Jerez: The Soul of an Enigma – Part IV: Bodegas Tradicion

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Consolidation is now a by-word for Jerez. Depressed sales have driven countless bodegas out of profitability and into the clutches of corporate acquisitions. All the more rare it is, then, for new bodegas with small productions and a concentration on quality to enter the scene. Bodegas Tradicion, founded in 1998, concentrates exclusively on making VORS and VOS sherries. This means that everything they make is at least 20 years old on average. Given the youth of the bodega itself, this business model was only possible by buying other bodega’s soleras from them – in many ways making Tradicion a positive product of the failing bodegas of the last 20 years.

Not any barrel will do. Tradicion sends out a special team to taste through hundreds of soleras to find the ones that meet their criteria and standards for quality. Most of these acquisitions are already 15-16 years old, and Tradicion then houses them in their cellar and completes the process. This is the kind of winery where the old marketing adage ‘no expense spared’ is actually a reality. Everything is done by hand, including the painstaking task of rotating the sherries from the Criaderas down to the Solera. Nothing is filtered or fined, and even bottling is done by hand. All of these processes, combined with a miniscule total production of 12,000 to 15,000 bottles per year mean that these sherries are some of the most expensive in Jerez. Tradicion also makes a small amount of brandy.

Tradicion is also one of the few bodegas besides the mega-operations like Gonzalez Bias and their Tio Pepe brand that is actually tourist friendly. They have regular tours and a tasting room set up – though nothing quite as slick and fancy as you would see in Napa Valley. My guide, the marketing director, lamented the state of things in Jerez, opining that the region had a lot to learn when it came to tourism and branding. The small bodegas have left regional branding up to the huge corporations. The problem is that the mega brands have now become synonymous with Sherry and many people don’t know that, for instance, Tio Pepe is not the alpha and omega of fino. While it is easy to blame the small bodegas for not having initiative, one must also consider the general attitude towards business in Andalucia, which is not about efficiency and internationalism. The Consejo Regulador is also somewhat to blame, as they haven’t done a good enough job at providing the tools for the small players to succeed – though I do applaud their attempts to expose new markets to sherry by offering courses and tastings in North America.

In the end, the only way for sherry to become a bigger thing and therefore to have the capacity to support greater diversity in the bodegas is for consumers to become more aware of the various styles and the history of the region. The complete lack of coverage of sherry in the North American media, particularly the wine spectator and Robert Parker, hasn’t done anything to help sherry’s image. But sherry isn’t particularly amenable to easy scoring as its uniqueness is its ability to be chameleon and versatile in food pairings.

During my discussion of and reflections on these issues I tasted through Tradicion’s very small but very impressive lineup of sherry. The first wine I tasted was the Amontillado VORS, which had a finessed and nutty nose with caramel richness and very impressive density. As the wine hits the palate you immediately become aware that this is wine geek territory: bold umami flavours, high acid, and a certain level of astringency. As a description this doesn’t sound good, but when you add the wine’s cleanliness, its precision and you balance out the acid with a good piece of Manchego, this amontillado displays its extreme complexity and amazing nuance. 19.5% ABV. Excellent. 40 Euros.

The Palo Cortado VORS had an extremely fascinating nose with a dry, almost chalky, minerality. The palate brough chalk and dark fruits with a long finish and a very balanced mouthfeel. The oxidative character in these wines would surprise many, even those with experience drinking dry sherry. However, the dryness on the finish of these wines is what makes them some of the best food pairing wines in the world. 19.5% ABV. I would note that the consistently high alcohols are not the result of fortification, but are rather simply a product of age and evaporation. Very Good+ to Excellent. 47 Euros.

The Oloroso VORS is actually over 40 years old and accordingly extremely complex. The nose suggests spiced cake, oranges, and a touch of oaken vanilla. The palate is huge and up front, with a massively dense mid-palate and a nutty, heavy richness. Perhaps a touch too aggressive for me, I do think this is simply not for drinking without food. 20% ABV. Very Good+. 40 Euros.

The Pedro Ximenez VOS is the youngest sherry of the bunch, with an average age of 20 years. This also has 440g/l of residual sugar, which is a tremendous amount. However, as with all the best PX’s it has enough acid (about 6-7g) to remain fresh and expressive. The nose is classic: prunes, figs, chocolate, and tremendous richness. The trademark viscosity coats the palate unlike most any other dessert wine. I loved the smoothness and voluptuous texture of the wine and its great flavours of toffee, coffee, dried fruits and chocolate. A really beautiful wine. Very Good+ to Excellent. 47 Euros.

The two brandies I tasted were also enjoyable. The Brandy Gold had a bolder younger cognac-like style with a large and long palate. Aged in oloroso casks, and 38% ABV. Very Good+. 55 Euros. I was much more excited by the Brandy Platinum, which was one of the deepest and most complex brandies I’ve ever had. The nose had tremendous nuance and a nice mineral-like finesse. The palate has great structure and length, but also a lightness and development that makes you get lost in memories as the brandy slowly drifts away. Excellent. 195 Euros.

Bodegas Tradicion is quietly making very high quality sherry and pushing a more modern approach to the beverage in marketing while maintaining an intense respect for the traditional methods of production and the greatest quality soleras. My only complaint is that the prices are very high compared to the top sherries from other great producers. I do understand the painstaking and expensive approach to tradition, but it will be hard to get many consumers to pay these prices for sherry. Sherry deserves to be treated like the other great wines of the world, but it has a long way to go to convince the consumer it is as worthy of reverence and appreciation as a region like Bordeaux. That said, if you have the means, you will not be disappointed in any of these sherries, most of which are truly remarkable.

Note: All of these wines are available in Vancouver at Marquis Wine Cellar. They are all about $100.

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