Staring down from an observation perch at an extremely large and fully industrialized bottling line places many things in perspective. Wine, in the majority of circumstances, is an industrial product. Clones, fertilized soil, pesticides and herbicides, mechanical harvesting, machine sorting, crushing, pressing, sulfites, cultured yeasts, fining, filtering and, finally, sloshing into bottles on a fully mechanized bottling line. This is the life-cycle of most bottles of wine consumed in the world.
Why is it, then, that we tend to think of wine as a ‘natural’ product? For one, wine has become romanticized in modern western cultures as the representative of a form of idyllic life. Sipping wine, eating great food and staring out at beautiful vistas. In many ways this romanticized image is the dominant brand message of wine as a product category, particularly in North America.
On the other side is the French-influenced philosophy of ‘terroir’. Wine is a product of the earth, we are told, and the best wine expresses its ‘natural’ origins completely and uniquely. ‘Wine makers’ (the French notoriously hate this term) are mere conduits for the expression of the particularities of nature in a given place. Of course, this is merely another form of idyll, this time with great mother nature playing the harp rather than the enraptured wine drinker.
While debates about ‘natural’ wine can sometimes start asking interesting questions about this relationship between humans and nature that is expressed in wine, for the average and majority of wine consumers, any such talk is complete nonsense. A good 90% of the products on the shelf are industrial products more than anything else, founded on some basic raw materials that have been cultivated for thousands of years.
It is only in this context that one can understand the biggest producers in Jerez, their aims and their philosophy. Wine is an industrial business and no amount of romanticizing will change that. That said, what is important is understanding how wine is industrialized and making an informed choice about what products one chooses to consume. For, as with many product categories, not all wine falls under the umbrella of ‘industry’.
Bodegas Jose Estevez S.A. is one of the biggest sherry companies in existence, with an annual production of 18 million bottles. That is 18 times larger than Williams & Humbert, which is already considered a very large producer. Grupo Jose Estevez, as it is also known, has been at the centre of a considerable amount of consolidation in the land of Sherry, and it currently has plans for continued growth and expansion.
As an example, one of the most famous Manzanillas is La Guita. This used to be produced by a mid-sized producer who also had ancient soleras known to be filled with some of the most exciting sherries in the region. However, upon acquisition by Grupo Jose Estevez, these old soleras were removed and the production of La Guita ramped up many fold. In many ways this acquisition had the opposite effect of what a producer like Tradicion has accomplished – eliminating rather than saving some of the greatest old soleras in the region (in this case, from Sanlucar).
Walking through the cellars of Jose Estevez futher embodied the industrial mentality – they use a mechanical humidity system rather than the traditional method of sanding and watering the floors. This ensures that their humidity never wavers and that spoilage is pretty much unheard of. Mechanical pumps are also used to transfer the sherry from criadera to solera and to pump over when necessary. Commercial yeasts are commonplace amongst the cheaper products. I was even told that the traditional systems were simply not hygienic, though I’m sure those over at Bodegas Tradicion would disagree with that as a blanket statement.
Other acqusitions included Tio Mateo in 1993 and Valdespino in 1999. These now make up two important lines of product for Jose Estevez, with Valdespino being the ‘high quality’ offering from the group. To put this in perspective, Valdespino was 400 years old when acquired and considered to be one of the benchmark producers in Jerez. Several owners and high level employees in the Sherry industry lamented this sale to me, saying that some of the greatest houses were giving in to market pressures and the promise of an easy way out of dealing with some difficult market fluctuations and shifts.
Jose Estevez has its business model oriented towards doing business with supermarkets and other large buyers, and as such to meet the laboratory requirements of such buyers they use industrial and mechanical systems to ensure consistency wherever possible. It is understandable that when one’s business model relies on such large buyers that it is not worth the risk of using traditional methods when slight contamination could result in the loss of a very large contract. Jose Estevez also wants to keep prices low for their target consumer (which particular demographic is the dominant one for wine). Of course, with such large buyers, a huge bottling plant is necessary, this one capable of pumping out between 12k to 24k bottles per hour.
