The streets of Jerez de la Frontera in the southwest of Spain are just coming to life as we emerge from the small train station on a late February morning. The weather is surprisingly temperate and families enjoy breakfast outside at the small cafes in the plazas. Train schedules being what they are, we’ve arrived a bit early for our appointment, so we have time to kill. All my previous experiences with vast quantities of wine have been in locations like California’s rural wine country, so it’s hard to imagine that vast quantities of sherry lie beyond the walls of these low-slung buildings in the heart of town.
The bell tower of the Jerez de la Frontera cathedral looms in the distance, rising above the two- and three-story buildings around it. Instinctively I walk that direction — gawking at cathedrals is a non-negotiable when traveling with me (as Mrs. Wonk knows too well). There’s only time for a quick few photos on the cathedral steps before our appointment. We only go a few steps, noses pressed to Google Maps, before Mrs. Wonk exclaims, “Look! Here it is!” Literally across the street from the cathedral is a white- and yellow-trimmed building with an unmissably large “González Byass” logo painted on the side. A statue of a man in 1800s garb standing next to a large wine cask labeled “Tio Pepe” confirms that we’re in the right spot.
Waiting for us at the nearby entry gate is Alvaro Plata Franco, the Europe, Middle East & Asia brand ambassador for González Byass, one of the biggest sherry producers in Spain. Today, he’ll be taking Mrs. Wonk and me through some of the treasures of the company’s original sherry bodegas. I have a second agenda on my mind–seeing Spanish brandy stills–but we’ll come back to that in a bit.
What follows assumes a basic familiarity with sherry terminology. If you’re new to the sherry world, or just need a refresher, my introductory article is a good place to start.
Exact quantities of how much sherry the various sherry houses produce are hard to come by, so it’s difficult to definitively declare the market’s biggest player. However, on any list of the largest producers, González Byass would sit at or near the top. The company began operations in 1835, the dream of Manuel Maria González, and soon thereafter was exporting wine to the UK. The early history of sherry is chock full of British expats who effectively treated Andalucia as their regional vineyard. One such fellow was the original British agent for the young company, Robert Byass, who bought into to the company–thus creating the combined González Byass moniker.
Today, the company’s aging bodegas in the sherry triangle have a capacity of well over 100,000 butts. To put that in context, Lustau has around 10,000 butts, making it about one-tenth as large. One source I’ve found says that González Byass produces ten percent of the region’s sherry.
Although the company makes a number of different sherries, the Tio Pepe Fino is their worldwide calling card. In English, Tio Pepe translates to “Uncle Joe,” an homage to Manuel’s uncle. The Tio Pepe logo–a wine bottle adorned with a red cordobés hat, bolero jacket, and guitar–is practically a national emblem of Spain. In Jerez, it’s nearly impossible to take two steps without encountering a Tio Pepe sign—painted, printed, or glowing neon.
Beyond Tio Pepe, the company offers a wide range of sherries at different price points, up to the ultra-long aged V.O.R.S. expressions, including:
- Alfonso (Oloroso)
- Cristina (Oloroso Abocado)
- Leonor (Palo Cortado)
- Nectar (Pedro Ximénez)
- Solera 1847 (Cream)
- Viña AB (Amontillado)
- Apostoles (V.O.R.S. – Palo Cortado)
- Del Duque (V.O.R.S. – Amontillado)
- Matusalem (Cream)
- Noe (Pedro Ximénez)
- Palma (Finos and Amontillado)
- Tio Pepe En Rama
- Vintage (Various)
The González Byass enterprise extends into distilled spirits, including Brandy de Jerez, whiskey, and gin, which I’ll address in a bit.
Alvaro, a nattily dressed Spaniard in his early thirties, practically screams brand ambassador – well spoken, refined, yet easy going and eager to share. Leading us through the gate into the compound, it’s immediately clear that we’re at a major tourism destination. Cobblestone-paved streets snake between a number of buildings and large visitor center which stands out among all the older, white with yellow trim buildings. The grounds are full of landscaped greenery, from old-growth vines to Seville bitter-orange trees to planters filled with red flowers lining the paths. A small scale red “train” travels the streets, transporting tourists through the expansive site.
