Julian Jeffs is one of the world’s most experienced authors on Sherry and wines from Jerez. In this Julian Jeffs interview, Amanda Barnes asks him his perspective on how the region has changed since the 1950s, what makes it unique and why no one else in the world can make wines quite like Sherry.
Julian Jeffs Interview
So, your first trip to Jerez was in 1956. How have you seen the region change in terms of vineyards, viticulture or the technology in wineries?
When I was first there, you could stand on that excellent platform outside the Alcazar and look over the vineyards. You can’t anymore because Gonzalez Byass has built a big building in the way but in those days the vineyards consisted entirely of bush vines. Those were excellent, but required a great deal of labour to look after them and Gonzalez Byass was one of the pioneers of starting to grow vines on wires as they do in almost all the vineyards in Europe. They produced equally good grapes, they had to learn how to do it and there was a certain amount of experimentation that must have gone on but the two largest growers were Gonzalez Byass and Domecq and they all took to growing their vines on wires, and did it very very well. It’s all beautifully controlled now you can fly a helicopter over and see if any bit of the vineyard is in trouble, and go and put it right. It’s much more scientific agriculture – or viticulture but viticulture is a branch of agriculture – than it ever was in my day. And winemaking is much more scientific so the average quality of the wines has risen enormously and having started a market for good mature wine it’s held. One of the things it hasn’t held is the advertising. In ancient days, and I can go 50 years back without batting an eyelid, there was quite a lot of money spent on advertising by the larger shippers and I think that helped to sell the wine. Now there’s practically none. A lot of it is sold through the supermarkets who are very quality conscious who sell excellent wines. I don’t know if advertising were to be reintroduced if it would pay or not! Possibly not, I dare say the shippers know what they are doing, but one misses the little advertisements used to appear.
Some people call Sherry a ‘hipsters drink’ nowadays. Do you think Sherry is cool again, do you think we will see another peak in the future of its popularity?
Oh yes, because it is good. Lots of things that go out of fashion are taken over by more modern movements. There was a time when Mendelssohn was wildly out of fashion in music, but he wrote great music and that is now realised. You have to pay quite a lot of money now if you want to buy an oil painting by Landseer when I was young everyone sneered at Landseer and so on. Fashions change and I deplore fashion. If you went to the basic quality of whatever it is and stuck to that, life would be much better. One of the fashions that came and went, for example, was nouvelle cuisine… an extremely expensive way of not getting enough to eat.
And that I think has gone now.
What about the fashions within Sherry. In your time there are a lot of innovations that have happened, some of which stick and some don’t. Do you think there are any fashions within the wine production that really will stick or do you think they are all just fads?
I think they are treating it so knowledgeably and so scientifically now they have got there. And the way they are making sherry at the moment is likely to stick. Unless someone finds an even better way of doing something. And the human being is always looking for better ways of doing something. I would be a much richer man than I am if I could foresee the next few!
And you would be a smart man to keep it to yourself! Why is Jerez the home of Sherry? Apart from the explicit rules about the DO, why can’t anyone else make sherry to that quality or character?
Why can’t anyone else make the wines of Romanée Conti? Or the first growth clarets? Or the finest wines of the Rheingau, or Alsace? All wine is a combination of soil and climate and vine and vinification. Now you can modify your vinification, it is easy enough, but years and years of experience have generally found out which wines do best on which soils. Sometimes you get periods of innovation such as crossed vines like the Müller-Thurgau which produced very fragrant wines which were very popular for a time and have now more or less gone out. And people have experimented with different vines and different vineyards, and there was a lot of that I’m sure a couple of hundred of years ago. After a lot of experimentation, they found which wines or vines did best, in any given place. And stuck to them which was sensible. The Palomino vine, which produces Sherry, has been tried in other places like the vineyards of the north of Spain, that’s called Avierro, I would advise you against buying a bottle of it! There’s no resemblance to the wines made in Jerez which are a combination of the vine, the soil, the glorious sunshine and extremely knowledgeable winemaking. And you could import the winemaking somewhere else but the flor that grows on sherry wine, when I was a young many in Jerez they still regarded it as a gift of God which flourished in the Spring when the grapes were in flower, and again in the Autumn to coincide with the vintage. And the fact is they did, but for the reason that the temperature happened to be exactly right at those two times. And flor has been grown in other places, including in Spain, you can still find some flor growing on casks of wine in Valdepeñas but in nowhere else does it produce the same effect. Just as the growers in Bordeaux, who have learnt a great deal over the years, produce the best wines that they are able, which are amongst the best table wines in the world. A modest growth in the Medoc can’t reach up to the standards of Latour and Lafite, which are the products of the soil.
Do you think there is much potential for table wines in Jerez, and not fortified?
Well, they make a lot of them.
But do you think any of them have the same worth in the wine world as Sherry?
Good Lord, no. They were pioneered by Toto Barbadillo who was a very good business man and when it was impossible to sell as much sherry as he would like to he made a table wine, which was a very agreeable table wine. It’s been sold in England, and it sold reasonably well. But it’s not the same thing and I don’t see the possibility of any really fine table wines coming from Jerez. There are quite a lot now coming from other parts of Andalucia and in the old days in the nineteenth-century, some of the old vineyards in the Sherry area used to grow red wines, they weren’t commercial, they weren’t meant to be. They produced a few wines for the owner’s table and there are good red wines now being produced in the north of Andalucia. And in that fertile valley that leads down to Malaga. But no, let the Sherry counties stick to Sherry. They do it supremely well, no one has been able to come anywhere near them and I would far rather they produced supremely good sherry than interesting, curious table wines.
And tell me a bit about the difference between wine tasting and sherry tasting, in terms of the appreciation of Sherry.
There isn’t any! You take the nose, you let it enter your mouth, you take the flavours and look for the subtleties. And then swallow it and enjoy the effect!
The same goes for all wines, Sherry is no different from all the rest in that respect.
And in terms of styles, do you have any preference? Are you a Fino man, do you prefer Oloroso? What is your preference and why?
My tastes are completely Catholic. I love good examples in all of them. Not unlike my taste in music, I listen to all sorts of things with intense pleasure. But the sherries… we are drinking a Palo Cortado at the moment which is one of my favourites. Usually, as an aperitif, I have a Manzanilla or Fino but not always, particularly in winter when I am apt to go over to Oloroso. In the days when my legs were good, and I used to walk for miles over the Berkshire downs when you got home feeling rather cold and distinctly damp there was nothing like a glass of Fino or Oloroso to restore you. Unfortunately, I don’t need restoring in that way anymore. My legs do but that’s beyond hope at the age of 86!
Sherry won’t solve it sadly!
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