Our host for this evening’s [Southport Whisky Club] Gonzalez Byass sherry event is Marcin Schilling, who I had the honour of meeting at the end of a very long weekend at TWE Show in 2018. Marcin and his colleague, Ivo, took me through a very similar flight to the one we shall be embarking on tonight, except this time, the sherry has my full [and clear-headed] attention. Let’s find out what Gonzales Byass is all about.
Currently around 6500 hectares, Spain’s sherry region is half the size it was [in its heyday]. On the flip side, demand for sherry is on the up, most significantly in Asia [China].
Gonzalez Byass was founded in 1835 as a partnership between Manuel María González Angel and [UK wine importer] Robert Blake Byass.
Up until the 19th century, the Spanish were predominantly bottling sherry as vintages. Marcin explains that due to the British falling out with the French, the British looked to the Spanish to supply them with quality wine instead. Cue the solera, a blending system [SN] ‘believed to have originated in Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the second part of the 18th century, probably around 1760, and shortly after in Jerez‘. Vintages added into the solera helped establish and maintain quality. In short, the solera system brought consistency with scale to sherry production, a system with a built-in master blender.
To protect the Jerez name, a new directive in 1986 required sherry to be bottled in the DOC. Up until then, around 50% of sherry was still being exported in casks. David Brodie tells us that this effectively split the sherry and whisky industries into two. Almost overnight, the whisky industry found itself sourcing/buying purpose-built casks from sherry producers who now found themselves making sherry to season said casks.
What effect did this have on sherry producers? They found themselves busier than ever. Let’s begin.
1] Gonzalez Byass Del Duque 30yo [+/-2021] Ob. Amontillado 21.5% [37.5.cl]
In general [under-flor] dry Fino and Amontillado [in the Montilla style] sherry is not fortified. Amontillado is aged Fino with oxidised characters: nutty, dry fruits, for example.
Like whisky, a 30yo age statement is the minimum age of the sherry within. Marcin explains that Duque must run through the solera for at least 30 years [through 100 casks = 300 years,… ? something like that ?]. “There’s 40, 50, 60 year old sherry in here”, says Marcin.
- N: Lots of dry underlying fungal/blue cheese/mushroom damp,… lemon juice – that’s essence of [under-flor] sherry right there.
- T: A sherry that’s born to compliment food with its desirable dry sourness, light body, strange murky lemon juice seeped in liquid wood.
- F: Dry yet not dry, this does go well with food. With a long permeating fungal finish, Marcin confirms this is great with mushroom dishes.
- C: The most unadulterated sherry of the flight with no added sticky sweetness. Recommended. At £20, for a 30yo – double recommended.
Wetting the floor of the bodega with cold water during the hottest spells, avoids large temperature fluctuations and protects the flor.
2] Gonzalez Byass Apostles 30yo  Ob. Palo Cortado 20% [37.5cl] SN
“One of the greatest Amontillado’s there is,… a very rare product,… there’s a lot of history in this style”, says Marcin.
MoM: ‘Palo cortado sherry is a rare variety of sherry that starts its maturation under protective flor, destined to become a fino or amontillado. But partway through the maturation it loses its veil of flor and begins oxidative ageing as an oloroso sherry would. This combined maturation results in a wine with some of the richness of oloroso and some of the crispness of amontillado. As we mentioned, it is rare stuff; just 1 to 2% of the grapes pressed for sherry naturally develop into palo cortado’.
- N: A touch sweeter than the Duque, you can see this working as a brandy. Notes of pecan pastries [amongst many other things], this displays an evocative red wine bouquet [even though the elaboration process ferments white wine grapes].
- T: Indeed, a sweeter Duque brought about with the addition of PX [13%]. Sitting on the palate, there’s little evolution – the sugars over the dry sourness seemingly cancelling themselves out.
- F: When you know it’s Amontillado + PX, it’s a tad disappointing, but when you come back to it from the oloroso [coming next], there’s this desirable [acidic] salivating lemon juice sensation with a pinch of salinity. Marcin explains that, initially, Fino wine doesn’t display acidity as such, due to the hot weather and sweet grapes. The dryness from the sherry, however, draws out saliva from the mouth creating an acidic illusion.
- C: Damn my expectations! I had imagined more. It is very very drinkable, however.
I ponder where the sulphurous notes sometimes seen in sherry cask-matured single malts, come from, as I’ve never detected sulphur in sherry. Thanks to John[?] for reminding me of this article: What’s wrong with sulphur in whisky.
3] Gonzalez Byass Matusalem 30yo [+/-2021] Ob. Oloroso 20.5% [37.5cl]
Also known as ‘Amoroso’ and/or ‘Cream’, we’ve another 30yo+ sherry sweetened with PX.
SN: ‘Oloroso is aged in the absence of flor, in an oxidative way and starts from a selection of heavier, more full-structured musts than a Fino or Manzanilla (sometimes a second pressing of grapes). Traditionally the base wines would be evaluated after fermentation in casks, but as nowadays this is done in steel containers so there is much less variation. To create an Oloroso the base wine will be fortified to 17 or 18 degrees which makes it impossible for flor yeats to survive in these casks‘
- N: After the Palo Cortado, this oloroso is slightly meatier/malty with succulent dried fruits,… some tobacco after 90 mins.
