By: Gary Westby | K&L Champagne Buyer (& Sherry Lover)
K&L Book Club Project #1: Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla by Peter Liem & Jesús Barquín
Here at K&L, we not only need to keep learning about wine and spirits to stay current in our profession, but are compelled to learn because it is our passion. I had an idea in the back of my mind for a while about doing a book club with the staff and when Peter Liem & Jesús Barquín published Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla ($29.95) I knew the time was right to stop thinking about it and launch the project. Currently we have more than a dozen of our wine staff here at K&L reading this book, and we are planning to meet to discuss it (and drink a bunch of Sherry!) late this April. If you have a tasting group, or just some friends who love wine, I suggest that you do the same.
Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla by Peter Liem & Jesús Barquín is one of the top wine books that I have had the pleasure of reading. It is incredibly clear, and the authors manage to explain complex material in a way that is very easy to understand. I could not keep my nose out of it until it was finished. I have known Peter Liem for many years, as he lives in Dizy, in the heart of Champagne. He is the only American wine writer living in that region, and takes his work very seriously.
K&L Spanish Wine Buyer Joe Manekin and I were lucky enough to interview Mr. Liem about his new book, and the following is what we learned from him:
G: How did you get the inspiration to write Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla?
P: Along with Champagne, Sherry is one of my great passions in the wine world: I have been drinking Sherry all my adult life, and have been traveling to the Jerez region since 1998. I’ve also been fascinated with the body of literature surrounding Sherry, not only in Spanish but in English as well. From the early nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, there were a great number of texts written about Sherry in both languages, yet over the last thirty to forty years there have been comparatively few, and the number of English-language books about Sherry published in the last 25 years can be counted on one hand. I thought it was time that someone wrote a new book on Sherry, one from a much more contemporary perspective, and I wanted to be the one to do it.
How did you meet Jesús Barquín? How does the process of co-authoring a book differ from writing it oneself?
Jesús and I met in Spain a number of years ago, shortly after he started the Equipo Navazos project. He opened my eyes to many things that were going on in the Sherry country, and through him I gained a much more personal and insider perspective on the region. I had initially conceived of this book as a solo project, but Jesús eventually proposed a collaboration between us, with me as the primary author. As far as co-authorships go, ours was probably one of the easiest, since Jesús insisted from the beginning that I maintain complete creative control. I wrote the majority of the text, with Jesús editing and making notes along the way, and I also consulted his existing body of writing, using themes and ideas that we thought would be appropriate.
I have read everything I could get my hands on about Sherry and visited the region, but when I left, I still did not know what flor really was or how it worked- I only knew the wonderful results. I was fascinated by your clear, detailed explanation of biologically aged sherry, who did you learn about the process from and was it difficult to get the information? Also, what sorts of ongoing studies are out there regarding the formation of flor and its implications for Sherry as well as other types of wines?
The majority of what I have learned about flor certainly comes from speaking with cellarmasters and winemakers in the Sherry region, many of whom have spent their entire lives working with Sherry. I owe a great deal to people like Eduardo Ojeda of Valdespino and La Guita, Antonio Flores of González Byass, Monse Molina of Barbadillo and Javier Hidalgo of Hidalgo-La Gitana, among many others, who have taken the time to educate me about the biological aging process and how it is illustrated through the criaderas and soleras of their wines. On the scientific end, there has been a lot of research done over the last 50 years by people such as M.A. Amerine, Kenneth Freiberg and J.G. Castor, and the flor aging process continues to be carefully studied by people in the Sherry region and beyond.
Palo Cortado fascinates me and I was very intrigued to learn from your book that part of the reason the style might have been more common in the past was because of old grape varietals. Has anyone shown interest in replanting some of these ancient varieties?
The idea that authentic Palo Cortado is attributable to heirloom grape varieties is a speculative one, and only one factor in a larger theoretical hypothesis on the development of Palo Cortado in the past. It's true that prior to the arrival of phylloxera in the late nineteenth century, there were dozens, possibly even hundreds of grape varieties grown in the Sherry region. However, palomino was already becoming the dominant variety by at least the mid-nineteenth century, singled out for its exceptional quality and its affinity with albariza soils. Today I know of at least one winegrower, Dr. José Cabral in Trebujena, who has planted old varieties such as Barcelonés and Castellano in order to make white wine, but I don’t imagine there's anyone who thinks that there’s anything superior to palomino for the production of Sherry. Palomino has become the primary grape of the Sherry region for a very good reason.
Looking ahead, do you foresee an increased interest in a more hands on, personal approach to viticulture in Jerez?
I definitely think that the question of viticulture in the Sherry region is going to become more significant in the future. The first step towards that is simply addressing the issue of vineyard ownership: many people are surprised to discover that most Sherry bodegas do not, in fact, own any vines. There has historically been a clearly defined, three-tier system in Jerez that has worked very well, with growers growing grapes, almacenistas producing and aging wine, and shippers bottling and marketing the finished product. While this has become more blurred in the modern day, the structure and economics of the Sherry business still make it more practical for most shippers to buy stocks of wine from almacenistas rather than to press grapes and make young base wines of their own. One of the only shippers who is actively seeking to enlarge its vineyard holdings right now is the Grupo Estévez, who owns Valdespino, La Guita and Marqués del Real Tesoro: in 2012 the group purchased an additional 400 hectares (988 acres) of vineyards, expanding on its already impressive estate and making it the largest vineyard landholder in the region, with nearly 800 hectares of vines in total. The Grupo Estévez is still something of an anomaly in this regard, as other houses are often seeking to sell vineyard land rather than buy it, but I don’t think that it will be the only one in the region to place value on vineyard ownership, and we may well see others follow suit.
I love the parallels that you draw between Champagne and Sherry in the book. What do you think the Champagne producers could learn from the Sherry producers? What do you think the Sherry producers could learn from the Champenois?
There are more parallels to be drawn between Champagne and Sherry than most people imagine, both in terms of the wines themselves and the ways in which they are made. In our book, I talk about the increased importance that the Champenois are placing on viticulture and vineyard terroir, and the corresponding change in the way that they view their base wines, with a movement away from the idea that these wines need to be neutral in character in order to make high-quality Champagne. While the needs and concepts of base wines are not identical in Champagne and Sherry, I would definitely like to see a similar shift in attitude occur in Jerez, as there is strong historical precedent for the importance of the vineyard in Sherry production, and a rediscovery and reevaluation of terroir and viticulture can only be of benefit to the region as a whole.
Regarding the Champenois learning from the Jerezanos, one very minor and nitpicky issue concerns the use of a so-called “solera” for blending reserve wines in Champagne, which is almost always more properly termed a perpetual cuvée, as it involves only one tier of blending: essentially, it's a solera with no criaderas. A small handful of Champagne producers are working this way, including growers such as Bérèche et Fils, H. Billiot, Francis Boulard, De Sousa, R. Dumont, Laherte Frères and Pierre Péters, and their numbers seem to be increasing. The only one I know of, though, who actually uses a true solera in the Sherry sense—that is, a system of fractionalized blending with multiple criaderas—is Anselme Selosse. I wonder if there is a substantive difference between making a reserve blend in a true solera and in a perpetual cuvée, and I would like to see some Champagne producers explore this idea.
The Book: Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla by Peter Liem & Jesús Barquín ($29.95)
Date of Discussion: End April 2013
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A toast to you,