Alexander Jules

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I’ve known of Alexander Jules for quite awhile. I’ve actually referred to Alex Russan as the Jesús Barquín of the United States. I just never had the chance to taste his sherry. In recent months, some exciting things have been happening to promote sherry in the Pacific Northwest. Walden Selections is going to be my new best friend! Based in Washington State, they not only represent local northwest wines, some of which are made by Portland friends, but they also represent Spanish wines and sherry, including Alexander Jules. YES PLEASE!

I discovered Alex Russan was actually going to be in Seattle and Portland within the first week Walden Selections started business in Portland. Not only did I want to meet him, but I wanted to hear his story, taste his wines and connect him with all my favorite chefs, bartenders and wine shops who have helped make Sherry Sips stay a vital part of my life.

I arranged to meet with Carrie from Walden Selections and Alex for coffee. It’s funny when you meet someone in person you’ve known via social media. Do you hug? Do you shake hands? Not only did I recognize him, but also realized Carrie and I were classmates in WSET Level 2 last spring.

Carrie and I had to explain to Alex that in Oregon, the rules are much stricter when it comes to serving alcohol, especially if a place is not licensed. So we wouldn’t be able to bring them inside the coffee shop. Funny enough, I felt more worried about getting caught bringing his sherry inside, yet sampling them from the back of his car didn’t phase me. Sadly, I didn’t think to take a picture of this classy moment.

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I’ll admit, there are other wine writers far better at wine descriptions than I am. But let me tell you my experience was transformative! These sherry selections took me to another place! The first was his Manzanilla. It was so floral and a yellow apple note that shines through stronger than any flor influence. It reminded me of mosto, when palomino still wine hasn’t been fortified. It was so elegant and feminine, with a pop of bright acidity balanced by salinity. Yet, this was not at all astringent. It could really pair well with more than just seafood.

The Fino was a punch in the face. Alex said the solera is housed near Fernando de Castilla and I was instantly transported. There’s no question this bottle encapsulated the Jerezano style of Fino. It was so pungent by comparison to the Manzanilla. Really bold but not super yeasty or reminiscent of wet dough. It had a lovely burst of acidity, some green olive notes, yet light on the palate.

The Amontillado was my favorite and left me craving more. This was an extension of the Manzanilla aged and bottled just at the tipping point where it becomes Amontillado. The color was much lighter amber. The nose still held onto the previous yellow apple fruit with only slight hazelnut and toffee to add a layer of complexity. On the palate it was so delicate and not concentrated in comparison to other Amontillado styles. This wine excites me! The range of pairings could be limitless because of its lighter body and balance of flavors.

Alex Russan

When we sat down to get to know each other, I asked Alex my standard question for everyone – how did you get into sherry? He actually discovered wine about three weeks before he turned 21 and got into sherry rather quickly. He wanted to try the most complex styles on a college budget. In Rancho Cucamonga, there were still a few making California Sherry, nothing like proper sherry, but nevertheless great wine. Little by little, he started exploring authentic sherry. There’s nothing like them and they’ve always called to Alex and held a special place in his heart.

Always an entrepreneur, he imported coffee for nine years, primarily with Columbian coffee. He would taste hundreds of coffees a year from neighboring fields with really small lots; each subtly similar. He liked coffee, but he LOVED wine. In 2012, he started seeing articles that sherry was gaining popularity. Taking what he knew from his coffee venture, he wanted to taste through barrels of sherry. Similar to rare single barrels of scotch, Alex could only imagine how each old barrel would influence sherry with its unique personality.

He started with contacting each bodega listed on the Consejo Regulador’s website, with the intention to spend two weeks visiting each one. Through this journey, he narrowed down whom he wanted to work with. He flew out and started making barrel selections. At the time he wasn’t even aware of Jesús Barquín and his very similar Equipos Navazos project. Alex wanted to do Single Barrel Sherry, but due to the nature of the solera, it became multiple barrels.

Alexander Jules represents exceptional soleras of unique sherry Alex feels to be the most complex and elegant from within that solera. All bottlings are en rama, being only gently filtered or entirely unfiltered, with no other treatments or additions. He doesn’t want to have consistent releases, so he’s not having any blending happening for these specific barrels.

