Bodega Gonzalez-Byass: Home of Tio Pepe and the Sherry Drinking Mouse

(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.


Grand Entrance to Bodega Gonzalez-Byass

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 Famous “Instagram Lane” at Gonzalez-Byass

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!”


Private Sherry Tasting at Bodega Gonzales-Byass

Bodega Tradicion: Home of Low Interventionist Sherry and Famous Paintings

The entrance to Bodega Tradicion is along an old cobblestone street and then through a  wooden door into a simple tree shaded courtyard with a few welcoming benches. We were greeted by Eduardo Davis, Export Manager, who provided us with an excellent tour and an overview of the bodega’s history.

Bodega History and Production

Originally established in the 1650’s by the Rivero family, the bodega had many prestigious years until it was sold to an investment firm and later fell into bankruptcy. The family was able to buy it back and in 1995 changed the name to Bodega Tradicion to emphasize the fact that they wanted to focus on family traditions. Today they produce 35,000 liters of sherry and 6000 liters of brandy. Unfortunately they lost all of their original vineyards with the transition, but have set up a good network of high quality growers from which they purchase grapes.

Preserving History and Art

The bodega is famous for its beautiful collection of paintings that the family has preserved through the centuries, including works by Velázquez, Goya and many other artists. The Rivero family has also amassed a very impressive collection of winery records, which is considered to be the largest archive from the 1600’s in Jerez.  In order to preserve and share the records with the world, they have hired experts to digitalize the collection, which has become known as the CZ Archives.

Progressive Human Resource Policies from the 1800’s

Eduardo told us a story about one of the family members from the 1800’s who believed in progressive human resource policies for his workers. He actually kept training, promotion and salary records, and when many of his workers and townspeople fell ill, he paid to have a famous doctor brought to the town who saved many lives.  As a gift of thanks, the townspeople gave him a magnificent gold candelabrum, which is featured in the library room.

The Heady Scent of Fermenting Fino Sherry

When we entered the fino solera, with it rows of double-stacked black barrels, I was not prepared for the intense aroma of flor fermentation. It is much more pungent than regular yeast, and took a while for me to get adjusted to the scent. It was especially challenging when Eduardo unplugged a barrel and encouraged me to stick my nose in the hole. The burning sensation was painful, but it did clear up my sinuses for the day.

How the Fino Solera Process Works

We then proceeded to taste from many different barrels to experiment with fino at various ages. Eduardo explained that Bodega Tradicion does everything very naturally, with very little manipulation of the wine. The palomino grapes are picked early when they are fresh with good acidity, and natural yeast is used for primary fermentation in a stainless steel tank.

 “It is not true that palomino has no character,” said Eduardo. “It has freshness, acidity, and fruit when picked at the right time. “

The wine is then transferred to a second stainless steel tank before it goes dry, along with an addition of 15% alcohol. This causes the flor yeast to begin to grow and multiple until they form a community of tiny living creatures on top of the wine. Around December, “when the wine is sleeping” they transfer the flor and wine to the solera. The new wine always goes into the top barrel in the solera. Additional grape brandy is added as needed, but never more than 15.5% or the flor community will die.


Sherry Fino Cellar at Bodega Tradicion

Eduardo explained that they transfer wine in the solera from top to bottom once a quarter, though some houses only transfer twice a year. A little air is always left in the barrel so the flor community can have some oxygen to survive. The role of the flor is to protect the wine from oxygen, and to give it the fresh almond, green apple, and chamomile notes that make fino sherry so distinctive.

Any wine that is transferred is always taken from the middle, with small pumps, so as not to disturb the living flor community. Eduardo explained that they keep their fino alive for 6.5 to 7 years in the solera before bottling. “There is no fining, filtering, or intervention,” he said. “So, in essence, all of our wines are enrama – we just don’t advertise it on the bottle.”

It should be noted that the minimum amount of time to keep fino under flor is 3 years, according to Sherry Regulations, but many houses keep it longer so that the fino can develop more complex flavors.

Tasting Fino from the Barrel with a “Llenenzia”

As we followed Eduardo around the cellar to taste fino from different barrels, he showed us how to gently remove the wine with a “Llenenzia.” This is a special long narrow rod with a thin deep cup to cut gently through flor and not disturb it too much.  It also keeps most of the flor out of the glass when you taste it.


