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Emilio Lustau Sherries: The Art of the Almacenista

By Jim Clarke

Lustau may be the most reliable producer of sherry around. The company was founded in 1896 - old by U.S. standards, but without the lengthy pedigree of many sherry firms. The founder, Don Jose Ruiz-Berdejo, began as an almacenista; literally, the title means a stockholder, but it came to be used for someone who made and aged sherries, but then sold them off to larger bodegas who exported them. Since then a respect for this position and the cellar work that is so essential to sherry-making has become the touchstone of the company.

After moving their bodegas to the Santiago district of Jerez de la Frontera -Spain's main town for sherry - in the 1940s, the company was ready to join the top ranks of Sherry exporters. These days most exporters age and blend their own wine, often together with aged wines from various almacenistas; blending is intended to guarantee a consistent product. In honor of the company's origins, however, Lustau also sells a line of Almacenista Sherries, each from the cellar of a particular local businessman who ages the sherries as a hobby, not as a career. However, their work in the cellar is professional, and their names appear on the labels as due recognition for their devotion to raising a distinctive and high-quality product. Lustau introduced this line in 1981, and it stands as an example of their aggressive marketing approach, exploiting another aspect on sherry's peculiar production process to shed new light on sherry's virtues.

The 1980s actually marked a great stride forward in quality for Lustau. As the British sherry market, with its taste for sweeter products, faltered, Lustau built on the traditional styles of sherry and pushed exports to re-familiarize consumers with what authentic Spanish sherry is all about. Since 1985 Juan Fuentes Romero has been their Capataz General (Head Cellarmaster); he oversees the blending and cellaring of wines at their various bodegas as well as keeping an eye on the progress of the Almacenista sherries. Despite the enormous amount of time and expertise this requires, he has also found the time to become an expert photographer, and is responsible for the photgraphy in Lustau's publications.

The mainstay of Fuentes' job is the Lustau Solera Reserva Range. This includes a number of sherries made in Jerez de le Frontera as well as the Puerto Fino, which is cellared in El Puerto de Santa Maria and a Manzanilla made in San Lucar de Barrameda. The very nature of sherry-making means a wide range of products; Fuentes and his team keep a close eye on each cask to see how it's developing and what style of sherry it will best evolve into.

In addition to these two lines, which are fundamental to the company's portfolio, there are a number of special issue and limited release sherries. The East India Solera is a revival of an older style; the wine is aged in a hot, humid cellar which oxidizes the wine in an aging process similar to Madeira's. Another revival is the Landed Age Sherries. In the 19th century some sherries were shipped in cask to England young and aged in the cellar of the consumer; the cool, damp climate aged the wines differently than the heat of southern Spain, and this line recreates the style by aging the wines in cask in London. In a way, these two products are opposite sides of the same coin; the former accelerates the aging process, while the latter slows it down. The Landed Age Sherries are not available in the U.S., but keep an eye out for the Centenarios - released in 1996 to celebrate their centennial anniversary - and the VOS (Very Old Sherry) and VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry) sherries. The latter are from soleras containing wines aged for a minimum of 20 and 30 years, respectively; their sale as such was only recently added to the regulations for sherry bottling. Some freshness may be lost, but great depth grows in the wine over the years.

The most recent developments at Lustau have been capital investments that will help the company insure its continued success. In the Nineties they increased their vineyard holdings dramatically with the purchase of the Montegilillo Vineyard north of Jerez; owning more of their own property allows them more direct control of grape quality. In 2001 they also acquired a new bodega complex on the Calle Arcos in Jerez de la Frontera, which not only provides more and better space for aging but is a set of beautiful buildings in the traditional bodega style to boot. Lustau is ready to ensure that as Spanish food and wine spreads in popularity and respect throughout the world, sherry will not be left behind.

Tasting Notes on some Lustau Sherries:

"Jarana" Light Fino Sherry: This is a delicate sherry, light and dry, with pecan and brazil nut aromas. Some citrus notes appear on the finish as the acidity that makes this wine a great match with simple shellfish and shrimp becomes apparent.

"Solera Reserva" Puerto Fino Sherry: This sherry is aged in El Puerto de Santa Maria, the region's main port, instead of in Jerez de la Frontera where the bulk of Lustau's wines are cellared. It also has a nutty aroma - walnuts, in this case - fleshed out on the palate with some breadiness and a touch of brine that may reflect its seaside upbringing. It's somewhat weightier than the Jarana, with a longer finish.

"Gonzalez Obregon" Almacenista Fino Puerto: Part of the Almacenista Sherry line, and aged in the cellars of Gonzalez Obregon, who also has soleras of Oloroso and Amontillados in his cellar. The typical nuttiness here takes on shades of marzipan supplemented by light notes of bergamot and lime. There is an incredible focus on this fino that lingers on the palate for a surprising length of time.

"Los Arcos" Dry Amontillado Sherry: Fruitier than the finos, this wine blends almond, raisin, and subtle lemon curd aromas with a touch of dry herbal notes. The aromas suggest sweetness, but this is a bone-dry wine with crisp acidity on the finish. Great with stronger-flavored nuts and olives, it also works well with creamy soups.

"Peninsula" Palo Cortado: I had flirted with sherry a few times, but this is the wine that made me a convert. Its warm baking spices and bready aroma wrap around a pecan center and are topped with a restrained lemony icing that hints at the refreshing, clean finish to come.

"Don Nuno" Dry Oloroso Sherry: One of the pleasures of sherry is the way its aromas prepare the mind for sweetness and then surprise the palate with a switch. In this wine the nose of caramel, walnuts, and raisins conspires to do just that; instead of sugar the wine comes through instead with a full-bodied, round mouthfeel that finishes cleanly because of its well-balanced acidity. This is a great choice when you want to pair a blue cheese with something that isn't sweet.

"Solera Reserva" East India Sherry: Aged in a hotter environment and so-named because in the old days the wine would change in the heat and rough handling of shipboard travel to the East Indies, this wine in many ways resembles a Malmsey Madeira, which shares its heated aging process. Figs, caramel, and mocha on the nose linger on the palate as well; expectations of sweetness are fulfilled but don't go over-the-top, kept in balance with a clean finish.

"Capataz Andres" Deluxe Cream Sherry: There is a touch of walnut in this wine, but by-and-large it's fruitier that the others, with prunes, dates, and figs dominating. Sweeter than the East India, it's still focused and complex, and stands head and shoulders over many of the more commercial cream sherries that led to the style's poor reputation.

 Published: May 2004