This excites a consumer like myself – that each bottle will have something new inside! All the labels note the number of barrels selected. For example, the label at the top of this post represents a selection from 22 barrels in an 85 barrel solera from Bodegas Sánchez Romate Hermanos in Jerez de la Frontera. Alex tries to list as much information he can on the label and on his website.

Being based in the USA, sherry is first for importing, but to maintain his business, he started importing still wine and cider from small producers around Spain, focusing on rare grapes, and less common regions like the Canary Islands. He also used to make wine at home, which spurred on his project called Metrick Wines. His desire is to hybridize grapes for California, and would like to have a small vineyard in the next five or so years to plant those, along with less common varieties that will do well in California.

It’s fellow west coast sherry lovers like Alex that make me not feel so far away when I’m missing Jerez the most. I am excited for more things to come from Alexander Jules!

The Urium Meeting Place

Some of the most supportive people I’ve encountered in my sherry journey have been through social media connections. These days, it’s so easy to feel connected in friendship across the miles without ever having met in person. Imagine my excitement when I realized I would be in Jerez for harvest at the same time as these fellow sherry lovers! The one bodega we all share a common love for is Bodegas Urium. How fitting that this became our meeting place! Despite the jet lag and the summer heat, we all greeted each other with open arms and cheek-kisses as if this was not our first official meeting. Allow me to introduce you to my friends.

urium-familyThe Urium Meeting Place – Rocío, her husband Mario, and her charming father Alonso take hospitality to the next level! I joke that Rocio and I are like two teenage schoolgirls since we met in 2015. We text each other, giggling about life, and also share our hardships when we need support. She takes her family’s business very seriously and amazes me with how much she manages! She does it all – back office invoicing and orders, hospitality to guests visiting the winery, PR management, etc. She is the most capable woman I’ve ever met!

Heaven help me if I can understand anything Mario says, but he is so jovial! I think he laughs at the end of every sentence that comes out of his mouth. He may seem quiet in a crowd, but one-on-one, he is very passionate about his life in Cuba. In Urium, he jumps right into the family business of running the soleras and doesn’t hesitate to make sure you’re comfortable in their home. I truly believe he is the best selfie-taker!

Who doesn’t love Alonso? He looks like Santa, is so passionate about his wines, and makes a mean stew! I love listening to his childhood stories. He tells many jokes that get lost in translation, offers sound advice and encouragement, and will even sing a few lines of a Sevillanas. Just beware; he will charm you into singing or dancing for him as well!

urium-fun4Criadera – I have followed Helen Highley on Twitter since I first started my sherry journey. She and her husband Stuart live near Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve learned so much about sherry reading her blog. She’s the one who put me in touch with smaller, boutique sherry houses like Urium and Faustino González. Upon finally meeting her in Jerez, her enthusiasm is infectious. It’s no wonder she’s made such amazing partners for her own Sherry Boutique.

urium-funMontilla-Moriles UKErik and Laura Burgess are another dear couple from Scotland, in Blantyre east of Glasgow. Well, everyone will learn quickly that Erik is originally from New Zealand. They bring a stuffed animal Kev the Kiwi on their travels for some fun photo moments. Erik is my #1 fan on Twitter! I can always rely on him to like and retweet my posts! One will also learn a lot about whisky from these two, as they compare and contrast their passion for both scotch and sherry. They uniquely focus their passion for sherry in the Montilla-Moriles region where most PX grapes are grown. Although sherry styles from this region aren’t aged within the sherry triangle, I’ve learned from Erik and Laura not to disregard these wines entirely. What I discovered, upon meeting in person, are their giving hearts! They are the most generous people! I’m really hoping our paths cross again on their home turf!

