Simon Field MW on a trio of special wines from Lustau, one from each of the towns that make up Sherry’s Golden Triangle, which have been released to mark the house’s 125th anniversary.
1896 was not an especially auspicious year in Spain. Farther afield, the Jameson Raid underlined tensions in the Cape which were to lead to the Boer War, and poor Nicholas II became the last Tsar of Russia. We all know what happened to him. His distant cousin Victoria became the longest serving monarch back in England and the broader cultural backdrop was draped with the elegance of the Belle Epoque, with both Salome and La Bohème taking to the stage in Paris. The storm clouds had not yet gathered in the Balkans.
Spain, for its part, maintained a somewhat tenebrist outlook. The restored Bourbon dynasty stumbled through the minority of King Alfonso XIII, and vestigial colonial grandeur took another dip with the loss of Cuba and Puerto Rico among others. Iberia’s mood was stained by Catalan nationalism and the political impetus was sufficiently dark clearly to signal the rise of unsavory characters such as Miguel Primo de Rivera and, ultimately, Franco himself.
The lure of Andalucía
The poorest part of the country was (and still is) Andalucía. Beyond the geometrical splendor of the Moorish gardens and the cavernous cathedral in Seville, which, in its pomp, celebrated up to 400 masses every day, there was genuine hardship and struggle. One recalls the peasant faces of Velázquez and Murillo long before the cherubs and the long-chinned noblemen. I was surprised to learn that the pretty seaside town of Sanlúcar de la Barremeda has the highest unemployment rate in the country. It would certainly be higher were it not for the lure of the Manzanilla bodegas.
Sherry was, if anything, even more important in the late-19th century. The industrial impetus may have moved to Europe’s Protestant north, but in terms of winemaking, the sunshine-fed Mediterranean wines held their appeal—an echo of Falstaff’s disdain for the Rhenish and Gascon wines served at the Boar’s Head alongside his beloved sack, “thin potations” the pair of them. In Jerez, larger stockholders were finally in the ascendant; in the vanguard, families such as Domecq, Gonzales, Osborne, and Humbert recognized the concomitant importance of fractional blending and lengthy barrel maturation. The need for very precise meteorological conditions (most significantly in terms of humidity) has bequeathed the most beautiful bodegas; high windows and cathedral nave calm, row upon row of mahogany barrels at rest…. bougainvillea and painted ceramics in the courtyard, everywhere the very particular aromatic of flor yeast and aging wine, evocative of incense and baroque decadence.
A magnificent Lustau triptych
Into the fray came the company that was to become one of the most successful of them all: Lustau. It took nearly 50 years from founder José Ruiz-Berdejo’s rustic almacenista, to the development of an international business, all largely down to the commercial acumen of José’s son-in-law Emilio Lustau Ortego. Thus in 1945 a bivalve business model, never forsaking the minutiae (today’s Almacenista range) while at the same time acknowledging the value of brands. Nothing on the scale of Tio Pepe perhaps, but a portfolio that now covers no fewer than eight different ranges and more than 40 different Sherries. Nor should we forget the vinegar, the brandy, and the increasingly popular Vermut.
Time to celebrate the 125th anniversary, then. It is an astonishing fact that as late as 1880, 90 percent of all Sherry went to England and, returning the compliment, Sherry made up 43 percent of England’s wine imports. Thereafter the category has faced significant decline, and significant fall, but also, QED, impressive diversification, not only of product, but also of the ever-broadening market place. The broader anglophone world still celebrates Sherry, for all that, and, to help it along, we have this magnificent release, definitively posited at the highest end of the quality spectrum, its three wines running the stylistic gamut from bone-dry, to unctuously sweet.
