Lustau 125th Anniversary Sherry: Spanish Liquid Gold
by Ken Gargett
Many years ago, on my first visit to Jerez and environs, I had an appointment to visit what was to me the most exciting producer in the region at the time, Lustau. I was staying, as I have every visit since, in nearby Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which is not far from the famed city of sherry Jerez, home to Lustau.
Sanlúcar de Barrameda is on the Atlantic coast as part of the province of Cádiz, specifically at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. For anyone visiting the region, I could not recommend this little town more.
Why not stay in Jerez? Sure, it would be more convenient, especially for visiting the sherry industry. Perhaps, but Sanlúcar is much smaller and easier to get around. A little cooler being on the water – and, depending on the time of year, that can be important. There is a lovely boardwalk along the water with plenty of little restaurants and bars. And life centers around the local square, Plaza del Cabildo. This is important, as I have mentioned before, because this is where you’ll find the wonderful Casa Balbino, surely the best tapas in all Spain.
I am a huge fan of Balbino, but I’ll confess that there have been visits when I have strayed, thinking I’d see what the competition offered – and sometimes it has been excellent. But I always come back. I love this place and I’ll often end up having breakfast, lunch, and dinner here every day during my stay. I digress.
Sanlúcar, which literally drips history every time a sherry is served, was recovered from the Moors in 1264 and later became one of the Atlantic’s most important trading ports. Once the New World had been discovered (doesn’t that just put us youngsters in our place), it became the focus for the Spanish conquistadors leaving on voyages of discovery and plunder. It was from here on May 30, 1498, that Christopher Columbus set off on his third voyage.
Ferdinand Magellan also set forth from Sanlúcar with his five vessels after traveling from Seville, and it was to here that his sole remaining ship, the Nao Victoria, the first ship to circumnavigate the globe, eventually returned (Magellan himself unfortunately didn’t make it, having been murdered in the Philippines). August still sees the time-honored horseracing along the beach, continuing one of Europe’s oldest horseracing traditions. Sanlúcar has also produced some of Spain’s most famous bullfighters.
These days, while still an important fishing port, Sanlúcar’s main claim to fame is as one of the three main towns forming the sherry triangle – along with Jerez de la Frontera (usually just called Jerez) and El Puerto de Santa María. Sanlúcar is home to the amazing Manzanilla sherries. Indeed, without sherry surely the town in Spain with allegedly the highest rate of unemployment would suffer even more extensively.
Visiting Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Jerez with varying degrees of success
Back to that first visit. I had a couple of producers lined up, but I’ll confess that the one that most excited me, for reasons I’ll get to, was Lustau. I hail from a family that always believed that arriving ten minutes early was ten minutes too late. So I had set off for my appointment somewhere in downtown Jerez with plenty of time to spare. It is around 30 minutes’ drive through the vineyards to Jerez from the town of Sanlúcar.
Then I looked for the place. I looked and looked. I asked people who gave up nothing but blank stares. I tried all the maps I had. I drove back and forth across the city and even got out and walked around where I thought the place should be. No sign. No hint of a sign. And of course this was during the days before everyone had a mobile phone glued to their hand/ear, guiding their lives. And also before we had the benefit of the internet (well, before I had the benefit of the internet), so forget GPS. Letters of humble apologies were penned. A call back to Australia to the local importers to express my mortification.
I have been back several times and never been game to try again, but even traveling around Jerez I still have never come across the place (reminds me of the building in Harry Potter that disappears before one’s eyes).
Still, I have never let my appalling sense of direction interfere with my admiration for the magnificent sherries Lustau makes. Indeed, when sherry was largely in the doldrums – lots of fairly average products, little innovation, and a consumer list mostly consisting of grandmothers and maiden aunts – this was the small operator that was the light at the end of the tunnel. These days, Lustau has been joined in the excitement stakes with the wonderful Equipo Navazos team and newcomers like Peter Sisseck’s Viña Corrales.