Shawn HennesseyDon’t be fooled by other guided tapas tours reciting a script – Shawn is the real deal! She is the eyes and ears of Sevilla, Malaga and beyond! Originally from Canada, she has lived several years in Sevilla. Her tours include hole-in-the-wall places where she has built friendships with owners and waiters. Her love for sherry is top-notch. She is such a role model for me. Plus, we share a mutual adoration for cats. When she knew I was coming to take the Certified Sherry Educator’s course at the Consejo Regulador, she came to visit Jerez to lend me her notes! She may be camera shy, but she is anything but when it comes to one on one conversation! If anything, she’s been the one to push me out of my own shell.

alexSherry Company Alexander Dopson has been my kindred spirit throughout my journey. I was excited to finally meet up in Jerez. He and his wife just made the move back to Sevilla from Miami. Although his father is American, his mother is from Jerez. It’s a mind trip to hangout with him and see how he flips from being a total Floridian to Jerezano in one conversation. He’s so fluent; I relied on him to be my interpreter for the little details my language ability couldn’t catch. He is passionate and eloquent when he speaks or writes about sherry, not just about the wines, but the region, the history, and the culture. He’s been a mentor to keep dreaming big and to never give up on my goals for Sherry Sips. When we met at Urium, he brought along his best friend Sergio, who quickly felt like my long lost cousin. Sergio and his new bride Maria became dear friends throughout my stay in September. I hope when we all meet again, they’ll take me to Grazalema where they grew up together.

We had the pleasure of an unexpected addition to the visit from Carl-Gustav Aullo. He’s a Spanish-Swede writing a book on sherry in Swedish! I loved listening to his fluent Spanish with little Swedish interjections. Having just been to Stockholm connecting to my Swedish roots, it was a joy to get to know him and share stories. After several glasses of sherry, we even pulled him in as we serenaded Dancing Queen to Alonso before leaving the bodega and heading onto other sherry adventures.

If you’re passionate about sherry, there are amazing friends who await you with open arms. If you want to meet in person, you know where we’ll be. What happens at Urium stays at Urium.

La Vendimia with Covijerez

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salva-martaI 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.

covijerez1I 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.

sheldonI 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.

fermentationThe 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!

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La Vendimia Pt. 1 – Back to Spirit Sherry

 

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It’s hard to believe, as I huddle inside my Portland home from the snowy exterior that only four months ago I was sweating through the days of harvest in Jerez. Even more surprising is el mosto, the juice that was pressed and fermented at harvest, is officially ready to be fortified to continue the blending process of the soleras. Where did the time fly?

After the success of my first Sherry Odyssey in the spring of 2015, I knew I must come back at harvest. I wanted to understand sherry from grape to glass. Yet by the end of my first visit, apart from seeing the vines, I primarily visited bodegas, enjoying copious amounts of the finished product. This time around, I went back to two of my favorite locations to really get a feel for both traditional and modern harvest methods.

Spirit Sherry

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My first visit to Spirit Sherry was an instant connection of friendship and I could not wait to go back! Last year they were at La Zarzuela vineyards, but have moved to another location close by, appropriately named La Hija de la Z. It’s much more rustic with a gorgeous view, and the perfect experience to step back in time.

Eduardo picked me up in Jerez first thing in the morning. The temperatures were rapidly rising to well over 100˚F. (I think that day it got to 41˚C.) Two other young ladies joined me, ready for some harvest fun! I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew I would be cutting grapes, then stomping them. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a lot of fun, or if I was setting myself up to be like Lucille Ball stomping grapes in Italy, ending in a wrestling match.

Before we began, Eduardo and Cecilia gave us a little lesson on the regulations in place to ensure harvest is successful. Sugars ferment and convert to alcohol. Palomino grapes require a minimum of 10.5% to be able to reach the alcoholic strength, as well as the right acidity levels to keep from going through malolactic fermentation. When these levels are perfect, THAT is when harvest is permitted. Every vineyard harvests at the same time.

 

The health of the grape is also very important. This year the weather created several challenges for the grapes, especially in the case of mildew. Fortunately, the solera blending process makes up for when there’s a bad harvest, even though it still presents a challenge when the majority of the grapes are still being handpicked.