As I tasted through the sherries that comprise the portfolio of Bodegas Jose Estevez S.A. I was, despite some of my worries, quite impressed with the quality they had managed to achieve despite their industrialized process. These sherries do not reach the heights of the best artisanal producers in Jerez, and it is certainly lamentable that many fine bodegas and old soleras have gone to the wayside because of the massive acquisitions by this industrial-focused group. That said, these sherries remain high quality products that far outclass almost any other industrial wine. My tasting notes follow.
Valdespino Innocente Single Vineyard Fino: Fresh and clean with good depth and balance. Umami qualities drive the flavour profile. Very Good+.
La Guita Manzanilla: Heavy yeast quality on the nose, also rich and floral. The palate is floral again, with a subtle and softer mid-palate with great saline qualities persisting on the finish. Despite the industrialization of this product, it is still one of the best QPR manzanillas available. 4.5 euros. Very Good+. Available in Seattle or Berkeley at The Spanish Table.
Tio Mateo Fino: A nose with fresh floral qualities and moderate bready yeast. The palate is quite biscuit-driven and fresh while also fuller bodied than the La Guita. Good length. Very Good to Very Good+. 5.5 euros.
Valdespino Tio Diego Amontillado: 10 years old. Oxidative nose leading into nuts and caramel on the palate. This also retains a great saline quality that I tend to associate with Fino more than Amontillado. The finish is more dominated by oak-spice than anything else, but there is good, though not great, finesse. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Amontillado Del Principle Muy Viejo: Amber coloured. Caramel and oxidative nose. There is great texture and length on the palate as well as a soft and supple texture. Almonds and hazelnuts start showing up in the mid-palate. However, what makes this special is that it is cleaner and more finessed than most Amontillados on the market. Excellent.
Valdespino Amontillado Contrabandista: This Amontillado has Pedro Ximenez added to it, which darkens its colour and brings out some richer aromas and flavours such as prunes, figs and caramel. The classic nuttyness is present, but this has more spice and dried fruit on the palate than you get from classic 100% Palomino based Amontillado. I was not overly excited by this sherry. Very Good to Very Good+.
Valdespino Solera 1842 Oloroso VOS: Again, this has 5% Pedro Ximenez added and so is a corresponding brown to pale gold colour. The fruit character has more dark and heavy raisinated fruit than you normally get from Oloros. There was some volatile acidity here too, detectable as a varnish aroma. The palate has a big punch of nuts, but becomes extremely persistent (the best quality of the sherry) and offers chocolate and caramel to go. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Valdespino Ideal Pale Cream: Stylistically correct, but many will not like this style – pear and apple and very fruit on the nose, but also fresh and light on the palate, similar to a high residual sugar white wine with good acidity. Very Good.
Valdespino Pedro Ximenez El Candado: Aged 16 years. Brighter than many PX’s I’ve tasted, this is very honeyed and adds raisins, dried figs, caramel, and chocolate when you taste it. Classic PX viscosity, but the acidity makes this work. Quite excellent for its level. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Valdespino Marques del Real Tesoro Brandy Solera Gran Reserva: This is the traditional style of Brandy of Jerez, which is more scotch like and savory than the new style, which is far more similar to Cognac. Wood spice and vanilla on the nose, this starts out light with some nice wood and tobacco notes, and then gets into a very earthy and dry finish. Very Good+.
In conclusion, this was a fairly consistent line of products from such a large producer, and the best of them stood out as excellent, if not exceptional, sherries.
I should apologize for the lack of photos in this piece. My computer suffered a major meltdown and I lost all my photos from the past 6 years – a sad occurrence. This is also the last piece in my series on Jerez. I hope that you enjoyed reading about the wonderful world of sherry and I implore you to give a bottle a try sometime with some nice cured meats, cheeses, olives and nuts. Sherry is one of the world’s greatest wines – in fact a wine to rival the likes of Bordeaux – and yet it is most certainly one of if not its most underappreciated, often relegated to a couple shelves in the ‘fortified wine’ section of your local store. Sherry deserves better, and in this series I have attempted to show the complexity, depth, and incredible history that underlies those simple little bottles that so many pass on by.