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mercredi, 23 juillet 2014

DOMAIN TORO ALBALA ANDALUSIA, SPAIN

TORO ALBALA:  A JEWEL OF EXCELLENCE AND ECCENTRICITY


Claude Gilois

Visiting this domain is a must and memories of your visit will be engraved in your mind for a very long time. Located at about 200 km from Jerez de la Frontera in the heart of the Montilla Morilles region in Andalusia, the region is known for it lifestyle and authenticity, its Arobo-Andalusian architecture in the town of Cordoue, its olive trees, its unique wines and its flamenco, this sensual music that   penetrates your body and soul.

 

The best time to visit is May, during the Vinobles wine fair, which is organised every two year in Jerez, when it is not too hot and it is the nicest wine show in the world. It is organised in the town’s castle and takes place partly inside and partly outside in the castle’s grounds. It is also a most civilised wine fair, do not attempt to arrive before 11.00 AM as very few producers will be present on their stands; lunch followed by a siesta is mandatory. Return to the fair at about 18.00 hrs to get ready to be taken to one of the many large wine estates located in or around the town.  For a change of scenery for a short week, it is perfect,  you can sign without hesitation.

 

A few basic facts before you visit the domain.

 

If Jerez de la Frontera and Sanlucar de Barrameda are the regions for the Palomino grape, then Montilla Moriles is the region for the Pedro Ximenez that also gives the wine its name. Once you have understood this, you have understood 50% of the wine of the region, but from now on hang on, as the learning curve gets tougher.

 

 

First paradox: The Pedro Ximenez is a white grape variety which paradoxically produces wines that, when aged, are black as the ace of spades; we shall come back to this.

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Second paradox: With the Palomino grapes you can make wine called Fino, Amontillado, Paolo Cortado and Aloroso, but never Pedro Ximenez.  but with Pedro Ximenez you can make Fino, Amontillado, Aloroso and, of course Pedro Ximenez but you will never be able to make Manzanilla.  You have now reached 75% of the understanding of the wine region.

 

Third paradox: (if it is one)  This wine is not made in casks, tanks or bottles,  but by a system called Solera.    Three rows of old wooden casks containing the same wine are stocked on top of one another. Each row contains wines of a different age, at the bottom the oldest and at the top the youngest.  Usually 1/3 of the bottom row is racked off and bottled.  The racked off wine is then replaced by the wines from the row above, and the top row is replaced by the young wine from current the vintage.

 

You now have the required level of knowledge to visit Toto Albala.

 

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The two Antonios

 

The domain is that of the two Antonios; Antonio Sanchez and Antonio Sorgato.  Antonio Sanchez is the owner, the winemaker, the chemist or rather the alchemist.  As thin as a rake, he is not without resembling a wine he makes, the Fino. Dark glasses permanently fixed to his nose, the man is discreet, as opposed to the other Antonio, the export director who is more rounded, more polished, who resembles the Pedro Ximenez more.

 

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A visit to the domain starts at approximately 10:30 by a tour of the museum. No, not a wine museum, but a proper museum as Antonio Sanchez is a compulsive collector. There is even a chained slave’s skeleton in the museum.   I recall that a few years ago the authorities seized the museum before the entire content was restituted to Antonio Sanchez after verification that the contents had not been acquired fraudulently.

 

The Cellar

 

You could spend hours visiting the museum, but you eventually have to resort (quite willingly I guess) to go down to the cellar which comes from another age and seems to have been there since time immemorial.  The lighting is so bleak that it is verging on oppressive as it distorts the faces that appear to come from a scene of the ‘night of the living dead’.  Mould on the walls and barrels which with the passing of the time have acquired a black colour.   The type of cellar that a newly qualified student from Roseworthy College would have the greatest pleasure in cleaning with a power hose, but in the land of Louis Pasteur, we have the greatest respect for mould and yeast. 

