Tim getting the full tour!
Yes, there is such a thing as vintage sherry! Tim discovers more at specialists Williams & Humbert and gets to tour González Byass, one of Jerez's main tourist draws. Two very different set ups.
The following morning I paid a visit to González Byass, which enjoys a prime, elevated location in the town of Jerez. I was given the full tour, which included visiting the original office of founder Manuel Maria Gonzáles, a walk through several of the bodegas on site and a very comprehensive tasting – a modest 27 sherries. We buy Tio Pepe from González Byass, as well as the highly-acclaimed 'Palmas' wines, which start out life in the main Tio Pepe solera and are then aged for many years more.
What struck me about the tasting at González Byass was the remarkable consistency of its top-selling fino, Tio Pepe
The overall quality of wines was exceptional across the style and price spectrum, but I was particularly struck by the remarkable consistency of quality achieved by Tio Pepe, the most famous and widely distributed fino sherry brand. Almost five million bottles of Tio Pepe are produced annually, yet the high level of quality never falters.
Romantic-looking González Byass
González Byass is one of the main tourist draws of the town of Jerez, with a range of tours for visitors. It is also is a popular (and romantic) venue for weddings. Apparently the extensive site can accommodate three weddings simultaneously without encroaching on one another!
Sherry, sherry & more sherry!
Vintage casks are sealed by a representative of the
Consejo Regulador who would have to personally
oversee any samples taken for tasting!
Next stop Williams & Humbert, supplier of our Alegria Manzanilla and As You Like it Amontillado. In contrast to most of the previous visits Williams & Humbert is located outside the old part of Jerez in a rather unprepossessing 1970s-looking concrete building on the edge of town. The site is home to the largest cellar under a single roof in Europe, housing an impressive 65,000 casks stretching over no fewer than 12 acres! And what it lacks in architectural aesthetics it more than makes up for with its wines.
One of the specialities of Williams & Humbert is its range of vintage (añada) sherries, which they have been making for almost a century. Rather than putting the wines through the solera system of fractional ageing, young sherry from a single harvest is put in cask, where it remains until bottling. Because of the annual evaporation from cask (known as merma) of between 3% and 5%, the barrels are topped up from time to time from other casks of that vintage. Williams & Humbert has an impressive collection of vintages going back many years.
When we used to bottle in Stevenage we would
ship our sherry casks to Scotland for their next 'life'
There is a huge amount of bureaucracy associated with vintage sherries, as the Consejo Regulador controls access to all vintage casks extremely tightly to ensure authenticity and to eliminate fraudulent age claims. All vintage casks are sealed by a representative of the Consejo whenever wine is added or drawn from the cask. The latter applies not just to bottlings but also to samples, so if I wanted to taste a sample of a particular vintage an official would have to oversee the drawing of the sample!
Whisky industry supplies a healthy financial sideline for sherry producers
The other point of interest which I learnt on my visit to Williams & Humbert is the important, and increasingly lucrative, side-line that many sherry houses take advantage of which is selling sherry casks to the Scottish distilleries for ageing whisky. In the past, when sherry was exported to Britain in bulk, the wooden casks were loaded onto ships and bottled on arrival. The casks were then sold off to the distilleries. Today, sherry is bottled within the region of production and so the producers purchase brand new casks and 'season' them by keeping basic quality sherry in the casks for a number of months before decanting off the wine and selling the casks to the burgeoning whisky industry. Williams & Humbert have whole sections of their cellars given over to this important spin-off industry which has helped support the financially embattled sherry industry.
Where to go next?