There’s been a lot of buzz about Tio Pepe Fino en Rama in the last few years and I was lucky enough to meet up with the perfect person to explain what all the fuss is about in Jerez. Martin Skelton is the UK managing director for Gónzalez Byass and is largely responsible for creating this sherry. After working for the company for 25 years, and living in Jerez for 16 years, he knows everything there is to know about sherry.
I discovered this while sharing a bottle of en rama with him at the Gónzalez Byass pavilion at the Feria de Caballo de Jerez. The horse fair takes place every year at the beginning of May and is a glorious week of drinking, eating, dancing and generally having a riotous time. Anyone can go and everyone is made welcome.
“En rama means in its raw state. It’s what the locals in the bodega would call a sample of wine straight from the barrel, without any filtering. It had been round for many years, particularly in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, but they just didn’t make anything of it,” Martin explained as he poured me a glass of the bone dry, pale golden sherry.
“About four years ago I decided that I wanted to introduce some en rama into the UK, just to give it a go for a bit of fun. I’d been talking to Toby Morrhall from the Wine Society, who is a great sherry aficionado, about doing something new with fino.”
It seems like Martin’s hunch, that people were ready to try a different sort of fino, was right, as it sold out faster than any other wine. “So one Tuesday afternoon, the Wine Society put 300 cases on sale. About an hour before, Toby called me and said I’m really not sure this is going to sell at all. I just said to him, look, it’s delicious, and if it doesn’t sell, just stick it in your garage and we’ll drink it together.”
But not a single bottle ended up in Toby’s garage, as two hours later it was all sold. At the end of April this year, the fourth edition of en rama was released and twice that amount was sold to 60 customers in less than 24 hours. The barrels of sherry that would become en rama had been chosen last October by the legendary Antonio Flores, the head winemaker at Gónzalez Byass.
“We produce it just once a year, when the layer of yeast, the flor, is thickest, when the wine has the strongest, freshest flavour. It’s turbo-powered fino. We only produce a small amount; we don’t want any left at the end of the feria,” said Martin. The way we, and everyone else in the pavilion, were knocking it back, I didn’t think there was any danger of that.
Before going to the feria I had had a look around the Gónzalez Byass winery, which was founded in 1835, tasting a range of their sherries with Martin and learning about how they are produced. “The key thing with fino en rama is that there is no clarification or filtering,” he said. “This lends it a bit more weight on the palate and gives it a slight lemony finish. It retains a bit more colour too. It is however technically unstable as it contains lots of living yeasts, and it can be a little bit cloudy at the bottom of the bottle.”
Back at the feria, Martin was topping up our glasses. “This one is straight from the cask, it’s ultrafresh and tastes exactly as it does from the barrel. Every week the wine will taste different. In two or three weeks time, it will have a slight biscuity, nutty flavour. After three months it’s still lovely, but it tastes different again.”
We were eating some fabulous calamares too, and of course slivers of ibérico ham. “Fino needs food,” said Martin. “Every caseta in the feria has food as well as sherry and other wines.”
Throughout the afternoon, dishes of olives, almonds, croquetas, chorizo, prawns and tortilla appeared alongside each new bottle, as friends old and new drifted in and out of the pavilion, stopping to listen to the flamenco guitarist, watch the dancers and maybe have a bit of a twirl themselves.
It was my best experience in Spain this year and I’m definitely going back next year to taste the new edition of fino en rama as soon as it comes out.