Fast forward to September 2010. On my trip to the Jerez region, one of our stops was to be Bodegas Gonzalez Byass, the producers of that vintage sherry. I was quite eager to visit, to discover the roots of the bodega which could create such an amazing wine.
Bodegas Gonzalez Byass was founded in 1835 by the 23 year-old Manuel Maria Gonzalez. His uncle, Jose de la Pena, had owned a small bodega and helped Manuel get started in the business. Around 1885, Manuel partnered with an Englishman, Robert Blake Byass, who was a trader in wines and coal. The company prospered over the years. Around 1998, the Byass family sold their shares in the company and the Gonzalez family now owns about 97% of the company. They also own other wineries around Spain. In addition, they are concerned about sustainability and good environmental practices.
They own various bodegas, each with their own evocative name such as La Constancia, Los Apostles, La Concha, and Los Reyes. Above, you can see La Concha, Spanish for "seashell," which was built in 1962 and designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (who created the Eiffel Tower). It contains 214 barrels with 115 flags that represent all of the countries with which Gonzalez Byass has done business. Their products are currently available in over 70 countries, and the United States is their #5 market.
Gonzalez Byass owns approximately 600 hectares of land, and has long term contracts for another 400 hectares, with 90% of the land being albariza soil, the best type of soil for the Palomino grape. They grow about 95% Palomino, 5% Pedro Ximenez and no Moscatel. About 50% of their vineyards are machine harvested and each year, they put aside 200 barrels for Añadas sherry.
Above, you can see the bodega of Los Apostles, which has a fascinating origin. In October 1862, Queen Isabel II visited Gonzalez Byass, desirous of seeing the pressing of grapes. Though the harvest was already over, the bodega still found a way to please the Queen. They went out into the countryside, buying grapes from the peasants, who had been saving them to eat later. In all, they acquired about 23,000 kilograms of grapes and were able to make a wine from them, greatly pleasing the Queen.
To the surprise of all, the wine actually ended up being exceptional and was then placed into a huge cask of American oak, which held about 3500 gallons. As this was the rough equivalent of 33 butts, the age of Christ when he was crucified, the cask was named El Cristo. It was eventually renamed, El Maestro, as that is what the apostles called Christ. The bodega then flanked El Maestro with 12 smaller casks, each named after an Apostle, and placed in the order depicted in Da Vinci's Last Supper picture. The Apostles casks contain some of the best sherries of various types. The cask representing Judas though is kept out of sight, allegedly where the vinegar is stored, and his place was taken in Los Apostles by a cask for Matthias.
One of the most popular and well known brands of sherry in Spain is Tio Pepe, a Fino. Tio Pepe means "Uncle Jose" and refers to Manuel's uncle Jose who helped him get into the sherry business (and who is pictured above). Jose suggested to Manuel that he concentrate on pale sherry, which he did, and in 1844 bottled Tio Pepe Fino. Tio Pepe was also the first Registered Trademark in Spain.
Currently, Gonzalez Byass has about 25,000 barrels of Tio Pepe, all of which are tested each month to ensure the sherry is developing properly. It is the only fino they produce, and it ages for five years in the barrel, two years longer than the legally required minimum.
The above barrel was signed by Luiz Perez Solero, the Director of Marketing, and the figure is composed of his three initials and a small hat. It is thought that this was the inspiration for the famous Tio Pepe logo, which can be seen throughout Spain. Around 1935, the logo was created, a bottle with a wide brimmed hat, red Andalusian jacket, arms akimbo and a Spanish guitar across its back.
You can note the Tio Pepe logo on the wall at the right side of the above photo. The photo also shows the greenery which grows between the buildings at the bodegas. This helps to protect the buildings from the sun and heat, and they do work well. It was a hot day on our visit, but definitely cooler beneath the greenery.
I have tasted and enjoyed Tio Pepe before, including on my prior trip to Spain while on a tapas crawl. At Gonzalez Byass, I got to taste it out of the barrel, unfiltered. First, we tasted some from the 3rd criadera (out of four) and then from the solera. Both were very pungent and dry though the criadera presented more of a bready taste while the solera was more woody with hints of almonds. The solera was quite delicious, though would have been even better slightly chilled.
People are not the only ones who enjoy sherry. Jose de Galvez used to work in the bodegas and fed the mice that were there. The workers eventually learned that the mice enjoyed sweet oloroso so they began leaving some out for them, eventually placing a small ladder against a glass of sherry. Unfortunately, I did not see any mice drinking sherry during my visit.Though we did not taste any Añadas at the bodegas, we did enjoy some other aged sherries. The VORS Amontillado was excellent, with a fine nutty caramel taste and a sharp finish. The VORS Palo Cortado "The Apostles" is a blend of 90% Palo Cortado and 10% Pedro Ximenez. It may be referred to as an Amorosa, a medium-dry sherry, but which also refers to the fact that it is a sherry that makes you fall in love with it. I found this sherry to have the nose of the Amontillado, but its taste was rounder and creamier, though its sweetness was restrained. I understand why so many people enjoy this style of sherry.
Gonzalez Byass is a bodega of wonderful and fascinating stories, as well as delicious and sometimes sublime sherries. Don't let the thirsty mice have all the fun.