- T: Lovely arrival.,…. nicely rounded all sorts here. Sitting in between sour-dry and sugary > syrupy sweetness, this is the most balanced sherry of tonight’s flight.
- F: With another pinch of [rolling] tobacco, this one finishes sticky sweet – the 25% added PX now talking as boldly as I’d like.
- C: Not only the most balanced, but the most colourful of the first three, you can see why oloroso is the number one choice for whisky maturation – a match made in heaven.
PX was so popular in the 1970-80s, they ran out [sherry and/or grapes?], says Marcin. Looking for alternatives, Gonzalez Byass experimented with the Palomino Fino grape variety, even though Palomino isn’t generally known for producing sweet wine. To illustrate, PX grapes contain around 400 grams of sugar compared to 225 grams from Palomino grapes. The ‘experiment’ didn’t work, but the casks remained, resulting in a small project of 2000 bottles globally of 33yo Dulce Palomino sherry. Compared to solera-aged sherry, this vintage juice hasn’t been moved at all. Marcin says ‘static ageing’ is perhaps two-times slower than its oxidated solera counterparts, but provides elegance by comparison.
4] Gonzalez Byass Dulce Nombre 1986 Dulce Palomino [2000 bts] 15% [50cl] SN
- N: A few ‘wows’ for this nose. Indeed, all of tonight’s sherries have offered fabulous bouquets. After an initial whiff of nutty Cornetto, this soon reveals itself as a classic prune & plum juice sherry – very PX-ey in style.
- T: Big sweet thick~ish prune plum juice arrival,… little after. But not so fast,…
- F: ,… for the vegetal olive notes and deeper dusty/sandy floor & flor notes begin to cut through the thick almost molasses-like sugars.
- C: The sugar level is slightly over for me but there are still some subtle complexities to be gleaned at the finish.
Despite the growing popularity of sherry worldwide, this interest isn’t for vintage sherries, “it’s only for those funky sommelier’s from Shoreditch”, says Marcin. To illustrate, Gonzalez Byass send just 24 bottles of vintage sherry to the UK per annum, the majority of which goes to TWE and The Connaught Hotel. Selling a single barrel to Selfridges, for example [who require bespoke bottling, labels, the cask itself… perhaps creating envy amongst other small specialist retailers,…], is a hassle in comparison to promoting & selling more widely commercial brands in quantity like the Lepanto [coming up]. A viable demand for vintage sherry in China is emerging – Gonzalez Byass keeping back 4-5 vintage barrels as a result – but this is a recent development for the company.
5] Gonzalez Byass Noe 30yo [+/-2021] Ob. Pedro Ximenez 15.5% [37.5.cl]
Compared to cooler coastal Jerez, inland Montilla-Moriles, ‘where the Pedro Ximenez grape is king’, sees “Albariza glistening soils consisting of clay, calcium and marine fossils”. Known as the ‘Frying Pan of Spain’, temperatures can easily reach in excess of 40c. In general, the wines here are not fortified, styles which include [under-flor] dry fino, Amontillado [in the Montilla style], oloroso, Palo Cortado and sweet Pedro Ximenez [WLP].
- N: With a medicinal and Bovril/Marmite profile, we are moving firmly towards syrups.
- T: With an industrial consistency, again, we are heading down the cough syrup beef stock route on the palate.
- F: It ticks over well enough [though 1994 vintage Toro Albala 1994 [WLP] trumps this on all levels. Then there’s Nocino!]
- C: We’ve reached sweetness levels where the sugars anaesthetise my palate. On the other hand, I’m very tempted to add a teaspoonful to some not particularly outstanding malt/blends – Ralfy styley – much like Victor intimated.
We finish with a brandy.
6] Lepanto Solera Gran Reserva  Ob./Gonzalez Byass Brandy de Jerez 36% [70cl] WF70
WF: ‘This was matured in ex-Tio Pepe casks, which might be a little scary. The name comes from the 16th century naval battle where the Spanish armada defeated the Ottoman fleet‘.
- C: It’s lovely to get back to distillate aged in oak. I don’t get a great deal from it, however, especially from the clean, easy, straight-ahead palate and little-to-no finish. Great nose though, a familiar theme of the night. Unfair to judge this in context as it sits funny after our sour-sweet to very sweet sherry journey. A death seat indeed.
The noses of virtually all of the sherries [and the brandy too], were superb. I find myself appreciating the balancing act between dry-sourness, acidity and sugars as I go through the flight and back again, finding the Amontillado [and Fino] style[s] far more rewarding than I once used to.
Furthermore, tonight is a reminder that sherry isn’t [just] made for connoisseur concert-hall contemplations. The solera blending system maintains quality and consistency, producing fortified wine for sharing and pairing:
- If it swims: fino or manzanilla [light dry white wines]
- If it flies: amontillado or palo cortado [weightier styles]
- If it runs: oloroso
With thanks to Marcin Victor and SWC.