Monday, 16 April 2018
The Sherry of Royalty
This lovely and very interesting article by Ángel Espejo and video by Miguel Ángel González appeared in yesterday’s Diario de Jerez. The video is in Spanish but is well worth watching nonetheless.
*His wine has a privileged place in the royal household and also refreshes the criaderas of Tio Pepe.
*Curro of La Blanquita is the creator of this Fino without a name from the historic pago of Balbaína.
El Kubala used to enter the royal Zarzuela Palace* just like Pedro did his house. He always went well provided with a few arrobas of Fino wine from La Blanquita to refresh the butt which Pedro Pacheco* had gifted to King Juan Carlos* during his time as mayor. Rafael García González - better known as El Kubala or Kubalita for his resemblance to a Hungarian footballer and his skill with the ball when he competed in the lower divisions – looked after the royal barrel with the same care he put into the maintenance of the small solera in the little private bodega of the ex-mayor of Jerez, which was also refreshed with the wine of La Blanquita, the 50 hectare vineyard in the historic pago Balbaína which belonged to the Barba family.
The connection with royalty was interrupted by the sudden death of El Kubala. The monarch ceased to reign and the ex-mayor was deprived of his liberty. But that is another story. By one of life’s many coincidences, the La Blanquita Fino regained its connection with royalty, but by another route, brought about by the friendship between the elder son of Francisco Barba González, “Curro de la Blanquita”, and José Manuel Zuleta, Duke of Abrantes and equerry to Queen Letizia, childhood classmate of the vine-grower’s son, and by which the despatch of Balbaína Fino to the palace for the annual refreshing of the royal barrel was re-established.
News came directly to the ears of Curro de la Blanquita about the refusal of the King Emeritus* to accept any wine which did not originate from his vines after Pacheco was relieved of the mayorship. “So they say” said the veteran Sanluqueño vine-grower, who was more worried about the quality and prestige of his wines, which also refreshed the criaderas of Tio Pepe at González Byass.
Curro Barba invested the money he had managed to save in Barcelona as a painter, the first place he went after completing his military service at the La Parra base*, in the purchase of the vineyard on the last day of the year back in 1969. Four million of the old pesetas which they gave him to pay half the asking price for La Blanquita, a parcel located on the left of the Jerez-Rota road in the first few kilometres, in the municipality of El Puerto, and which then consisted of 15 hectares of vineyard presided over by the casa de viña La Blanquita whose whitewash shone brightly in the sun giving the vineyard its name.
Barba had only seen the vineyard as a young man working as a day labourer in Sanlúcar, but he quickly adapted to the new role of vine-grower where he soon saw the need to make the change to wine maker because of the slim margins provided by the sale of grapes to the bodegas.
“I had no idea about wine but it couldn’t be too difficult and I knew something about vineyards”, explains the official provider of wine to the royal household, who continues “I had a rough time of it at the start since grapes offer very low returns, but after much hard work I completed the payments for the vineyard for which they gave me a reduction for early payments, then I grubbed up the very old vines and re-planted it”.
In the mid-1970s, with his financial affairs in order, Curro assumed another debt to build a press house, and years later, in his tireless search for stability, he again re-mortgaged the family home in Sanlúcar to construct another building to house the necessary tanks as he became a wine producer. “From selling grapes I went to making mostos which I sold straight from the butt to González Byass, and later installed the tanks from which I could sell wine which had been racked for a higher price.
With great effort and sacrifice the business began to finance itself and allowed him to triple the size of the vineyard to 45 hectares with the purchase of another two parcels in the area and establish a modest solera of 180 butts of Fino “as my little treat”, that is to say for personal consumption or with friends – now limited in number by the ailments of age – and for sale in bulk. No Amontillado or Oloroso or any other types of wine, just Fino, but Curro takes care not to allow the wine to get fat, by what he calls “false sales” or withdrawing part of the wine and refreshing it with younger wine so it doesn’t end up losing the flor and becoming Amontillado.
Curro of La Blanquita misses the excitement and hope of those years, despite the hard daily work in the vineyard, but at almost 83 years old his main worry is that he doesn’t see his legacy go beyond his son Francisco Barba “Currito”, the only one of his three children interested in being a grower.
With 52 springs on his shoulders, Currito runs the business in which he began working 13 years ago and he doesn’t want any of his four children anywhere near it. Curro and Currito agree that it “provides a living given hard work, but not much more. It is very demanding and you have to be on top of things all day, every day”.
With a considerable production of some 600 butts per year – between 250,000 and 300,000 litres – La Blanquita remains a small family business far from the winds of change blowing through the area, and this distance doesn’t hold out much hope, in the short term at least, of resulting in increased grape and must prices for the growers.
Curro father and son don’t understand new Sherries or new grape varieties. Theirs is the Palomino, from which they make their Fino, and “the more the merrier”, because according to Curro “Jerez is still one of the few DOs which still pays by the kilo, so how can they ask a grower for more if they don’t pay for it”.
Although this family of cosecheros lives beyond the new airs blowing through the area, they agree on the vital importance of looking after the vineyards and also that of the pago from which the grapes come, in their case, Balbaína “whose wines are famous for their finesse” affirms Francisco Barba senior, who insists that “this provides a living given hard work, and if you don’t have the capacity for such work you would be better trying something else, because only with constant work and attention will the vineyard succeed”.
La Blanquita has other attributes however; the vineyard has beautiful views looking towards Jerez, though they have changed in recent years with the uprooting of vineyards “where we reached 22,000 hectares and now only have 6,000”. The abandoned appearance of some of the nearby slopes resulting from the uprooting saddens Curro, though while there are still some plots dedicated to producing Sherry there are others, like the neighbouring Viña del Caballo, bought by a bodega to plant other, non-Palomino, grape varieties to make Vinos de la Tierra de Cádiz. “At least it is still a vineyard”, he observes.
While he is still physically able, Curro de la Blanquita will keep on going every day to his vineyard, in winter only in the mornings and in summer, mornings and afternoons “to attend to everything that happens here”. And he will continue to do it with an amiable smile, a reflection of his good-natured character to which the inscription on a plaque presented to him by his friends for his 80th birthday refers. It hangs on the main door of the bodega and reads: “We will always be able to count on you because you are a person with a good heart”.
*In 2014 King Juan Carlos I abdicated in favour of his son, now King Felipe VI, married to Queen Letizia, and now holds the title of King Emeritus.
*The Zarzuela Palace in Madrid is the residence of the King/Queen and the royal household.
*Pedro Pacheco was mayor of Jerez between 1979 and 2003. He was imprisoned for municipal irregularities in 2014 and is now nearing the end of his sentence.
*La Parra was an air base built close to Jerez in 1936 and is now the city’s La Parra Airport. Parra means “vine”.