To celebrate the official start of Sherry Week last night I enjoyed another glass of Palomino fino. Again it was from bodega González Byass, and once again it goes by the name Tio Pepe. In fact it even comes from some of the same barrels as the wine I reviewed yesterday. But before you stop reading and worry that I’ve been celebrating sherry week with a little too much ‘enthusiasm’ there is one key difference; indicated by the words ‘En Rama’ on the label.
Translating as ‘raw’ this essentially means that the wine is bottled with minimal filtration and clarification. Most finos are heavily filtered to remove any bits of yeast and sediments that build up in the barrels, giving a light floral wine. But this process also strips away some of the raw flavour. Fino En Rama receives only a light filtration, to remove the largest particles, before bottling. It is as close as possible to tasting the wine straight out of the oak barrel without making a trip to Jerez (although I do highly recommend every budding sherry enthusiast make a pilgrimage to that city).
But there is more to the wine than simply saving on a bit of filter paper in the winery. The wine for the En Rama bottling comes from carefully chosen casks of Palomino in the bodega. As I mentioned yesterday, a layer of yeast (flor) grows on top of the wine inside the two-thirds full casks. In some barrels the exact strains of yeasts present will differ slightly, providing subtle flavour nuances; in others the layer will grow faster and thicker, influencing the extent of oxidation. Hence each barrel will have its own unique character and flavour profile. As these casks are never completely emptied of their wines in any given bottling, the Master Blender will know which individual barrels tend to develop the more complex characteristics.
When the stocks are simply blended together for Tio Pepe, this variation is lost giving the end product a consistency from year to year; the better wines compensating for those that are less complex. However, in the last 8-9 years there has been a trend among sherry bodegas to keep back the very best wines from carefully selected casks and release this superior quality wine in its raw form. Now the release of the En Rama wines are some of the most eagerly anticipated events in the sherry-lover’s calendar.
So, what’s the difference I hear you ask? Well, firstly the price; the En Rama version is about twice the price of the regular Tio Pepe. But it is also fantastically more complex than the regular wine. In a side-by-side comparison the En Rama version is like the Tio Pepe on steroids. In the glass it is a much deeper gold (unsurprising as it is not as heavily filtered). All of those lovely almond and mealy green apples on the nose are still there, but amplified and exaggerated. The soft floral and chamomile character of the regular Tio Pepe is relegated, whilst the yeasty bread note comes to the fore. On the palate it has a richer mouth feel and the almonds are joined with hazelnuts and a pleasant salinity on the long finish. But despite this fuller form of Tio Pepe there is no denying its origin, boasting an elegance that begs for another glass; it is beautifully balanced and is the perfect accompaniment to a meatier fish plate or sushi.
Availability: Alas this is not an easy wine to find, but most good independent wine shops will stock at least one brand of fino En Rama. The excellent Lustau Fino En Rama is on special in Mitchell and Sons during Sherry week and The Corkscrew on Chatham St usually have some stock.
These wines tend to be released twice each year- in Spring* and Autumn- and as they are not stabilised through filtration should be drunk young.
The Irish Wino’s Verdict: This is a wonderful and complex wine. Although more expensive than the regular Tio Pepe, the En Rama is a very different beast and should be seen as the premium product that it is. For the very limited production available it still offers very good value for money and well worth hunting down.
* The wine I reviewed was the Spring 2016 bottling.