(June 2018) I was thrilled when I learned that Fermin Hidalgo, youngest son and director of the family operated Bodega Hidalgo in Sanlucar, wanted me to meet him at the La Gitana Vineyard. The only problem is that both Google and Apple maps do not know where the vineyard is. When I explained this dilemma to Inma at the Wines of Sherry Office, she said “Just look for Exit 17 on the highway between Jerez and Sanlucar. Then you will see a large building surrounded by vineyards with the words “La Gitana” painted on the side of it.”
She was right. The building was very difficult to miss, with bold red lettering. The small narrow dirt road with deep rain-grooved ruts was a little more challenging though, and I had to drive very slowly so as not to destroy the bottom of my rental car. But eventually I bumped my way into a large rectangle dirt parking area near the vineyard and large winery building. As I opened the car door, I saw several large friendly dogs, and chickens pecking around in the dirt.
Apparently I was early, because there was no one there to greet me, so I wandered over to look at the vineyard and take a few photos. I was amazed to realize that I could see the blue ocean in the distance, and that many of the neighboring properties were covered in bright yellow sunflowers. Just then a small dusty car pulled up, and Fermin jumped out.
“No one ever arrives on time,” he told me after shaking hands and exchanging business cards. “I’m glad you found us. Would you like to see the vineyard?” I nodded excitedly. This would be my first chance to see a sherry vineyard.
The White Chalky Soil of Sherry
As we walked down a slight incline towards the vineyard, I marveled at the white-beige soil surrounding the vines that had absolutely no weeds. Had the vineyard been sprayed with Round-up, I wondered? But Fermin quickly squashed this idea when he told me they had been farming their 130 vineyard hectares organically for over 25 years, though were not certified. The reason there were no weeds is because they machine disked. Then he bent down and started digging in the chalky dirt with his bare hands, and within a few seconds I could see the dampness in the soil (see photo).
“This is a very special soil that allows us to grow vines here successfully,” Fermin explained. “It is called “albaretha” and it absorbs our winter rains and allows our vineyards to survive the hot dry summers.”
We then spent some time examining the palomino vines and developing grape clusters, which looked like small green peas. They had finished bloom, and I was surprised to see how long the clusters were. The vines appeared very healthy and were planted on 8 feet by 6 feet spacing using VSP trellis. Fermin explained that they use sulfur, copper, and sexual confusion traps to maintain the health of the vineyard. All pruning is done by hand, there is no irrigation, and they machine harvest around 80% of the vines.
“Do you know why manzanilla from Sanlucar tastes a little salty?” he asked.
“Because it is close to the ocean?” I responded.
“Yes, but it is actually the wind blowing from the ocean that brings salt to the vines and soil. That is why the wine can taste a little salty.” He continued, “Do you know what manzanilla means?”
“No,” I responded.
“It means chamomile, because the wines here not only have a slightly salty taste, but a hint of chamomile and the style is often lighter than fino from around Jerez.”
Next we walked across the parking lot to view another vineyard on a hillside with short head-pruned vines. “Those vines are over 70 years old,” said Fermin. “They only produce around 1500 kilos per hectare, compared to our normal production of 15,000 kilos per hectare. The custom here is to remove vines at age 40, but we have decided to preserve ours. We are about quality, not quantity. The future of sherry is in the past.”
Brief History of Bodega Hidalgo and the Gypsy Lady
Bodega Hidalgo started in 1792 and is still family owned today. They are one of the few sherry houses to own all of their own vineyards. Currently they produce around one million bottles per year and are considered to be mid-sized.
Their best known brand is La Gitana, which means “the gypsy lady.” Fermin told me the story of how this brand was born, and it is a little romantic and sultry at the same time. Apparently in the 1800’s the bodega only produced sherry wines in bulk and sold them to other people to bottle and distribute. One of their best customers was a gypsy woman in Malaga.
As Senor Hidalgo, Fermin’s great grandfather, traveled around Spain, he continued to heard about how excellent the sherry wine was that the gypsy woman in Malaga bottled and sold. Knowing he had produced the wine, he decided to go visit her one day in the 1890’s. Apparently they had an affair that lasted for a number of years and then ended. However, a decade later when Bodega Hidalgo decided to bottle and sell their own wine, they decided to capitalize on the good reputation of the gypsy wine, and therefore, named the wine La Gitana. They even commissioned a special portrait of the gypsy lady, which is still on the bottle today.
Winemaking at Bodega Hidalgo
After the vineyard tour, Fermin guided me through the winery where the presses and stainless steel tanks were located. He explained that they destem and crush the palomino grapes, and use natural yeast. The first fermentation occurs in stainless steel tanks, and when the wine reaches around 5 brix, they transfer it to a second tank and add 15% alcohol using grape spirits. It is here that the flor community starts developing, covering the wine with a soft white blanket of “flowers” and imparting the fresh taste of chamomile, green apple, and almond.
“The wine stays in these tanks with the flor until December or January,” said Fermin. Then it is gently transported to their barrel cellar in downtown Sanlucar and pumped into the solera system.
A Tasting of Bodega Hidalgo from the Solera
After touring the winery at the vineyard, I followed Fermin back to Sanlucar so we could visit the headquarters of Bodega Hidalgo in downtown Sanlucar. I was amazed to see that the ancient building was literally in downtown Sanlucar, but Fermin explained that the city had grown up around them over the years. He pointed to the high ceilings with open ventilation, explaining, “We like being close to the sea so the ocean breezes can come in and cool down the temperature in the hot summer.”
We toured the solera cellars, and I was impressed with the beauty of the architecture, the old black barrels, towering support columns, and high ceilings. There were tree shaded courtyards and bountiful pink bougainvillea tumbling down the walls around the winery.
Using a llenenzia, Fermin extracted wine from various tanks, and I did notice the distinctive salty taste in their La Gitana Manzanilla. He explained that the wine tastes different during the four seasons of the year, because the flor community is different. “For me,” he said, “the Spring time wine is more crisp and light with stronger notes of green apple, while the Autumn wine is a bit heavier with more almond notes.”
Later he treated me to some very old sherries, including a 40 year old Amontillado, named Napoleon that tasted like old madeira with good acid, caramel, salt, and dried orange peel. Next we tasted a 70 year old Palo Cortado, called Wellington It was fuller-bodied, with distinct notes of vanilla, toffee and salt.
We concluded the tour with a visit to the historical office of the bodega, with a lovely antique tile fireplace and an original llenenzia in a frame on the wall.
“Do you know what this is?” asked Fermin.
“A llenenzia,” I stuttered, trying to pronounce the word.
“Yes,” he smiled. “But this is an antique one made of whale bone. This is how they used to make them. This is one of only five left in the world.”
“Wow,” I said, gazing at the long delicate dipper on the wall, and feeling a sense of awe over the history of this beautiful old Bodega of the Hidalgo’s and the story of the gypsy lady who inspired their famous La Gitana brand.
“But do you know what this is?” Fermin asked pointing at a strange round object mounted on the wall.
I shook my head no.
“It is supposedly one of the original tambourines from the gypsy lady.”
I gazed at it in admiration. It was obviously old, with a well-used leather cover and tiny bronze bells. I could imagine the gypsy lady playing it for Fermin’s great grandfather.
Later, as I departed with a box of three bottles of wine that Fermin insisted I try, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the energy and dedication of all of the members of the Hidalgo family who worked to keep this famous old brand alive.