Bodega Los Apóstoles provides our first sighting of sherry casks since arriving in Spain, and what a sight it is! While three of the building’s walls are lined with standard sherry casks stacked solera-style, it’s the row of thirteen enormous casks lined up against the remaining wall that draw your attention. Twelve of the casks are 6,000 liters, roughly twelve times the size of a regular sherry cask. In the middle, dominating the other casks, is a monstrous 16,500 liter cask.
The story of this arrangement goes back to 1862, when Queen Isabel II visited the facility, hoping to see the harvest. It was past harvest season though, so the company scrambled to come up with something equally impressive. The twelve 6,000 liter casks, each named for a biblical apostle, are arranged in the same order as the apostles in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper painting. Center stage, as in the painting, is El Cristo (The Christ). Fans of numerology will note that its volume is 33 times larger than a regular cask—that number being Christ’s age when he was crucified.
This particular bodega was being prepped for a flamenco event, so we soon popped out the other side of the bodega and onto another stone-paved street connecting yet more bodegas. Overhead, a wire trellis provides support for old growth vines that rise from the ground, up along the side of the building, and out across the trellis, creating a leafy green covering during the hot Spanish summer. Since it’s only late February, there’s no green covering to be seen—but it’s scenic nonetheless.
Alvaro leads us through a series of bodegas, some with a few dozen casks, other gigantic and filled with endless row after row of casks in soleras and criaderas. It’s boggling how many casks we see, and these aren’t even the truly massive bodega buildings. As we walk, he explains the basics of the flagship Fino sherry soleras. Every three months the winemakers “run the scales,” drawing out approximately 25 percent of the solera level for bottling. Simple math thus dictates that the average age of Tio Pepe Fino is around four years.
Suddenly stopping at a cask, Alvaro pops off the bung, exposing the contents within. With my trusty keychain light (hey, I spend a lot of time in dimly lit bars), I peer into the cask and see that the liquid isn’t completely covered by flor like a fino is. Instead, the cask had recently undergone its second fortification, bringing up the ABV percentage and causing the flor to die off—our first sign of an amontillado.
Of Mice and M… Wine?
Nearby on the dirt floor is a curious sight: A small sherry glass, filled to the rim, and a tiny ladder resting against its side, the top even with the glass edge. As the story goes, at some point in the distant past, a cellar worker decided to enrich the lives of the small mice living among the casks (and diverting them from the larger bounty) by sharing the spoils of sherry production. Although we didn’t see any lucky mice in person, pictures on a nearby pillar showed a few enjoying a nip.
Some casks we pass are signed in bright chalk by celebrities and VIPs–Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher (see, I told you the Brit influence was strong here), Lana Turner, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Chelsea Clinton, and countless more. Signing casks (and sometimes adding a drawing) is a thing here in the sherry triangle; we saw it at all three sherry houses we visited.
Interestingly, each signed cask looked amazingly fresh, as if it had been signed the day before, rather than decades prior. We had to ask how this was possible. Alvaro shared that after someone signs a cask, the warehouse staff make a tracing of the signature and periodically “refresh” it.
One cask that Alvaro pointed in particular out had a simple line drawing rather than a cursive scrawl. Viewed one way, you can make out the letters L, P, and S, the initials of Luis Pérez Solero, the director of advertising for Tio Pepe in 1935. Viewed another way, it clearly resembles a minimalist version of the iconic Tio Pepe logo – the L forming one arm, P as the body, and S for the guitar.
Bodegas Los Reyes is clearly among the top photo ops of our visit. Tall ceilings, sunlight trickling in via the high windows, and dramatic golden uplighting at the pillar bases. It’s hard to take a bad photo here. On one end sits an elaborately decorated set of casks, adorned with royal crests and fronted by an ornate façade. These casks are dedicated to and signed by six generations of the Spanish royal family and, as you might expect, hold the company’s finest sherries.
A small room adjoining the royal family casks is the original workshop of Manuel Maria González. It’s stuffed to the gills with extremely old bottles, caked with dust and cobwebs, and all unfortunately empty. It’s like a scene from a movie set, the room having been sealed for centuries before its rediscovery. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that no part of this room nor its contents have been dusted in more than a hundred years!
