The Tasting Panel magazine

September 2015

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Page 104 of 140

104  /  the tasting panel  /  september 2015 hardly awake when the train arrived in Jerez, and the sun was already hot and my head still rang with the sounds and splendor of the night before in Cádiz. This contrast of old and new, magnificent and modern, would be thematic throughout my first pilgrimage to Sherry country. I had a busy schedule ahead, with plans to visit several bodegas. However, there was something special about the opportunity to see the production of Tio Pepe that prompted me to set aside an entire day for the visit. Tio Pepe, produced by González Byass, is arguably the most popular and recognized fino Sherry in the world. However, it was not always this way. Sherry was once the wine of European royalty and the American colonies, praised by the likes of William Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe. Producers and shippers of Sherry wines did much in those days to define what it would mean to be an international wine merchant, innovation and excess being among their favorite hobbies—and González Byass played the game as well as anyone, building grand bodegas for aging their wines and innovating on a level far beyond their competitors. Tio Pepe was the first fino Sherry ever sold on a commercial scale outside of the region, and since freshness in biologically aged wines is paramount, González Byass had no choice but to let go of the tradition of shipping wine in barrels, and instead became the first winery ever to ship their wine in bottles. Not long after, the iconic marketing image of the Tio Pepe bottle with the flamenco guitar and red matador's jacket and hat became the first registered trademark in Spain; the massive Tio Pepe billboards along the highway are now protected by law as art, despite the recent ban on roadside advertising. This is as significant now as ever, as dry Sherry is experiencing something of a resurgence in popularity and consumer awareness, largely due to the recent revolution in craft cocktail culture. Sherry has become a favorite among bartenders who recognize its ubiquity in 19th-century classic cocktails and its utility in modern creations. Sommeliers are beginning to fall for the wines as well, finally moving them from the dessert menu to the front page where they belong and experimenting with their incredible versatility in pairing with even the most adventurous flavors. The Tio Pepe brand was born in 1844 and is now bottled from a solera of over 21,000 casks, which ensures consistent quality even in large quantity and, perhaps more importantly, such reserves allow a cushion for experi- mentation and risk-taking. So, when the bodega and their gentleman-poet González Byass Master Blender Antonio Flores, recognized the growing global interest in these biologically aged wines, they reacted with a continuation of their tradition of innovation and began releasing limited bottlings of wines from the Tio Pepe solera at various stages in their development, allowing the som- melier and the afficionado to explore the evolution of the wine as it interacts with the metabolism of the flor, the living veil of yeast in the barrel. The first of these experiments was in 2010, with the first release of Tio Pepe En Rama, a wine slightly more mature than the classic Tio Pepe, unfiltered in an effort to present the product as it tastes directly from the barrel. The resulting wine expresses greater complexity, fuller body, a more pronounced yeast character and augmented savory element. The response from the consumer was so overwhelm- ingly positive that they have continued to produce the En Rama, bottling once a year in the spring and releasing soon after, meaning that, with a little patience and detective work, it is fairly simple and affordable to put together one of the most interesting vertical tastings avail- able on the market today. Innovation at González Byass did not stop there. In a much more limited production, the bodega released the Palmas series, a succession of four wines specifically intended to illustrate the life cycle of wine under flor. The first in the series, Una Palma, is another En Rama bottling still older than the Tio Pepe En Rama, followed by Dos Palmas, an incredibly complex and concentrated fino at around eight years under flor. The third wine is Tres Palmas, which Antonio Flores once described to me as "a wine which exists between life and death," referring to the slow autolytic decay of the flor after having consumed virtually all of the available nutrients in the wine over a decade of metabolic interaction. This stunning fino-amontillado expres- sion is so incredibly complex in aroma, flavor and texture that it has the ability to pair as well with rich stocks and grilled meats as it does with shellfish and olives. The ultimate wine in the Palmas line is the hedonist's delight. The Cuatro Palmas is a 48-year-old amontillado bottled from a single cask, and is one of the most remarkably sleek and elegant examples of highly matured and heavily oxidized wines I have encountered, with only a slight tinge of oxidative bitterness rounding out the virtually infinite finish. Tio Pepe barrels stacked at the bodega. PHOTO COURTESY OF GONZÁLEZ BYASS by Ian J. Adams / photos by Jeremy Ball

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