(June 2018) After circling the cobblestone streets around Bodega Gonzalez-Byass in Jerez, Spain twice, I gave up on finding street parking, and finally descended into the large underground parking lot nearby. At the gates of the winery I was welcomed by Simon Leth-Nissen, International Brand Manager, a fluent Spanish and English speaker originally from Denmark.
As we started our walking tour, a brightly colored red train trundled by filled with tourists. Simon explained that they receive thousands of tourists every year from around the world. This is due, primarily, to the great success of their bread and butter brand, Tio Pepe, which can always be relied upon to deliver a fresh and delicious fino sherry in your glass. I know when I see it on a wine list that I will not be disappointed, and can expect crisp green apple and almond notes in my glass.
Brief History of Gonzalez-Byass
In 1835, a 23 year old entrepreneur named Manuel González was working as a banker in Cadiz. Each day he saw ships filled with sherry setting sail for ports around the world, and decided it would be a good business to start. Since he didn’t know anything about making wine, he hired his uncle, Tio Pepe, who had some winemaking experience, to help him start the company. Then little by little, he learned how to make wine himself.
In 1855 he met a successful English wine importer named Robert Byass, and they developed a partnership to export wine to England. Therefore the name of the company was changed to Bodega Gonzalez-Byass. Though Robert’s family sold their share of the company in later years, the brand name of Gonzalez-Byass was so popular by then, that they decided to maintain it.
Production, Export Markets and Vineyards
Today Gonzalez-Byass produces 12 million bottles, of which 8 million are the very popular Tio Pepe Fino. They export to 114 countries, with the largest markets as the UK, Netherlands, Germany and USA. Production percentages are: 60% fino, 25% oloroso/amontillado, 5% PX, and 10% vintage, old sherries, special releases.
I was surprised to learn that Tio Pepe is actually a vineyard designate wine, because it is always produced from the same two vineyards. The company owns many of its own vineyards, which it farms using a system called Integrated Agriculture in Spain. This is apparently very similar to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems in the USA and the environmental portion of sustainable vineyard certifications, in that they only use agrichemicals if absolutely necessary. Gonazalez-Byass also buys grapes from many local producers.
Multiple Barrel Rooms and the Sherry Drinking Mouse
Simon gave me a tour of multiple barrel rooms, included one with barrels named after the apostles, and another with barrels signed by celebrities. He explained that they host many events and weddings in the various rooms of the vast estate.
We paused to take a photo of a beautiful cobblestone street with vines overhead. It has been photographed so many times and featured on Instagram so often, that it is now dubbed “Instagram Lane.”
The Tio Pepe Cellar was my favorite, not only because I enjoy the wine, but because I learned the story of the Sherry Drinking Mouse. Apparently one of cellar workers from the past really liked mice, but mice in the cellar are a problem because they are attracted to sweet cream sherry and try to drink it. Therefore, the cellar worker always set out a glass of sweet sherry at night and a tiny ladder to the top of the glass so the mice could drink the sherry and not fall in (see photo). He also banned cats from the cellar. To this day, they maintain this tradition, and always have a glass of sweet sherry with a tiny ladder for mice – and cats are banned from the entire winery complex.
A Private Tasting and Discovery of Handkerchief Wines
The tour concluded with a private tasting with enologist Jose Manuel Pinedo, who had been with the company for decades. He then led me through a tasting of 16 wines, which were all well made and delicious. Some of the highlights were:
Tio Pepe Fino – a classic consistent value. This sherry never disappoints, and is very refreshing with a nose of fresh almonds and tart green apple on the palate. 15% alcohol
Tio Pepe Fino En Rama – this is the more expensive version of Tio Pepe, which is specially taken from the solera barrels in Spring time. En Rama means “on the branch” or “raw”. The flor is more active at this time, making the wine much more intense in lavor, along with a heavier texture on the palate. A very long finish.
Gonazalez-Byass Anada 1987 Palo Cortado – a truly amazing wine with orange peel, burnt toffee, spice, and a very long finish. Rare, because it is vintage. 21.9% alcohol.
Gonazalez-Byass Apostoles VORS Medium – a combination of the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes, this wine had exquisite notes of dried apricot with a nutty, tangy finish. Quite high acidity. Reminded me of a Bual Madeira. 50 gpl sugar, 20% alcohol.
NOE VORS Pedro Ximenez – this wine was the color of milk chocolate and had a similar texture – very velvety and intensely sweet, with notes of dates, chocolate, and anise. Absolutely delicious – dessert in a glass, but with a surprising cleansing acidity. 15.5% alcohol
Jose described this as a handkerchief wine. When I asked what he meant, he smiled and said “In the old days, people would use a beautiful Pedro Ximenez wine like this to sprinkle on their handkerchief. They could then take out the handkerchief and smell the delicious aroma of PX all day!”