 

The basic Don PX Reserva

 

At the domain, the Fino and the Amontillado are made in Solera, but the Pedro Ximenez is a vintage wine.  So, how do you transform a grape that comes from a white variety into a wine that is as black as ink?  After the grapes have been picked, they are placed on mats to dry for a few weeks.  The dried grapes are then vinified and the must is then fortified with alcohol made from grapes, and the wine is then placed in old casks where it can age for some 25 to 30 years before it is released onto the market. The secret in the winemaking process is simple: how can you make a wine that has often more than 400 g/l of residual sugar and that is not sickly sweet. This is where Toro Albala succeeds while the great majority of other producers have failed. Do they add something else to the wine? A little bit of ‘Arope’ maybe to add some colour or some concentrated pepper solution to balance the sweetness with astringence. A mystery. Alchemists have their secrets. We will come back to this point.

 

The very old vintages

 

And what about the old vintages, such as the 1910, 1939, 1945, 1947, 1949 and 1961,  are they made in the same way?   In theory it is possible to keep the wine for that length of time, but the domain tries to buy barrels of old wines like the one I tried to taste at the domain during my last visit, the wine was just one hundred years old. In fact, it was not possible to drink the wine as it had become solid and the barrel had to be sawn open to extract its contents. These old barrels are extremely hard to come by and are becoming very expensive. How do you make it drinkable again? Through a process called ‘refreshing’ which consists of  mixing the old PX with an old Amontillado and by knowing the age of the PX and the age of the Amontillado, you then work out the age of the final product. They tell us at the domain that there exists a formula for this calculation. One cannot help but notice that the vintages of the wine correspond pretty well to the best Bordeaux vintages of the 20th century;  I guess this helps sales. 

 

Surfacing

 

Needless to say that after a couple of hours in the pit, sampling wines that are sometimes  too good to spit or pour back in to the barrel, the return to the surface is somewhat joyful. Another quick look at the museum and we found ourselves in the store room at about 14.00 hrs,  time at which Antonia Sanchez, his employees and friends are starting to sample a few glasses of Fino.  During summer 14.00 hrs is closing time, it is too hot to work in the afternoon.  Sometimes it is 1, 2 or 3 Fino, sometimes more depending on the circumstances.

 

The Saint Antonio

 

As well as the two Antonios from the domain, it would seem that half the population of the village is also called Antonio, and all the Antonios gathered at the domain to celebrate their nameday, which coincided with our visit, and on this occasion the consumption of Fino was closer to the score of the Germany-Brazil match in the recent world cup. A country lunch, consisting of young rabbits shot in the vineyards and cooked in their juice was served and went down a treat with the Fino. 

 

The climax of the afternoon came when a stentorian voice, worthy of a Luciano Pavarotti at his best, came from nowhere bellowing ‘Frère Jacques’, probably  as a sign of welcome to the ‘froggies’ who had managed to escape their ponds to finish off in buckets of Fino. When we finally recovered our senses to cast our eyes in the direction of the voice, we were stunned to discover that it came from the local priest, all in black with a huge cross around his neck, standing on the table and who went on to huff and puff for a few more songs in front of a bemused audience. Then, he came back to earth, got down from the table, picked up a glass of Fino and went round to salute his fans and disappeared as though nothing had happened.

 

The trick of the pepper concentrate:

 

We thought we had passed the climax of the afternoon and we were moving slowly towards a well-earned and refreshing siesta, but this is when Antonio Sanchez decided to strike a final blow to add to our disbelief and revealed perhaps, inadvertently, one of the secrets of the making of his Pedro Ximenez.

 

‘Do you like pepper’ ask Antonio Sanchez still looking at his audience through his dark glasses.

 

‘Oh… yes .. Of course….’ Replied those of us who were still able to put a few sensible words together

 

‘Do you want to taste a pepper concentrate’?  asked Antonio Sanchez

 

Before we had a chance to reply, he had disappeared in to his laboratory and promptly returned holding a flask in his hand.  He went on to pour one drop into each of our glasses but gave five drops to Antonio Sorgato.

 

We started tasting, with one drop, it was already dynamite. With five drops we had the impression that we had started a chained nuclear reaction in our mouths and it took about 20 minutes and a great deal of water to calm  our buccal reactors down.

 

Nobody had the foresight to ask him what he used this solution for.  It was later on after the siesta that we came to the conclusion that he probably used it to tone down the sweetness of his Pedro Ximenez and to give them a better balance of sweetness and astringency.

 

 

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