Running the Scales with El Maestro Sierra
Yesterday we hosted the vivacious Ana Cabestrero the capataz at El Maestro Sierra for two informative seminars on “Running the Scales,” where she talked and tasted us through the process of turning Mosto to fino. Founded in 1832 by master carpenter Jose Antonio Sierra, who started filling his barrels as a hobby because he was sometimes paid in wine, El Maestro Sierra still employs the 2,000L barrels with original staves that bear his signature. Started in 1830, the current solera has been in place for at least 80 years, and since Pilar Pla Pechovierto took over the bodega from her husband in 1976, she has maintained the family’s close relationships with the small growers who have historically provided the Mosto for all of their sherries. And now that the 180 classified vineyards that were once recognized throughout the region have essentially been reduced to one or two, the notion of terroir is now identified by the conditions in the bodega.
“The scales are the criadera,” said André Tamers of De Maison Selections. “The wine comes in and it takes five years to run the scales. After five years it becomes a fino.”
Established as a start-up, El Maestro Sierra contains just over 100 barrels, all of which are racked by hand, while large negociants use pumps and hoses and can have over 1,000 barrels in house. “We’re not the norm,” said Ana, “the norm is really large production.”
Beginning with 11% Mosto (a first run juice from the Palomino grape) that is carefully analyzed to ensure that it is a wholly natural wine, Cabestrero then places the Mosto into stainless steel vessels and fortify it with neutral grain spirits of the highest quality to 15%. After some time in the sobretabla (the barrel with youngest wine that feeds the first criadera), the wine here moves through five criaderas plus the solera itself developing complexity and depth. Noting that the average bodega in Jerez uses only three criaderas, André said, “They won’t release a wine before it’s ready.”
Four times a year, up to 30% (maximum) is moved from each layer of the solera, and the number of aroba (16.6L) that are moved is dependent upon the amount of wine that was just removed from the solera (“the ground”) for bottling. Using a sacar (“to draw out”) to extract the wine, the wine is then carried in a jarra to the next bota in the solera, which could be located on the other side of the bodega, (hence the essence of the bodega as terroir). Then racked into the new barrel via a canoa, which is like a watering can that sits atop the bota with a hose that punctures the layer of flor, the wine is added without any exchange of air taking place. A violent submersion, the new wine sprays down into the bottom of the barrel with great force, mixing the old with the new wine beneath the flor and injecting energy, via nutrients and air, to feed the existing yeast. Other than El Maestro Sierra, there is no other bodega in Jerez that uses this labor intensive method.
For yesterday’s seminar Ana brought samples from the sobretabla, from the third criadera and from the solera itself, bottled en rama on Friday. From the sobretabla, we tasted the single vintage wine before it’s added to the first criadera, and before it’s had a chance to develop traits that might resemble a fino. Floral with saliferous apple notes, the wine was very fresh but lacking in great complexity. The second wine, pulled from the third criadera, was three years old and starting to show the characteristics of sherry. With notes of yeast, petrol and wood, it was quite yellow in color, though it would later become clear again before moving onto the next sobretabla.
Pulled straight from the cask en rama, the third sample was an actual representation of a fino that’s unfiltered and not yet cold-stablized. “We’ve all seen a lot of en rama products,” said André to the room, “but it’s not true. There is no fino en rama in the U.S. It doesn’t exist unless it’s tasted at the winery.” If a fino is bottled raw, bits of yeast are left in the bottle with no air on which to survive. Once the yeast finally dies, it starts to oxidize. “It’s like a wine with its own excrement,” said André. “We once did an experiment when we bottled en rama and brought it to the U.S. It died within two weeks and turned brown.” And while El Maestro Sierra always bottles their Amontillado and Oloroso en rama, with fino it just can’t be done.
In the glass, there were raw and funky aromas, still with apple fruit, but not as nutty and complex as the final fino that we tasted from the bottle. “It’s the evolution in the bottle,” said Ana that leads to the development of these complex aromas. Once cold-stablized, the tartrates drop and are filtered from the wine. “It’s a very natural, non-aggressive process,” said Ana, that leads to a bottled fino with zero sulfites added, offering aromas of apple fruit, almonds, yeast and brine. It’s silky with enough acidity to make it ideal as an aperitif or with food, at any time of year. And with the bottling dates printed on each label, one can choose to drink the fino fresh or to let it sit with more time in the bottle.
For more on The Rare Beauties of El Maestro Sierra, read HERE.