Emilio Lustau S.A.
Lustau, more fully known as Emilio Lustau S.A., had its genesis back in 1896. Senor José Ruiz-Berdejo, whose day job was secretary to the court of justice, began cultivating the vines on his family’s estate (apparently, the secretary to the court of justice had considerable spare time on his hands). He became what is known as an almacenista: storekeeper, wholesaler, or warehouse operator.
There were once more than 50 almacenistas operating in the sherry region, but the latest figures from 2019 showed that number was down to just 17, and they now look after just seven percent of the sherry stocks in the region. They are a dying breed.
Basically, these operations are typically family businesses that mature sherries in their own cellars. They will sometimes make the base wines but usually they purchase it for subsequent aging. They are not typically selling or exporting.
They supply these sherries to the major producers who incorporate them in their own wines. It is a longstanding practice and certainly not one that intends any deception or illegality. This is the way it works there. A producer might approach an almacenista if it runs short of its own supplies, or if it needs a certain style to boost the complexity of the finished wine, or simply wants to expand blending options. It was a practice that once occurred in Oporto and Madeira as well.
Basically, the almacenistas are found in the shadows of the industry, but one has dragged them very much into the spotlight: Lustau. A former almacenista itself, Lustau came up with a brilliant concept: at the beginning of the 1980s, Lustau released a series of sherries under its Almacenista range. To date, it has released bottlings from more than 20 different almacenistas as well as having copyrighted the name for its wines. This was really the first exciting thing to happen to sherry for many years.
Unfortunately, at that time almacenistas were struggling along with much of the entire sherry industry. Up until the middle of the 1990s, a bodega needed to hold stocks of a minimum of 12,500 hectoliters in order to get a license to bottle sherries, ship, and sell them. It was impractical for many to do so, so they operated as almacenistas. Then in 1996, the minimum quantity was reduced to 500 hectoliters, opening up opportunities for those almacenistas. And in turn, opening up opportunities for sherry lovers to enjoy wines that had previously been off limits. Win-win!
An example I have mentioned previously is the bodega of Colosia (and also mentioned that it is a great place to visit). Now we can enjoy these great sherries instead of them being limited to selling to the big guys and seeing the wines disappear into various blends unacknowledged. There are a number of other examples.
So now Lustau is much more than “just” an almacenista. It even makes vinegars, vermouths, and brandies and has been acknowledged around the world for the quality of its wines and contribution to the sherry industry.
As mentioned earlier, the operation was commenced by José Ruiz-Berdejo in 1896. His daughter, María, married Emilio Lustau Ortega, and the two of them greatly expanded operations. In 1931, María purchased a small winery near the center of Jerez from which to operate, but a decade later they moved to the city’s historic section. In 2000, the company purchased six nineteenth-century bodegas in the center of the city and moved back (good luck finding any of them).
It was in 1945 that the family moved from being solely an almacenista and began bottling its own sherries. The name Lustau was adopted in 1950, the same year it began exporting. In 1990, it merged with another producer, the Luis Caballero group, which enabled Lustau to further expand the business. The previous year, Lustau had started its vintage series.
Lustau is, I believe, the only producer to operate bodegas in each of the three towns that form the sherry triangle: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. It also owns more than 500 hectares of vineyards in the region. Today, it offers a wide range of sherries in different styles and levels, though it is the Almacenista range that most sherry lovers immediately think of when the name Lustau is mentioned.
Lustau 125th Anniversary sherries: tasting notes
Lustau also offers small batches of very special sherries and what is known as the VORS range (Very Old Rare Sherries). These are aged at least 30 years and are Consejo Regulador certified. The VORS range includes Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximenez and is never produced in quantities of more than 1,000 bottles for the entire world.
To celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2021, Lustau released a set of three special sherries at the end of last year. These only come as a set (approx. £150-250/AUD$500), with each bottle 500 ml. There are only 2,500 bottles of each of the trio. Beautifully packaged, they have never been seen before. And they represent not only the history and the very DNA of Lustau, but also the three towns from the triangle with one wine from each. For sherry lovers, these are an absolute must.
First up, the Manzanilla Pasada Papirusa from Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The team at Lustau set aside four large butts for an extra four years, allowing the flor (the layer of yeast on top of the wine) to consume almost all nutrients. The butts averaged eight years in age, considerable for this style of wine. The original Papirusa solera is one of Lustau’s most popular.
The extended aging allowed the flor to die off, permitting a little oxidative influence and the result places it between Manzanilla and Amontillado. At 16 percent, it is barely more alcoholic than many big reds (and some whites). The term “Pasada” indicates the longer aging this Manzanilla sees.
A deep gold in color, one immediately encounters the traditional notes of sea spray and oyster shell that are inextricably linked to this style, though the age and complexity of this sherry keep those notes quite restrained. Wet stones, nuts, a hint of bergamot, fresh floral notes, and even a touch of a honeycomb-like character. Fresh, yet wonderfully complex, it is finely balanced. Even though the flavors are intense, they have such a light touch that one almost doesn’t realize it. Bright acidity supports the wine and there is great length. 94.
The second of the trio is the Amontillado Solera del Castillo from El Puerto de Santa María. As much as I enjoyed the Manzanilla, a style I am sure I could drink every day, this is a serious step up. A brilliant wine.
It is a specific barrel selection from what the team calls an “inverted solera” – with the oldest barrels at the top of the rows, while the youngest are at the bottom. The wines were “biologically” aged for the first four years of their life before undergoing “oxidative aging” for the next 25 years, 17 of them untouched.
A sherry of some 30 years of age, it is a bit special indeed. The solera is found in the thirteenth-century Castillo de San Marco, which is in the town of El Puerto de Santa María. All three of these wines are 100 percent Palomino grape, 21.5 percent alcohol, though you don’t really notice that. Not only has this wine not been seen before, Lustau has never made a sherry quite like this.
Burnished gold and teak in color, this offers a wonderfully complex nose. This sherry is a star! Stone fruit, dried apricots, cloves, butterscotch, a hint of chocolate, soft old leather, nuts, orange rind. Spices that seem to give a sweet appearance to the wine and a slight smoky note on the finish, but all is immaculately balanced. Incredible length. I loved all three but this one stood out. If you do not like this, one could say that you will never like sherry. One could also say that there is no hope for you. 97.
Finally, the 1996 Añada Vintage Sherry from Jerez de La Frontera. This was originally laid down in 1996 (obviously), the year of Lustau’s centenary, and bottled with 25 years of age for its 125th. The grapes were left on the vine for a longer period than usual to build some late harvest characters.
The wine was then sealed in old butts that had previously been home to Oloroso sherry. As Lustau says, “No other wines like this have ever been seen before.” Even though Lustau has been bottling single vintage sherries since the late 1980s, it has never released a vintage sherry from 1996 before. Just eight casks were made.
The style is what is known as Dulce, previously called Oloroso Abocado. Often this style was sweetened by the addition of Pedro Ximenez grapes, but here it is the late harvest that allowed the sweetness to build. The fermentation was then arrested midway, leaving the level of residual sweetness at an imposing 206 grams/liter. Alcohol is 21 percent.
A lovely old brown color with flecks of green on the edge. Notes of treacle, apricots, nuts, ginger, glacé fruit, cocoa powder, caramel, and licorice. A seriously intense nose. Even though the wine is technically very sweet, the balance dissipates the suggestion of that to some extent. Gentle yet vibrant acidity is left to counter that sweetness, which works wonderfully well. Amazing length. Another stunning sherry, one that is an absolute must-try for lovers of this great wine. 96.
For more information, please visit lustau.es/en/our-collection/sherry-wines.