticity since these sorts of methods help to ensure that it is the quality of the grapes and the maturation process that expresses itself in a wine rather than additives or an industrialized process.
With such exacting methods comes higher prices, and as such Fernando de Castilla has relied very much on niches rather than one huge market. In fact, they export their sherries to over 45 countries (sadly this does not include Canada, yet), and concentrate on placing their wines in restaurants that care passionately about their food. That said, it still strikes me as ridiculous that sherry is priced the way it is. ‘Higher prices’ in sherry often simply mean prices approximating the entry level for other fine wine categories. Except, with sherry you get the best of what is on offer rather than the introduction to that higher level.
I began my tour through the wonderful progression of soleras by tasting the “antique” Amontillado and Oloroso. However, it was my third taste of a truly ancient 40 year old Oloroso that isn’t even sold outside the winery that made me realize the attention to detail and sheer love of the craft that is the hallmark of Fernando de Castilla. And I would note that Jancis Robinson reportedly could not believe the quality of this very same sherry when she tasted it earlier in the year. Oh if only they bottled this special family reserve.
While many bodegas are relying on the relatively new VOS and VORS system to label their finest sherries (as I described in my previous posts in this series), Fernando de Castilla has never believed in this system. Jan explained that he feels that the VOS and VORS system does not accurately reflect what makes sherry so special – that is, the nature of the solera itself. Each solera has its own personality, and the precise age of a solera is not only somewhat besides the point, but it is not completely determinative of quality. Some younger sherries can actually outclass the older. For Jan, it was more important simply to distinguish between ‘old’ sherry and ‘young’ sherry. And, as such, Fernando de Castilla simply labels their older sherries as “antique”, eschewing the regulator’s VOS and VORS systems.
In fact, Jan explained to me that one of his wines, which was only 20 years old, passed the tasting panel’s test for a VORS sherry. Even as they offered him the classification, he refused. Why? Because he was more concerned with what he saw to be the authenticity of sherry than jumping on the bandwagon of a particular marketing initiative.
As for the antique Amontillado and Oloroso? They were wines of distinction and incredible complexity and richness coupled with elegance and expression. These are some of the most structured sherries I tasted in these styles and retained a refinement that many do not associate with sherry. If I had to rate them, which somehow does not seem apropos in this case, I would easily give them an Excellent rating. They are both somewhere around 30 euros a 500ml bottle.
My favourite of the antique sherries, however, was the Antique Palo Cortado. This was denser than the amontillado, but very balanced and long with nuts, herbs and a wonderful savory character. This wine is driven by finesse but also full body. It is, in effect, the perfect expression of the ideal form of sherry: full body, high acid, finesse, and an uncanny ability to pair with a wide range of foods. There is probably a good reason El Buli has this on their wine list. Excellent+.
The “antique” Pedro Ximenez had an astounding 500g of residual sugar and yet retained freshness and good acidity. The wines were getting so old under the old owners that they were evaporating more than they were selling. Luckily since Jan and his partners took over they have managed to increase sales to ensure that this wonderful wine will not disappear. This was one of the best dessert wines I have tasted to date and I could easily rate this at Excellent to Excellent+.
As any true Jerez-lover knows, this land is not all about Sherry. In fact, the Brandies of Jerez (traditionally aged in sherry casks), are one of only three officially regulated and controlled regions for Brandy in Europe, the others being Cognac and Armagnac. Fernando de Castilla is perhaps even better known for their brandies than their sherries, and as I tasted, these could rival many a fine Cognac, particularly the Unico, which has been brought into Ontario by the LCBO (but unfortunately not yet into BC). This is the kind of spirit with a limitless and protean finish that keeps you wondering and contemplating on each sip. And, as Jan attested, it is very fine with cigars.
Unlike most bodegas, Fernando de Castilla makes two finos. The first is made in the classic fresh style. Made in small batches, this is cleaner and less aggressive than many other finos – especially those that make it to North American shores. The balance and acidity are pinpoint. Excellent.
Contrary to popular belief, the finos made at Fernando de Castilla never see the loss of flor, as Jan explained to me:
The second, however, is one of the very few old-style finos that sees longer aging and higher alcohol than the new-style finos that have completely obliterated the existence of this venerable tradition. The “Antique” fino is richer and denser than traditional fino, but retains the great balance and finesse (as opposed to aggressiveness) of truly great fino. Basically, take everything that makes fino great and add complexity, depth, and a bit more alcohol (17% ABV). Excellent to Excellent+.
Fernando de Castilla also makes wine from muscatel, a grape that has been planted in Jerez for a while. I particularly enjoyed the young Muscatel Hechizo, which was made in a very light and aromatic style reminiscent of Austrian dessert wine. For the price (I think around 12 euros) I thought this was Excellent.
Finding the true heart of a matter is akin to Sisyphus’ trip up the mountainside. However, unlike Sisyphus, for the wine lover the journey is more pleasurable and revealing than tortuous (although some industry types might disagree). Rey Fernando de Castilla is a bodega offering one of the closest glimpses at authenticity that Jerez has to offer. These are wines that will change your perception of what sherry is all about; they are also wines that will undoubtedly start you on another journey through a style of wine that has somehow been pushed to the side by the accidents of history.
For this traveler, the particular series of accidents that led me to meeting Jan Pettersen at his bodega in Jerez on a cloudy day in April has now etched itself on my own personal journey to find authenticity in the world of wine.