August 2022 will go down as the earliest grape harvest in Spanish history. Sarah McCleery was there, in Pastrana, a 14-hectare vineyard close to the sea in Miraflores, watching Palomino Fino picked by the team at Bodegas Hidalgo. She was there to witness an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at this sherry producer, most famous for its Manzanilla La Gitana, but also a much larger range of sherries, still wines and vermouth. A guest of Fermin Hidalgo, McCleery witnesses an historic horse race on the beach, gets converted to sherry-pairing throughout a meal and sees how Hidalgo has kept on top by keeping things fresh from the barrel.
“I have a confession,” writes MCCleery, “I have long loved sherry but my conversion to sherry and food is new. Very new. In fact, it’s about a week old at the time of writing.”
Every August, horse racing takes place on a two-kilometre stretch of beach, at Sanlúcar de Barrameda. One of the oldest horse races in Europe, the Carreras de Caballos, has its roots in fish and sherry transportation. Well before the races were given the official seal of approval in 1845, locals were pitting their horses against fellow tradesmen, to determine whose equine had the fastest turn of hoof.
The opportunity to watch this fantastic beach racing, at sunset, has come thanks to Bodegas Hidalgo. There is a pleasing symmetry in their long-established histories, as well as the energy, thrills, and sensory delights that both have to offer.
Bodegas Hidalgo: Eight generations (and counting) of sherry production
Don José Pantaleón founded Bodegas Hidalgo in 1792, since when it has passed down the generations, making it one of a very few houses that remain in the hands of the founder’s family.
Considered by many to be the definitive Manzanilla house, the foundation of their success lies with their wildly popular La Gitana Manzanilla. This is a brilliantly sprightly, moreish Manzanilla that has benchmark sea salt, yeasty overtones with citrus zest and spring blossom notes too.
A seductive offering with a slightly scandalous past, La Gitana is named after the gypsy barmaid who is said to have captivated the hearts of many and, most notably, that of Eduardo Hidalgo. The pair had an affair, and it is her picture – painted onto the canvas of a tambourine – that adorns the Gitana bottles to this day. The original painting and tambourine can still be seen in the Hidalgo offices. I cannot imagine what Eduardo’s wife thought of the relationship, but I congratulate her brand foresight, as it was she who first put La Gitana on the Hidalgo label, following her husband’s premature death.
Terroir and the Pastrana single vineyard
Hidalgo is unusual – and fortunate – to be able to make all of its sherries from fruit grown in its own vineyards. Located in Miraflores and Balbaína, the coastal plots are amongst the highest in the area (c.100 meters above sea level). A curiosity of the Hidalgo vineyards is that, thanks to the Levante wind and proximity to the ocean, both the north and south-facing vines achieve near identical baumé every year.
Of course, it is the white Albariza soils that are the key feature of prime sherry vineyards. Palomino Fino thrives in these chalky soils which have an astonishing ability to retain moisture. Their whiteness also reflects sunlight, supporting photosynthesis.
Stepping foot in these vineyards allows for an appreciation of the sea breeze and, somewhat fortuitously, we are there on the first day of the 2022 harvest: the earliest in Hidalgo’s history. I love that some of the vineyard machinery predates many of the vines and, I suspect, isn’t too far off matching the age of the glorious 60-year-old vines we have the chance to see.
Pastrana is a 14-hectare, hilltop vineyard, close to the sea in Miraflores. Albariza soils, yes but with a unique quality. Called “Tosca Cerrada” these soils are denser and contain less chalk than the average Albariza soils. What is important is that the grapes grown here typically give wines with greater elegance and structure.
Hidalgo’s Pasada Pastrana Manzanilla impressed me repeatedly on the visit. Several tasting notes, sometimes with food, sometimes without and each time I am wowed by the wine’s vitality, litheness, and evident sophistication. Preserved citrus fruits, salted almonds and white flower blossom. It has perfect balance. Made from only free run juice, Pastrana is aged for longer than the La Gitana Manzanilla wines and shows more depth and complexity. This is a wine that shone at mealtimes and, whatever else was on the table, often became my wine of choice.
A creative sherry house
Our visit is hosted by Fermín Hidalgo, who is a creative thinker with a practical sense of fun. Keen to nail the ‘fresh-out-of-the-barrel’ La Gitana Manzanilla experience, he has run piping from one of the cellar barrels, through the wall into his (comparatively new) cellar winery restaurant and through cooling pipes, so it can be served cool and fresh to thirsty diners.
I love this sort of ingenuity and it is reflected in the winemaking too.
Whilst unfortified sherry is not new (albeit you need to skip back a century or three), it is refreshing to hear about – and taste – Hidalgo’s Singular 2017 Unfortified Manzanilla. Fermín suggests serving it at red wine temperature to allow for the aromas and flavours to truly sing. I echo the views of others who drool over the wine’s “fabulous reduction” and terrifically saline nose. Riotously nutty with baked apple, preserved lemon and brilliantly savoury flavours it is a triumphant sherry that is every drop as ‘Singúlar’, as the proposed name suggests.
Hidalgo is patiently waiting for this sherry to be legally allowed by the EU. As someone who has now tasted it, I am feeling decidedly less patient than Fermín appeared!
I have a confession. I have long-loved sherry but my conversion to sherry and food is new. Very new. In fact, it’s about a week old at the time of writing, and comes thanks to Fermín Hidalgo, who poured a splendid array of sherries at every mealtime.
Manzanilla with shellfish, jamón, croquetas, tuna … done! Hardly a massive culinary step for foodies. Consider though, these delicious possibilities:
Amontillado Napoleón VORS is laden with caramelised pecans, beeswax, and dark clove fruits. This is a sherry that is so harmonious, and underscored with such lovely, nervy acidity that it would be almost criminal not to serve it with food. I could have eaten my weight in empanadillas de rabo de toro y trompeta negra with more than one glass of the Amontillado. Stunning and amazingly fresh.
My weakness for patatas bravas is never going to waver. It has sometimes seemed an unsophisticated choice, but forevermore I’m going to enjoy them with the rich, though still wonderfully zesty Palo Cortado Wellington VOS. If there was ever a way to glam-up your patatas, this is it!
I thank colleague and truffle cheese lover, David Kermode, for his suggestion of pairing these cheeky little tapas with the spicy and dark nut flavoured Faraón Oloroso VORS, which has a long, blood orange, citrussy underscore of acidity. It is a marvel of a match.
Fully fortified, in every sense of the word, the visit concludes with a sample of the Pedro Ximénez which is brilliantly sumptuous and encompasses notes of prune, dried fig, chocolate raisin, baking spice and caramel. Beautifully poised and balanced, it is a remarkable treat.
Hidalgo’s sherries have the power, presence, and elegance of the finest racehorses. Better still, they are a considerably safer bet. There is no risk to your investment here – vinous thrills, guaranteed.