Spirit Sherry experiences are fun and educational! We weren’t expected to harvest for the entire day, let alone an entire row. For hand cutting, everyone worked on the same line, taking the cluster and cutting it close to the top where the stalk meets the supporting branch. Sometimes it was hard to find the main stock, since the grapes wind and tangle around each other.

After each of us filled our own basket, we helped carry them back to a shaded area and lined them up in a row on the ground. Ana, Marta and I were instructed to take off our shoes and socks and step right into the buckets, while holding each other’s shoulders for support. With a little help of some salsa music, we stomped the grapes to the beat. After many giggles and sloshing, we each cleaned off then took our buckets over to a table where we macerated the rest with our hands through a sieve.

Spirit Sherry is all about tradition. The must from Palomino grapes was poured into a glass jars to ferment. Because of the low acidity, Eduardo added tartaric acid to aid the fermentation process. Rather than blending our must into a solera, Spirit Sherry uses it for their delicious table wine.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the shade of a tree eating delicious tapas and pastries with glasses of sherry. It’s moments like these when I’m glad my Spanish is just good enough to catch most of the jokes and local gossip. Despite the heat, despite the flies, despite even the sad, feral dogs that roam the vineyard, I felt at home and was proud to play a part in making something that will be enjoyed later in the years to come.

Stay tuned next week for part 2 – my return visit to Covijerez to see their mass mosto production!

Zambombas!

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Every time I visit Jerez, I return home feeling like I need to go back for even longer. My first visit was for 10 days in 2013. Then for 14 days in 2015. Naturally, when I went back for harvest it only seemed logical I stay for the month. However, the more I fall in love with this little town, the more I realize I truly need at least one full year to really capture it all! So many festivals, including Zambombas this time of year!

This season is my jam, man! Perhaps it’s because my birthday lands on the 30th in the middle of all sorts of festivities. The holiday season just makes me giddy! For just a moment, let’s put aside the angst of holiday shopping, horrible traffic (though isn’t that every day?), and some sadness this season can bring to the surface. This time of year brings up so many happy memories of decorating the house, singing Christmas Carols on a professional stage in huge choirs, driving to see the “rich” neighborhoods lit up with Christmas lights, and knowing I’ll be the first to get up Christmas morning, turn on the lights in the quiet and open my stocking as soon as the family comes into the living room. As a child, I always knew mom, I mean Santa, will leave gold chocolate coins, a book of lifesavers and an orange at the end of the toe.

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Both my husband and I enjoy traveling abroad. If it weren’t too complicated with family expectations, unpredictable weather, or the intensity of holiday airport travelers, we would love to go experience Christmas in other cities around the globe. Jason’s never been to Jerez, and I would love go during my favorite season to experience zambombas! Every year when December arrives in Jerez, multiple zambombas are preplanned around the city. For the last three years, I’ve been enviously watching social media posts about all the festivities.

Originating back to the 18th century, zambombas start as early as mid November and last through Christmas Eve. Now, to my untrained ear, a zambomba on its own sounds very much like when I was a child playing with my plastic straw in the lid of my soda at McDonald’s. But this earthen vessel is only played at this time of year to accompany local carols. It’s like a Christmas patio party! It’s all my favorite things in one place – friends, bonfires, food, sherry, bulerías dancing and singing to the rhythm of zambombas.

Anyone can join and participate in this party. You better know when the opportunity comes my way, I will be there and prepared to bust out a bulería or two!

 

Sherry Tasting + Social Anxiety

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I am really proud of all that is done in the effort of introducing sherry to others around the globe; Copa de Jerez, Sherryfest, International Sherry Week to name a few. Unfortunately, I’m not always able to attend any of them. Mostly it comes down to the affordability of flights, rental car, lodging, and food, in addition to just attending an event.

I’ll also be the first to admit that even despite logistics and excuses, I’m extremely intimidated. Despite what you may have seen in pictures, I’ve never enjoyed large crowds. Throw in extra volume levels of music and screaming conversations and it’s sensory overload for me! The other part that makes me nervous is feeling like I’m so new to the sherry and wine scene, that I wouldn’t know the “rules” for attending a grand tasting event. How could this wallflower even hope to fit in? I’m so much better at one-on-one conversation in a quiet corner.

