Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe En Rama NV
I've spent some time thinking about oxygen and wine recently, and in particular how exposure to oxygen during or after winemaking can influence the style of the wine. First, cutting a long story short, although there is probably a fuzzy and uncertain dividing line between 'oxidative' and 'oxidised', I feel that these two terms are probably best used to describe different characteristics in wine relating to different degrees of oxygen contact, the first a style influenced by exposure to oxygen but that does not display overt oxidation, whereas the latter is clearly oxidised. Nevertheless, many writers seem to use the terms interchangeably, and I feel they are dressing up oxidised wine as 'oxidative', perhaps because this term is less negative to the ear. Secondly, I came clean with an admission that although I have really enjoyed some wines made in an oxidative style, oxidation per se in wine is something I would rather avoid. It simply isn't a positive feature for me. And thirdly, writers who tend to extol the virtues of oxidised wine and who clearly enjoy the style, and there's nothing wrong with that, should stop telling me to get in line. They might see the charm in oxidation, but I don't. For more detail and my background thoughts, as well as some readers' comments, see my 'Oxidised or Oxidative?' and 'Oxidised Wine: Where's the Charm?' blog posts.
So now let me develop this a little further, returning specifically to my second point, that I don't enjoy wines dominated by aromas and flavours of acetaldehyde, the principle (but not sole) conveyer of oxidation to the olfactory senses. I was surprised to see a response to my posts, linked above, which indicated my thoughts were being taken as a stand against established oxidised styles, specifically Sherry and Madeira, although the argument would work just as well in support of Vin Jaune and rancio styles from Rivesaltes, or indeed any other style where oxidation plays a role. Not at all. My words were written with the bright and aromatic white wines of the Loire, especially Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc (also Menu Pineau, Romorantin and others of course), as I wrote in the first of those two posts:
"Control the oxygen, so that it impacts on the style but without influencing it so much that the wine begins to take on the characteristic baked-earth-baked-orange flavour of every other oxidised wine in the world, and you have a wine you can describe as oxidative. Take your eye off the ball, and you have something that resembles Madeira. Delicious wines in their own right, but not necessarily a style or process that suits, for example, the beautifully floral and minerally Chenin Blancs that originate from the Loire Valley."
So for me it is a matter of context; oxidation is part and parcel of some wines, and works well in some situations and with some foods, whereas it does not work in others (in my opinion). And so despite the despair I might feel at finding yet another 'naturally' made and oxidised Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, for example, I don't experience the same sinking feeling with oxidation in Sherry, or Madeira, or Tokaji. It's not that I'm allergic to acetaldehyde, it's just that I think it has a place.
Anyway, time to move onto this week's wine, and my bottle of the 2011 release of the Tio Pepe En Rama from Gonzalez Byass which I purchased about two weeks ago, the cork having been popped about two days after delivery (there aren't many wines I get around to opening so swiftly!). Much has already been written about this wine, which was first released in 2010 to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Gonzalez Byass. In terms of style it is a fino (so there should be no oxidation!), although as it is drawn straight from the centre of the cask in spring, and bottled after just a short period of settling in tank (last year a day or two, this year a week) without fining or filtration, this is not your typical fino. And following the very positive reception to the 2010 bottling, the quantity released this year is up, from 2100 bottles (i.e. 175 dozen - to complete the anniversary 'feel') last year to 4998 this year. En Rama, by the way, contrary to some of the many and varied translations found online, relates to the 'raw' state of the wine, the consumption of which is as close as you can get to drinking a freshly drawn cask sample without actually flying to Spain to do so. None of the suggested translations went as far as suggesting there might be a connection with Arthur C. Clarke's 1972 novel 'Rendezvous with Rama' though, which I found mildly disappointing; I am rather taken with the thought that a gigantic, alien interstellar object entering the solar system might, once appropriately investigated, turn out to be a thirty-mile long bottle of sherry.
And so to the wine itself, which has rather a rich, yellow-gold hue in the glass, not the paler more water-white character that I have experienced in many finos before now. It is crystal clear though, the improved clarity, compared to last year's rather hazy inaugural bottling, is due purely to the longer period of settling in tank. Aromatically, it has plenty of very typical acetaldehyde aromas (see footnote below for more on this), something that seems so incongruous in delicate Loire whites where it is the result of oxidation, but here it seems to work in context, especially as over the second and third days it yields somewhat, allowing more interesting characteristics to come through. There are elements of nut, with a very salty character, as well as some tangy fruit alongside the drier, woody elements. It is really quite a substantial and solid wine on the palate, broad and mouth-filling. In terms of flavour, the nutty acetaldehyde takes centre stage, but around the edges comes spicy notes of salty citrus, especially salted lemon, with a fine seam of tingling acid, and also fruit with a very tangy, almost sour edge to it. This runs right through into the finish which has a really bright, flavoury-savoury style with quite a powerful, robust character. Not a delicate fino by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly one full of charm and character. Really long too, and bright in the finish. 16.5/20 (20/6/11)
Footnote: although the unmistakable aroma of acetaldehyde can reflect oxidation - which would of course be unexpected in a fino - it turns out that the thick film of flor yeast produce acetaldehyde, giving this same aroma without oxidation occurring.