Visiting Jerez to blend the Las Palmas Sherries of Gonzalez-Byass
The Las Palmas sherries have their origin in the recent launch of Tio Pepe En Rama, which as a brilliant idea that Martin Skelton of Gonzalez Byass had. He wanted to capture the freshness and personality of a Fino taken straight from the barrel, without filtration or clarification. The traditional view is that these En Rama sherries don’t travel. ‘To send en rama outside Jerez raw is utter madness,’ recalls Skelton. ‘Everyone is saying that Gonzalez Byass is crazy. I was so proud to be able to show people wild Tio Pepe!’
En Rama was originally meant to be a one-off, for the UK market. But it has taken off, and just kept growing. Now lots of other bodegas are offering En Rama. The next step was to release another level of En Rama sherries, the Las Palmas.
The term ‘palma’ refers to the way cellarmasters classify the casks in their cellars. A palma is a particularly delicate, clean, pure fino or great quality. As this palma ages, it can then become dos palmas, tres palmas or cuatro palmas. But this is an internal, arbitary classification, particular to each cellar master. The palma is marked on the cask with a slightly sloping line with the number of the palma indicated by branches coming from the top (one for una, two for dos and so on).
Where does fino end and amontillado begin? Amontillado can be made in one of two ways. The first, and probably best, is to allow the flor on the top of a fino to fade, and when it gets thin enough the wine begins to age oxidatively. It is then fortified to 17.5% alcohol at which point the flor will disappear altogether. The other is to simply fortify the fino to this alcohol level, killing the flor and kicking in the oxidative ageing process. Using the first method, there’s no strict distinction between fino and amontillado, as the biological and oxidative ageing processes overlap. The older finos are thus sometimes known as fino-amontillado.
Gonzalez Byass has around 600 barrels of very fine, older finos, and it’s from these that the En Rama and Las Palmas sherries are selected. Tio Pepe is usually 4.5 years old at bottling. My job was to select four barrels of 6 year old fino (Una Palma), three barrels of 8 years old (Dos Palmas), one barrel of 10 year old fino-amontillado plus a reserve (Tres Palmas), and one barrel for Cuatro (from one of four very old barrels of amontillado, around 50 years of age). Fortunately we didn’t have to try all 600 barrels: Antonio had done a pre-selection.
It was a full morning’s work, though, going through sampling barrels with a vanencia (the long sticks with a thin cup on the end), and deciding whether or not the barrel was going to make the cut. We even tried a few barrels that weren’t on the long list, and came up with a short list. Samples were taken from each of the selected barrels, and we ended up sitting round a table in the tasting room with 10 samples of each of the Una, Dos and Tres Palmas, and the four samples of Cuatro Palmas. After an hour or so of discussion, the job was complete.
Here are my tasting notes on the final wines, tasted after bottling (these were the 2014 releases):
Gonzalez Byass Fino Una Palma NV Sherry, Spain
15.5% alcohol. Lively and intense with citrus fruit, herbs and attractive salty, cheesy hints. Complex and broad with lovely precision and also some richness. Really fabulous stuff with lovely balance. Quite profound. 93/100
Gonzalez Byass Fino Dos Palmas NV Sherry, Spain
15.5% alcohol. Complex and intense with some nutty notes and a nice saltiness. Very fine, expressive and tangy with lovely concentration. Flavours of pear, apple and spice with good depth. This wine has freshness, balance and even elegance: it’s not about extreme flavours. 95/100
Gonzalez Byass Fino Tres Palmas NV Sherry, Spain
16% alcohol. Complex tangy, nutty nose with some citrus fruit and hints of old casks. The palate is complex, quite mellow and really elegant with a subtle saltiness and nice texture. Quite serious. 95/100
Gonzalez Byass Fino Cuatro Palmas NV Sherry, Spain
21.5% alcohol. Incredibly complex, edgy, tangy and precise. Powerful notes of old casks, cedar and treacle with citrus peel freshness and good acidity. This wine has real salty, mineral, nutty depth and lovely freshness, as well as an eternal finish. It has edges, too. Stunning. 97/100