Manzanilla and Fino: Magic, Music and Memories ©2017 by John Axelrod

The words Manzanilla and Fino conjure up many memories.  The problem is that after drinking them it is  hard to remember them.

What is Manzanilla?  This is that magic potion one drinks every year at Sevilla’s Feria.  It can be chilled and drunk straight from the bottle, or chased with 7up, called a rebujito, to provide an easier wake up in the morning without the habitual hangover.  Manzanilla is basically the same as Fino sherry, but produced and matured around Sanlúcar de Barrameda, closer to the sea than Jerez, and the only place where it is allowed to be made.  It is also enjoyed throughout Andalusia, serving as the ideal summer drink.  It is best served chilled, and as it is produced where the Guadalquivir river joins the Atlantic, it works best with seafood, olives, garlic, even sushi!

It has a particular taste.  For some, the first sip inspires reactions such as:  “This tastes like cat piss!”  It makes me wonder how someone would know what cat piss tastes like, but it is true that it is unlike any traditional wine and very different from the Rioja or Ribera that has made Spain famous.

Manzanilla is made from the palomino grape, is biologically aged, and is entirely under a layer of flor yeast.  The specific climatic conditions of  Sanlúcar de Barrameda provide a higher humidity and cooler, more consistent temperatures than those found in inland bodegas, which contributes to a higher yield of flor. The thicker layer of flor protects the wine even more from air contact, resulting in a slightly lighter variety of Fino, containing virtually no glycerol and combining dry, saline notes with a fresh, bright zesty flavor. The bouquet of the Manzanilla typically shows more coastal aromas than a Fino, like seaspray, salt or even iodine.  It is a clear, salty sherry, reminiscent of chamomile tea, and less amber or dark than other fino sherry found on the market.

Fino is another matter.  It too is made from the palomino and biologically aged under a layer of flor. This cap of yeast prevents contact with the air, resulting in a yeasty, saline profile with hints of toasted nuts, grilled bread, and herbs.  Maturation of at least two years in wooden barrels is prescribed by law, but the best examples are aged between four to seven years. At four or five years of age, the wine displays bright notes of flor, while older examples show more color and complexity.

Like Manzanilla, it is produced in a Solera system, having different scales of barrels or criaderas and gradually refreshing lower (older) barrels with a part of the higher (younger) barrels. A typical Fino Solera contains between three and seven criaderas.

One of the best producers of Fino is the Emilio Hidalgo Bodega in Jerez.  In Jerez, I visited the Bodega and spoke with the owner, Fernando Hidalgo, about making Fino and the differences with Manzanilla.  Jerez and Sanlúcar have been arguing about it for centuries.   And the best place to have that discussion is over la torillitas de camarones at the famous Casa Balbino, in Sanlúcar, where many a person have come from around the world to taste these fritters and drink Manzanilla, no Fino, no Manzanilla, and so on….

Fernando gave us some of his Fino straight from the barrel.  One of them, La Panessa, is a fino with a toasted almond aroma, pungent and delicate, light to the palate, dry and whose special characteristics are result of its prolonged and particular process of élevage.  It was heavenly, with an appealing flavor.  Hard to imagine drinking anything more refreshing on that hot summer day.

And yet, the Manzanilla in Sanlúcar de Barrameda was waiting.

When we got to  Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and the Balbino, the Manzanilla of choice was the San León (sometimes refered to as San León Clasica), which is the flagship Manzanilla from Bodegas Argüeso. While the label still says it’s more than three years old, it’s actually said to have matured for around six years.  San León was chosen as the best wine of Spain in the 2009 Iberwine contest.  I would also venture to give an award the Emilio Hidalgo Fino.   It at least gives another excuse to go back to Casa Balbino and argue over a few bottles of each.

While the La Panessa is a Fino for drinking and conversation, the San León is a wine that has more to do with dancing and singing.  It is the drink of the Gypsies, of the Mediterranean along the Guadalquivir river, of the Sevillana dance and the flamenco call.  It is the drink to live and love, not the wine of work.  And given its reputation for fun at the Feria, it can also be magical in its effects.

Manuel deFalla came from Cadiz, not too far Jerez or Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  I wonder which he preferred?  Fino or Manzanilla?

Among deFalla’s many known works is El Amor Brujo, Love’s Magician.  It is a musical story of love, passion, betrayal and possession.  It involves an exorcism in the Ritual Fire Dance, a dynamic orchestral tour de force that pulsates with the rhythm of the flamenco.  Though it was originally composed as a gitaneria or gypsy piece, it evolved into an orchestral suite and ballet.   Regardless of the constellation, it is performed best with an authentic flamenco voice.

I have many memories of both deFalla and Manzanilla.  After visiting Fernando Hidalgo in  Jerez, I went with Eric Crambes, concertino of the Real Orquesta Sinfonica de Sevilla, and with soprano Ruth Rosique and guests Victoria Stapells and luthier Robert Louis Baille and his wife, to Sanlúcar de Barrameda where we enjoyed a beautiful menu musicaux with wine and food and trios from Ravel and Schubert, and Canciones Populares Españolas by deFalla, at the beautiful Hotel Alcoba.  Naturally, Manzanilla was served and the music was marvelous.

A defining deFalla musical experience for me was El Amor Brujo in Sevilla.  The ROSS  and I were joined by the ensemble of guitarist José Maria Gallardo del Rey, the voice of Esperanza Fernandez and the flamenco ballet from the Centro Andaluz de Danza.  It was a feast for the eyes and ears.  Just as is Feria itself.

It is impossible to not be intoxicated by the sights and smells of horse drawn carriages, señoras and señoritas in full flamenco dress, men in formal suits, and tapas and Manzanilla flowing all week long from the casetas (or tents) of the Feria fairgrounds.   Entering each tent is like going into someone’s home.  Suddenly the Mazanilla is poured, the jamon is served and the dancing begins.  Venice may have its Carnevale and Bellini.  But Feria and Manzanilla are equally engaging for all the senses.  And then, after it was said and done, we retreated to our homes, poured the Fino and relived the magic of those memories.

San LeonPanessa

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