Lustau is the only winery in the Xérès DO to have wineries in all three towns of the Sherry triangle and it is the coastal Sanlúcar that we visit first. Interestingly, this aged Manzanilla (Pasada) is not a child of the Almacenista range; rather it is a case of the cellarmaster, Sergio Martinez, having, four years ago, segregated four special barrels (bocoyes) from the Papirusa solera, thereafter leaving them in the freshest part of the cellar, known as La Mergelina. The flor yeast has been allowed to die and a gentle gradual oxidation has slowly intervened. The wine thus falls, enticingly, between the Manzanilla and the Amontillado styles.
El Puerto in detail
The Amontillado itself, on the other hand, is sourced from the Almacenitsa family, its solera housed in the imposing 13th-century Castillo de San Marco, this time located in El Puerto de Santa Maria. Despite its proximity to the sea, El Puerto tends to produce fuller, less brine-soaked wines, often more detailed and nuanced. A case in point, this Amontillado has been aged for 30 years (normally the wine from this “inverted” solera is bottled after 18 years); four years only were under flor, the rest of the aging oxidative rather than biological, with the last 17 years entirely devoid of refreshment. Refreshment or no refreshment, this wine is absolutely outstanding. As with the other two, it is made from 100% Palomino and only 2,500 bottles have been produced.
The final member of the trio is interesting for many reasons. Fundamentally, the concept of vintage-dated wine seems to run contrary to the Sherry philosophy of fractional blending; be that as it may, Lustau have been bottling single-vintage Oloroso wines since 1989. They belong to the Dulce category, having formerly been known as Oloroso Abocado. Whereas often Oloroso is sweetened by the addition of PX grapes, in this instance the wine is made only from late-harvest Palomino, its fermentation arrested abruptly, the wine thereafter left in peace for 25 years. The residual sugar is an imposing 206g/l and the angels have ensured that the alcohol level has climbed to 21%. Eight casks were put aside for this special bottling. This all takes place inland, in the town of Jerez itself, the third point of our triangle.
Three very different faces of Sherry, then, sourced from the three key towns. If an inherent complexity is axiomatic in Sherries of this caliber, we should also not forget the incredible, almost indecent value offered here. The story of one of wine’s proudest regions is captured in this magnificent triptych.
Lustau Manzanilla Pasada Papirusa Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Straw-gold, with a complex nose; hay and spring flowers, umami and a touch of lanolin; orchard fruit from late in the season, even a hint of charcuterie. Only the faintest vestigial whisper of Sanlúcar brine; sepulchral damp stone and a leafy, nearly Autumnal elegiac character; far removed from Manzanilla’s more traditional Spring sonata. White tobacco and a firm herbal finish. Sui generis for sure; it gets even better after an hour and better still after a day. A most peculiar Manzanilla, in other words. Peculiar decked in its most positive etymology, that is to say: “distinguished and worthy of great renown.” | 92
Lustau Amontillado Solera del Castillo El Puerto de Santa Maria
Amber color, almost luminous; the nose is a joy to behold, to hold onto, and to behold again…. sour honeycomb, smoke, furniture varnish, essential orange oils. The palate is layered, almost piquant, such is its energy, clementine pith, iodine, butterscotch, and toasted hazelnut. Potent, vigorous, Ribera dark, but then with air, a redemptive sub-text powers through; beyond the incense and varnish come dried fruits and life-affirming whispers of salinity from the Guadalete Estuary and the Bay of Cádiz beyond…. | 96
Lustau 1996 Añada Vintage Sherry Jerez de La Frontera
Celebrating the Lustau centenary at its birth, this exceptionally rare, sweet Oloroso, made entirely from the Palomino grape, is a deep, almost mahogany color. The volatility on the nose eases off with air; a hint of faded bloom, then ginger, licorice, and dried apricots; nuanced and not without surprises, the wine effortlessly underpins its 206g/l of residual sugar with razor-sharp acidity; thereafter caramel, walnuts, and raisins. How does this child of a single cask compare to its solera-aged peers? Very well indeed, as it turns out, and all the more so with a little aeration. | 93