Key to understanding what makes a great wine so distinctive is discovering where it’s grown, produced and aged. In the case of Tio Pepe – that means discovering the wonders of Jerez, from the vineyards on its outskirts to its cellars in the heart of town.
My first full day of ‘feeling fino’ commenced with a drive to Viña la Canariera, a vineyard just beyond the city limits of Jerez. Situated upon slightly lilting upland bordered by vast fields of sunflowers with a commanding view of Jerez on the horizon, the vineyard was an evocative setting for my premiere lesson in all things Tio Pepe.
It was here that I – alongside a small band of other UK drinks writers – learned about the hardy palomino grape from which Tio Pepe is made, and about the chalky soil of Jerez and its surroundings. Known as Albariza clay, the soil acts like a sponge storing rain absorbed during the few wet months of winter for the long dry months of summer for which Jerez is so well known. No irrigation is allowed in sherry production. So vines need to be able to take the summer swelter and grow especially long roots to tap the water from months past. That’s what palomino vines do best and are, thus, well suited for these conditions.
After a tour of Viña la Canariera, it was time to head back to Jerez for a prowl around the famed cellars of Gonzalez-Byass in the city centre.
Gonzalez-Byass is one of Spain’s best-known sherry bodegas (though it produces a variety of other wines throughout Spain and even in some other countries as well). Dating to 1835, Gonzalez-Byass began when Manuel María González Ángel got into the fledgling sherry trade. His biggest backer – and one of the first and most ardent fans of fino – was his uncle, José Angel de la Pena. Manuel affectionately referred to José as (yep, you guessed it) Tio Pepe. Today José’s namesake is not only the top selling brand at Gonzalez-Byass but also the best selling fino in the world.
Guiding us through the bodegas was Gonzalez-Byass Master Blender, Antonio Flores Pedregosa. Apparently, Antonio was the perfect host for our tour of the bodegas – and not only because of his life-long career with Gonzalez-Byass. As the story goes, this son of a winemaker was actually born in the cellars. Antonio led us to the fabled cellar where old Uncle José purportedly stowed casks of what he suspected to hold the finest of the finos. This cellar is still considered a prize location for yielding top of the line wines. Antonio even tapped a few of the casks to allow us a taste of fino en rama.
From the cellars, Antonio took us to a tasting room to try the complete range of ten Gonzalez-Byass sherries. From the ultra dry Tio Pepe made with 100% palomino grapes to the raisin-y dessert wine, Noé, made with 100% Pedro Ximenez grape with more than a few marvels admired along the way. My fave – and one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping – was Del Duque, a dark gold sherry that Antonio poetically described as “old and wise.”
Del Duque starts out just like a Tio Pepe but is aged 30 years in American oak casks (as opposed to the four or five years for a Tio Pepe) for a rich quaff with chestnut and leather notes and a subtle fig flavour with a long finish. If you’re ever wondering what to buy me for whatever special occasion, think Del Duque. It won’t even set you back all that much. You can pick up a bottle of it in the UK for just over 20 quid.
Keen to discover the world of sherry for yourself? Viña la Canariera with its traditional buildings is available to hire for private functions. The bodegas are open to the public for tours. Find out about visiting both at bodegastiopepe.com.
More to come in my series about Feeling Fino in Jerez.