Brandy de Jerez
Having seen plenty of sherry casks by this point, our attention turned to distilled spirits, specifically Brandy de Jerez. I’ll wonk out over the intricacies in a future article, but for this post the key thing to know is that it must be distilled from Spanish grapes and aged within the sherry triangle, solera-style, in ex-sherry casks. Most Brandy de Jerez is made from Airén grapes, grown and distilled far away from Jerez, in the La Mancha region of Spain. As long as the distillate is brought to the sherry triangle for aging, it’s considered “de Jerez.”
The Lepanto Brandy de Jerez from González Byass is special in several ways. Unlike its competitors made with the inexpensive Airén grape, Lepanto uses Palomino grapes, the same fruit used to make sherry. Lepanto is also the only Brandy de Jerez actually distilled in the sherry triangle, and it’s entirely pot distilled, utilizing Cognac stills imported from France. In short, Lepanto is the closest thing to brandy made from distilled sherry.
The Lepanto stills are tucked away in the open air ground floor of a building between the historic 1800s-era bodegas and the neighboring massive, three-level, 28,000 butt capacity Tio Pepe bodega built in 1963. To get to the Lepanto stills, we traverse a steep set of stairs near the giant bodega. From the steps we get a great view of the famous Tio Pepe weathervane, the largest working weathervane in the world, per the Guinness Book of World Records.
Once inside the high ceilinged room that holds the Lepanto stills, I’m sad to see they’re not currently pumping out delicious brandy. However, I’m still excited as it’s my first face-to-face encounter with a Cognac-style pot still. Here, there are two stills, in a mirror image arrangement, the pots to the far left and right, each surrounded by a brick wall. The wine goes into the pots at around 12 percent ABV. The distillate vapor flows towards the center through an onion-shaped vessel and into water-cooled condenser tanks. I spent a solid ten minutes trying to figure out the function of the onion-shaped vessels. (Short answer: it’s a preheater for the wine before it enters the pot.) Two distillation passes bring the final distillate (holandas) up to 68 percent ABV.
Lepanto has three expressions, the differentiator being the type of ex-sherry casks each ages in. The Gran Reserva brandy ages in ex-Fino casks, the Oloroso brandy in ex-Oloroso casks, and the Pedro Ximénez brandy in (wait for it!) ex- Pedro Ximénez casks. Given the taste differences between Fino, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximénez, it’s not hard to imagine the three Lepanto expressions tasting fairly different. Along one wall of the room, a row of tasting glasses containing Lepanto distillate at various stages let us experience this for ourselves.
Wrapping up our very enjoyable experience at González Byass, Alvaro took Mrs. Wonk and me through a detailed tasting of most of the González Byass lineup. With Alvaro all to ourselves, we had plenty of opportunity to go back and forth between expressions and ask a ton of questions. Several times he ducked away to open yet another bottle to demonstrate a point. By the time we tasted all the sherries, we were already quite fortified, but we pressed on to sample two distilled spirits in the company’s portfolio. First up was Nomad Outland Whisky, a blended Speyside whisky aged for around nine years in oloroso casks in Scotland. It’s then shipped to González Byass in Jerez, where it ages at least another year in ex-Pedro Ximénez casks prior to bottling.
Last but not least was London No. 1 Gin, a new spirit in the company’s portfolio, imported from England. Mrs. Wonk is a big fan of gin and reviewed the No. 1 favorably. I’d be remiss in not mentioning that this gin is a fetching shade of light blue. Apparently, colored gin is a big deal in Spain, with pink-colored, strawberry flavored gin being particularly popular.
Exiting through the rather large and well stocked gift shop, we passed on purchasing a bottle of Tio Pepe accented with a red-plastic hat, jacket, and guitar – suitcase space is at a premium on this trip. However, we didn’t leave empty handed, as Alvaro presented us with a gift box containing small bottles of the company’s four V.S.O.R. expressions.
We extend our sincere appreciation to Alvaro for his hospitality and for reorganizing his travel schedule to accommodate our visit. He and the rest of the González Byass team made our first sherry experience very memorable!