The ageless sherries of Gonzalez Byass

Antonio Flores Pedregosa of Gonzalez Byass (Photo: www.estebancapdevila.com)

Antonio Flores Pedregosa’s business card describes him as ‘master blender, winemaker, enologo’ of Spanish sherry producer Gonzalez Byass. They should add ‘public relations hombre’: even though he doesn’t speak English, he conveys a passion and joy for his work that’s infectious.

“It’s important to start off with a great young wine, as age amplifies any defects.” Antonio was in Australia recently to wave the flag for this great sherry company, best known for its fino, Tio Pepe. Just because Tio Pepe is a household name the world over, and seems to be in every grog shop and bar, doesn’t mean it’s not top notch. In this case, familiarity need not engender contempt. Many companies produce great sherry in large licks, especially fino and manzanilla.

These are the most adaptable sherries, great with many kinds of food especially seafood, and at 15.5% alcohol, they’re the lowest in alcoholic strength of all fortified wines and not much stronger than many table wines. With no residual sugar, tongue-twisting acidity and lip-snapping flor-yeast character, they are among the driest tasting wines on Earth.

After setting the scene with Tio Pepe, Antonio poured a taste of each of his four Palmas wines: Una Palma (AUD $49) is a 6-year-old fino, with 15.4% alcohol; tight and lip-smackingly dry. Dos Palmas (AUD $49) is 8 years old – a fino with extra age and slightly deeper colour, still with lots of flor character but also richness and power. 15.7% alcohol.

Tres Palmas (AUD $72) is 10 years old and 16.0% alcohol: medium to full amber and very rich, with nutty flor and oak-aged complexities, power and density. It’s a wine that’s been aged for part of its life under the flor, then for several more years without the flor. A split-personality wine.

Cuatro Palmas Amontillado is in an altogether higher league. It’s 52 years old, 21.5% alcohol, and dark amber/tawny in hue, with awesome power, complexity and persistence as befits its higher price-tag (AUD $125).

Antonio explained the subtleties of the sherry flor, which is a surface-growing yeast that lives on the ullaged wine as it matures in its partially-filled barrels, their bung-holes open to the air. The flor yeast (flor means flower), imparts the unique character to these wines, but as the wine matures and gradually evaporates, it also concentrates and the alcohol content rises. The wine that will become fino sherry begins its journey at 15.5% alcohol, which is a strength that allows the flor to grow and is high enough to “kill the bad bacteria”, as Antonio says. But as the strength reaches 16% the flor dies off. “It’s a fine line, a balancing act,” says Antonio.

Some of our dinner companions had brought wines they thought might interest a winemaker like Antonio, including some Aussie fortifieds and a Jura Vin Jaune – another wine aged under a ‘veil’ of surface yeast. Antonio, proving that he was anything but parochial, enthused about the Vin Jaune (Château d’Arlay Côtes de Jura 2002) and especially a Chambers Rare Tokay, from Rutherglen.

Antonio, of course, appreciated the effect of time on great wine.

“It’s important to start off with a great young wine, as age amplifies any defects,” he said. “Age doesn’t automatically mean greatness. As with people, not all are happy. Some old people are cranky, and they were probably cranky when they were young.”

Asked what to serve with old wines, he said:

“The best is to have old wine with old cheese (eg. Manchego), but if there is no food you can enjoy it just as well in front of an open fire with good company.”

Amen to that.

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