It was beginning to look as if nothing could save sherry, not even enthusiastic cocktail bartenders and the global spread of tapas bars with ham stands.
Despite a spate of articles about the great sherry comeback over the past decade, global export sales were in free fall, with most markets buying half as much of the fortified wine in 2016 as they had in 2006. And that was the tail-end of a downturn that began 25 years before that, around 1980.
In 2017, though, sherry sales suddenly perked up. And industry analysts expect this upward trend to continue. What changed? A rise in interest in “raw” sherry.
Sort of like natural wine, raw en rama sherry is a newish subcategory that lacks clear guidelines but indicates a less-processed, lower-intervention wine. A sherry with the words “en rama” on the bottle indicate less filtering and clarification after the aging process.
“It’s the closest thing that you can get to actually being at the bodega and tasting it from the barrel,” says Kyle Burch, general manager of Cava, a Spanish restaurant in Toronto. “It manages to retain that character, sort of like the crackling you hear on a vinyl record.”
The “crackling” that Burch is referring to is the “flor,” or live yeast, that is traditionally filtered out, but, when bottled en rama, is left in. Flor is a major player in sherry production, since, as they age, certain sherries (fino and manzanilla) are protected from oxidation under a thick layer of flor, a naturally occurring, indigenous Saccharomyces yeast.
For about 150 years, winemakers have rigorously filtered out the flor, believing that consumers would prefer not to encounter any wine fungus as they sip their sherry.
Tastes change, though. Many contemporary wine and beer enthusiasts aren’t turned off by a few bugs or a little fungus in their drink. Some even consider it a virtue, a trend that sherry winemakers started to notice when giving tours of bodegas. Many visitors loved the fuller flavour of the sample barrel taste, lamenting that the finished product was too refined by comparison. En rama bottlings are a response to that.
The first release of a raw fino, Tio Pepe En Rama, was in 2009, when Antonio Flores, the master blender at Gonzalez Byass, bottled 175 cases to celebrate the bodega’s 175th anniversary. Since every bottle was snapped up within 48 hours, Gonzalez Byass made it an annual tradition. Once a year, when the yeast is at its peak, they do one small special vintage release (with a new, pretty label every year). Tiny shipments of Tio Pepe En Rama started to arrive in Canada three years ago and, as more people got a chance to try raw sherry, it began developing a loyal following. Burch says it’s still niche, even at Cava, where he lives in a “sherry bubble,” but, starting last year, guests at the restaurant started to specifically ask for en rama.
To give credit where due, although Gonzalez Byass launched the first raw fino, manzanilla sherry producers were way ahead of the game, with their own small special en rama releases a decade before. Manzanilla, a slightly salty version of fino that can only be made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, shines when it’s bottled en rama, a result of the flor dying in the bottle and turning into proteins that produce a rich, buttery flavour in the wine.
Bodegas Barbadillo was first out of the gate with a raw version of its Solear Manzanilla in 1999. They still do a biannual release, bottling in both spring and fall, and the 2017 release arrived in Ontario at the end of May, although it can only be purchased by the case through All the Right Grapes, a private importer. The salinity is in perfect balance with the nutty, buttery flavours – a lovely expression that should only get better in the cellar.
Across Canada, manzanilla en rama expressions from Barbadillo and La Guita make brief appearances in government-run provincial liquor stores like SAQ, BC Liquor and the LCBO. Tio Pepe En Rama is currently available in British Columbia and Alberta, but in Ontario harder to get, since it’s only available by private order. Woodman Wines and Spirits will get a small allotment (40 cases of six), most of which is likely to quickly disappear into the cellars of Spanish restaurants in Toronto and Ottawa.
So why not just make more? The demand is there. And there’s no shortage of flor – that’s reproducing all on its own quite nicely. There are a few reasons. At first, it wasn’t clear it would have a shelf life. Now that it’s got a few years under its belt, it turns out older vintages are just fine – arguably better after bottle-aging, thanks to the proteins from the dead flor.
Arguably more important than the flavour, however, is that over the past few years, the annual releases have become an “event” that sherry lovers look forward to, since they’ll finally be reunited with this ephemeral product. This helps inspire other small, special releases, such as the Lustau Almacenista series, all of which have helped build excitement for the entire category. Having sherry en rama around all the time could erode the excitement by taking away its specialness.
Plus, sherry producers can be forgiven for proceeding with caution. Better than perhaps any other winemakers in the world, sherry producers know that trendiness doesn’t always translate into sales.
En rama might, indeed, save sherry. But nobody’s willing to bet the entire bodega on it just yet.