Eduardo Extracting Sherry Wine From Barrel with a Llenenzia

When the Wine Doesn’t Want to Be a Fino – Amontillado is Born

“Sometimes,” announced Eduardo, as he led us into the separate Amontillado and Olorosa cellar, “a wine says ‘I cannot be a fino’. That is when we make it an amontillado.” He explained that the fino starts to oxidize, perhaps because the flor colony was not thick enough in a particular barrel, so they add a higher level of alcohol (around 18%) and age it in a separate solera system as an amontillado.

Olorosa sherry, on the other hand, was always intended to be olorosa. Therefore, it never grows flor, and is immediately fortified to 18% after primary fermentation, and then placed in the solera.

We tasted several amontillados out of cask, and I quickly realized that the older they were, the more I liked them. The younger ones still retained some of the cheesy yeasty notes, whereas the older ones were nuttier. My favorite was a 42 year old amontillado, which had crisp acidity and notes of caramel, nuts and dried orange – more similar to a sercial madeira.

We concluded our tour with a quick pass through the art gallery, and then thanked Eduardo profusely before heading out of the dark cellars into the bright sunshine of Jerez, and onto the next sherry house on our schedule.


Art Collection at Bodega Tradicion. Photo Credit: Bodega Tradicion

“Wine That Travels” – A Short History of Sherry

(June 2018) It was so exciting to finally arrive in the land of sherry – that famous fabled wine that has traveled the world. We caught an 11:30 flight on Iberia Airlines from Madrid to Jerez, and by 1pm were already departing the small airport in our Hertz rental car. As we drove towards our resort hotel on the ocean just south of Sanlucar, we passed rolling hills covered in bright yellow sunflowers and green verdant vineyards filled with palomino and pedro ximenez grapes.  The blue sky and warm temperatures in the mid 70’s was welcome after the cooler temperatures of Madrid.

After checking into our resort, the Hotel Elba Costa Ballena, my daughter and I headed to the pool and spa, then later out to dinner at a restaurant along the Bajo de Guia in Sanlucar where I ordered a glass of chilled manzanilla sherry (see below).  Gazing out a the bay, I couldn’t help but think of all of the ships carrying sherry that had departed from this port and further south in Cadiz over the centuries.  The history of sherry is one of the most fascinating wine stories in the world.  Following is a brief timeline, based on the history provided by Wines of Sherry.

A Brief Timeline of Sherry History

1100BC – Vines are brought to Spain by the Phoenicians, who called the region “Xera.” Ancient amphora for wine storage have been found near the city of Cadiz.

138BC– Romans come to the region and rename the area “Ceret”. Lucius Columella, born in Cadiz, writes the famous ancient book “De ru Rustica” about how to plant vines and make wine.

100’s BC – Romans began to export the local wine to Rome and other places. It becomes known as the “wine that travels,”  however it was not because it was fortified (distillation was not invented until 800’s). Instead the Romans covered the wine with different substances to protect it from oxygen, such as olive oil, ashes, honey, and resins.

711AD – The Moors come to Spain, and call the area the “Land of Sherish.” Even though the Koran prohibited alcohol, the region was allowed to continue to produce grapes and wine, which was used for raisins to feed the troops and medicine.

800’s – Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, an Arabic alchemist, designs the alembic pot still to allow distillation of alcohol into spirits. This allowed sherry brandy to be developed, but in the beginning it was primarily used for medicine.

1264 – King Alfonso of Castille reclaims Spain. Exports of sherry wine to England increase when Henry 1 proposes a bartering agreement to trade English wool for sherry. Around the same time, the major grape used to produce sherry was renamed “Palomino” after a military general.

1492 – Sherry voyages to America with Columbus (along with Madeira)

1519 – Magellean sets sail from Sanlucar with “417 wine skins and 257 kegs” of sherry, making sherry the first wine to travel around the world.

1600’s– Sherry begins to be fortified with spirits (brandy) so it will keep better on long sea voyages. The practice is reputed to have been invented by the Dutch and adopted by the British and Portuguese. Sherry, madeira and port benefit greatly from this method.

1770’s  – The solera system is created, based on British consumer desires for a consistent taste and style each year for the different types of sherries. The system also allows the wine to age much longer.

1932 – Sherry achieves DO (Designations of origin) status in Spain

1970’s – Vineyards are overplanted in sherry and prices plummet

2012 to present – There is a resurgence of interest in sherry wines, as international sommeliers and wine buyers rediscover the excellent quality and value of sherry wines. The wide variety of flavors and styles, ranging from bone dry to extremely sweet, makes sherry a very versatile treat!