Monday, 13th April. 5:00 pm. My friend Manel and I were sat in a bar while eating some tapas and talking about the great morning we experienced. It was not common to have the chance to visit two nice wineries in just few hours one Monday! Both Ximénez-Spínola and El Maestro Sierra had not fallen short of expectations. But the day did not end there, as we were waiting to visit Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo, our next destination.
I know Hidalgo winery quite well, because I proudly sell their wines in Barcelona. This was my third visit, but I always have had the feeling that every visit is a total new experience. The winery, its wines and the charming atmosphere are always there, as well as the passionate and professional treatment that Juan Manuel M. Hidalgo –one of members of the 5th generation Hidalgo’s family – has given to me in every visit. The difference is in me, because I am engulfed with subtle questions about viticulture, winemaking, labeling and history of the bodega.
Manel and I were guided by Juan Manuel throughout different andanas (groups of butts). We tasted some wines in different phase of development and others of the same type, but allocated in different sites in the bodega. It was incredible to realize how different can be the wines of some butts from the others. One only can say: Yes, the dynamic system works quite well, and it is important to keep a homogeneous product.
A brief history about Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo. This family company was founded in the second half of the 19th century. Today, two brothers, Emilio and Fernando M. Hidalgo, together with their cousin Juan Manuel M. Hidalgo run the company. Manuel Jesús Nieves is the capataz -the cellar master and caretaker of these wines, who monitors the daily works at the bodega– completes the main team.
They started their activity with the production of a range of wines from Jerez in 1874. The oldest wines come from soleras dated back to 1860’s. One of them is known nowadays as Santa Ana Pedro Ximénez 1861. It is an outstanding sweet wine with an average over 100 years (they draw off scarcely about 300 bottles a year). Besides this wine, they make with great care the Privilegio Palo Cortado 1860. It is just astonishing (they draw off just 300 bottles a year). Along with these two master pieces of Sherry, they have a great Amontillado called El Tresillo 1874, with an average of “just” 45 years (production: 3.000 bottles a year). It is complex, rich and flavorsome.
Here is a side note: these three brands could be labeled as VORS (average age minimum 30 years). But one may wonder if labeling these very old wines under the VORS premises makes sense. Of course that the VOS/VORS system helps the costumer to have a certain idea of what they are asking for, but perhaps it is not accurate enough when dealing with the top Sherry which talks by itself.
Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo grew up slowly. The family owned fine vineyards at some of the most Sherry representative pagos, named La Panesa and Bonete, but because of different family heirlooms disappeared from the property. Today they operate by keeping a close relationship with some viticulturists to get mosto (still wine in the Sherry jargon) ready to be classified for the different types of wines required, i.e. Olorosos and Finos. They kept the standard high despite the hazards that the boom of Sherry of the 60’s and 70’s brought. At their peak, they produced almost 4 million bottles of wine a year! This phase ended a long time ago. New family members brought new ideas. This led to a perspective based exclusively in small production of the highest quality wines, a path that they started in the 90’s and some other bodegas has carried on and is common now. Nowadays, it seems quite clear that the survival of Jerez has to be based on quality.
Let us talk about the rest of the wines. They bottle two Finos. The first of them is the “little brother” aimed for export. It is produced in a dynamic system of 6 escalas and is bottled -with a slight clarification with an average age of 5 years. I like to keep this Fino for one year or more sleeping in my wine cellar before open it, because it becomes a very interesting Fino-Amontillado.
The second Fino is the workhorse of the winery, if we refer to biologically aged wines: La Panesa. This fabulous Fino averages 15 years! Its solera was set in 1961 and the first bottling was in 2004. As far as I know, this wine is the most complex one available in the market. It was created in a moment in which the market was asking for volume rather than quality. In that context, Hidalgo decided to commercialize a Fino able to represent the peak in biological aging.
In 2010, they put in the market the Amontillado-Fino El Tresillo, a natural consequence of the very existence of old Finos. Why? One may ask. The reality is that no all butts prepared to become La Panesa will reach that goal. Some butts (given name to the barrel in Sherry jargon) will develop a different character after the 9th or 10th year of nurturing. This will make them turn in a different aromatic profile, so those butts are removed from a biological process and are redirected to become El Tresillo that has a biological ageing of 8-10 years, and after that, 5-6 years of oxidative ageing. These features give to this wine a highly versatile profile for food pairings.
Together with the biological ageing system we have the oxidative ageing, i.e. the Oloroso. This is a category in which the wines are oxidized during practically all the process. They produce two of them: Gobernador and Villapanés. Gobernador is an Oloroso that averages 8-10 years; while Villapanés, 18 (its solera dates back from 1919). Both of them come from the same way of ageing. The difference is that the first one is draw off from the 3rd criadera, while Villapanés has more escalas. Both of them represent the pinnacle of Oloroso (DRY) in their categories.
Another great wine is the Palo Cortado Marqués de Rodil. It averages 15-18 years with a combination of biological and oxidative ageing and it has a distinctive character. The pity is that it is not in the market now. I hope it will be drawn off soon!
They also produce a light and pleasant PX (average 4 years) that is very easy to drink; some other wines for the local consumption; and a vinegar that they do not commercialize.
Last but not least, let us talk about two rare brands. Don Raimundo is a very old Oloroso which solera dates back 1863 (it is not commercialized), and the brandy Hidalgo Solera Gran Reserva that is the epitome of a Brandy de Jerez under that category.
In short, I say –not because I sell their products, but because I enjoy and know their wines- that Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo is one of the finest examples of wine making within the Sherry world.