I have learned over the years that the best experiences often happen when they aren’t planned. When I first planned my Sherry Odyssey in 2015, I never expected I would have met one of the key players in the sherry industry. At that time, I only knew Salvador Espinosa as the president of Covijerez and the man who let me sign my first sherry barrel.
These days, he’s wearing several hats at not only the cooperative, but in his vineyards, at Bodegas Diez Mérito, in his role at the Consejo Regulador, and most recently as one of the Magi on Three Kings Day. (For those of us in the US, it’s like Santa Claus only on a much grander, festive scale!) What’s humbling for me is that he always has time to be my friend. Salvador has offered me opportunities in my sherry exploration and education that I wouldn’t have created or planned otherwise! Let me share one of them with you from my most recent trip in September.
I wanted to go back to Covijerez to see it in full swing during harvest! This is where the majority of grapes are trucked in and processed for press and often for the first stages of fermentation. This is the perfect resource of modern technology to help when harvest has to happen quickly to maintain standards set by the Consejo Regulador. Most wineries transfer their bulk grapes in dumper trucks, which are weighed before pressing to monitor the yield requirements set by the Consejo for quality control purposes.
I met Salvador in the morning and the temperatures were already rising quickly into the upper 90’s (I think that day it got to 104F (40C). We piled into his brother’s car with Sheldon, the happiest dog in Jerez, and headed to Caribe Vineyard. Salvador’s family has been working to restore Bodegas Diez Mérito to its prestige. This vineyard is one of the oldest and provides the must for the Bertola sherry series. The older the vineyard the better the grapes!
After a quick morning coffee and toast and chat with locals, we met up with those already hard at work hand-cutting baskets full of Palomino grapes. Though I appreciated my quick lesson, even with my best effort I was too slow, my hip protested immediately with all the squats and I couldn’t lift more than a half-full basket. I have so much appreciation for the human-power that goes into harvesting the Sherry Triangle!
Back at Covijerez, it was the same guided-tour as the year before, only with the machinery and workers in full swing! Non-stop truckloads were dumping tons of fruit and juice moving them all along. The byproduct of skins, seeds and stems looked almost like ginormous cow pies. The noise of it all made it difficult to really understand the details of what was happening. I was thankful for Salvador’s use of English.
Inside the lab, he offered me the refractometer to see how they make sure the sugar levels stay within range. Here, they measure by Baumé, which will indicate the alcoholic strength that will be reached after fortification. 10.5 % is the goal for the best sugar potential for alcohol. They also analyze the health of the grapes for proper fermentation – 0.8 or higher isn’t healthy for fermentation.
Across the way, we walked to check on the fermentation tanks. Not very many bodegas ferment in barrels anymore. Tank systems help maintain consistency. Covijerez has two types of tank systems here. The older is La Ducha – a shower system where cold water cools the outside of the tank. The newer tanks are Camisas, a cold water insulation system. It’s amazing the heat that fermentation can generate! The circulating cold water helps control the fermentation in a consistent, non-aggressive way. I’m glad I didn’t have a fear of heights as we climbed a good 15 meters up to monitor the tanks. The smells were strong and I was firmly reminded not to breathe in when looking into the bubbling liquid.
The fermentation takes 14 days and is complete once the bubbles have stopped and all the sugar has been consumed. Everything settles throughout the fall and the base liquid must, or mosto, is sold right around the end of November. Creating the best mosto is crutial for the initial aging and maturing process of sherry, either biologically as a Fino or traditionally as Oloroso. Julien Jeffs said it best, “The must is the life blood of the bodegas; it is continually examined and checked, as everything depends on it.”
Despite being pulled in many directions, Salvador Espinosa is kind, generous and down to earth. He has taught me so much about the importance of making mosto. If you fall in love with sherry as I have, and visit Jerez, I really hope you and he cross paths!