The main purpose for my recent visit to Jerez was to experience harvest and the harvest festival. Part of the festival included De Copa En Copa, a three-day public tasting event at the Claustros de Santa Domingo where several bodegas could show off their sherry. For me, the three days of De Copa En Copa were mostly about networking, as well as tasting amazing new-to-me sherry that’s not yet available in the US, all in one location.

I was actually surprised by how many remembered me, kissed their hellos and then introduced me to other sherry connections. I finally met Margarita from No Solo Jerez who introduced me to José Caireles who’s making an amazing Manzanilla at Bodegas Los Caireles. I ran into Juan Mateos Arizón from Lustau who introduced me to Carla Terry from Osborne. Edmundo (hijo) from Bodegas Grant introduced me to Alberto and Gabriel from Bodegas Yuste as a future sherry author. Food for thought – Sherry Sip Memoirs.

The best part of course while conversing were the extra sample pours my tickets didn’t pay for. I really do hope to find products from Yuste in Portland. Originally, I fell in love with their labels and hoped to connect with them in Sanlúcar. Their Manzanillas are amazing and very refreshing on a hot day! I highly recommend La Kika!

I also got to try the Vermouth, or Vermut, from Gonzalez Byass, Fernando de Castilla and Lustau, each one uniquely different. My favorite on its own was the one from Lustau because there wasn’t a strong bitter note on the finish. The trend is growing, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see other bodegas join the competition. I could really see them doing quite well in the US cocktail scene!

for-all-generationsWhat I didn’t realize until hindsight was the diversity of who attended. It wasn’t just an older crowd. I saw entire families attend. I saw children learning to use a venencia. I saw a global representation of people, not just Spaniards. Most importantly, I saw men and women in their 20’s either working the event or hanging out with their friends drinking sherry instead of going out to the bars. It was truly a snapshot of what the sherry revolution is trying to achieve.

De Copa En Copa stripped away my fears of fitting in or being overwhelmed. I actually felt quite welcomed and at home. I had a wonderful time! Perhaps it will give me courage to try others in the near future.

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Welcome Home

planeThe best part of traveling to Jerez is that I can always pick up right where I left off. Compared to my ever growing, ever changing city of Portland, Oregon, Jerez relatively remains the same from year to year. I can slide back into life right along the daily routines. My landlords Manolo and Carmen will have an apartment waiting for me. My friends at Bar El Porrón will have toast and coffee ready in the morning. I can text Rubén should I need a taxi. Best of all, Rocío is my lifeline when I just need a bff!

There’s nothing better than walking off my plane battling jet lag to be greeted with a huge hug from Rocío! She was so generous to pick me up this time and whisk me off to Urium to see her father and husband. Reunited as if no time had passed, glass of fino in hand, I was home.

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My first evening in town, she took me to Tabanco El Pasaje for the photo exhibition of Paco Barroso. Paco has an amazing eye and talent. I have admired several of his photos focused on local flamenco dancers. This evening, the first to grab my attention set the tone for my reason for coming – harvest. Sherry starts with the hands that work so hard to hand-cut the grapes for long hours in unforgiving heat. If I could, I would hang this photo in my home as a reminder each time I enjoyed a glass, to pause and silently thank them for their efforts.

This evening also highlighted moments frozen in time in some of my favorite bodegas: El Maestro Sierra mother Doña Pilar and daughter Maria del Carmen smelling copas of wine, Urium father Alonso and daughter Rocío holding a copita, and best of all the silhouette of recently passed enologist Manuel Lozano from Lustau. This was rightfully placed in the center and caught my breath a little with the title, “Seguimos caminando…” or “Let’s keep on walking…” Paco explained this was a phrase Lozano would repeatedly say during their visit. But what a reminder this evening for those who grieve his loss.

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The entire evening I was squeezed into a tiny space full of loud conversation and kissing hellos to key locals in the sherry and tourism industry. Despite my jet lag, this was the perfect way to dive right back in and feel completely welcomed home.

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Me, Rocío, Mario, Paco + Fran