Barbadillo – tasting the world’s most exclusive sherry

To celebrate its 200th birthday, world-class sherry bodega Barbadillo has released a strictly limited number of its finest range: Reliquia. Natasha Hughes MW tries four of the rarest sherries in the world

Words by Natasha Hughes MW

Barbadillo Sherry – Barbadillo Reliquia bottlings

Given the reverence paid to fortified wines in the Jerez triangle, it’s hardly surprising that the largest of the vast warehouses in which sherries are aged are often referred to by locals as cathedrals.

The cathedral bodega in Barbadillo’s sprawling Sanlucar complex – one of around 16 – is vast. More than 3,000 large wooden butts, their oak staves stained dark with age, are carefully stacked three-high atop each other, their serried ranks seeming to extend forever. Light filters in from windows set high up on the walls, while ochre sands mute footsteps below. The cathedral is a peaceful haven in which the wines enjoy their long solera slumbers.

Not all is as eternally still as you might assume, however. Beneath a foamy blanket of flor, the manzanilla sherries stored here are evolving quietly. One of the key differences between Sanlucar – where manzanilla is made – and Jerez (home of fino) comes from the proximity of the former to the delta of the Guadalquivir River and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The slightly cooler temperatures and the heightened humidity that prevail here help to keep the flor alive, even during the heat of an Andalucian summer. As a result, manzanillas tend to be brighter and fresher than their inland cousins.

It’s a point of difference that has long been celebrated at Barbadillo, Sanlucar’s largest sherry producer, where half-a-dozen styles of manzanilla are bottled each year. The main label of this family-owned company is Solear, but there’s also the Muy Fina, which is sold mainly at the local ferias; an aged pasada style; and a trio of en ramas – wines bottled with minimal filtration, designed to recreate the experience of drinking sherry fresh from the butt.

Cellars – Barbadillo Sherry – Barbadillo Reliquia bottlings
The "cathedral" bodega at Barbadillo in Sanlucar holds thousands of wooden sherry casks
Cellars – Barbadillo Sherry – Barbadillo Reliquia bottlings

Unlikely many large producers of en rama sherries, who bottle their wines once a year, usually in spring, when the flor is thickest and so exerts its greatest influence on the wine, Barbadillo’s main en rama is bottled four times a year. This allows aficionados to experience the way the seasonal waxing and waning of the flor influences the wine that once sheltered beneath it. It’s a nuance, but a nuance that’s appreciated by those attuned to the subtle variations of these biologically aged wines.

Nuance is also key to the bodega’s Levante and Poniente bottlings. This pair of wines take their name from the two winds that govern the climate in this part of southern Spain. The poniente is the cooling, humid sea breeze that blows in from the west; the levante is the hot, dry east wind.

Butts stored in the extreme east or west of the bodega are affected by these winds – the poniente bathes its side of the solera in winds that promote the growth of flor, while the drier levante butts tend to have a thinner film of flor. The differences between the two wines – the result of the thickness of the flor – are subtle, but present, putting paid to any notion that sherry is a uniformly consistent wine.

Vineyards – Barbadillo Sherry – Barbadillo Reliquia bottlings
The Jerez region is known for its chalky-white albariza soil, which reflects the sun's rays back on to the vines and absorbs valuable moisture in this dry region

Variations on the theme of manzanilla may be the main event, but it’s far from the only style of sherry produced in Barbadillo’s cellars. There’s a full complement of aged wines, both standard bottlings and venerable VOS or VORS renderings. There are savoury, salty amontillados made from manzanillas aged long enough for the flor to die off, exposing the wines to oxygen, and changing their flavour profile. And there are the more robust, heady olorosos.

The latter are so aromatic that Jerezanos refer to them as “handkerchief wines” because it was traditional for the local gallants to use them to perfume their mouchoirs. Delicate palo cortados, a stylistic halfway house between amontillados and olorosos, complete the line-up of Palomino-based wines, while dense, treacly PX and lighter, brighter Moscatels satisfy sweeter-toothed customers.

Arguably, though, the jewels in Barbadillo’s crown are the Reliquia bottlings. Housed in one of its oldest cellars, the Palacio de la Cilla (once the residence of the local bishop), the Barbadillo family’s oldest butts have slept largely undisturbed for more than a century. A few years ago, however, it was decided to release a tiny amount of these liquid treasures every so often, and 2021 sees the latest incarnations, bottled to celebrate the bodega’s 200th anniversary.

Barbadillo Sherry – Barbadillo Reliquia Pedro Ximénez
The four new Reliquia sherries from Barbadillo are limited to just 81 half-bottles – and a mere 17 of the Pedro Ximénez

There are four wines in the line-up – an amontillado, a palo cortado, an oloroso and an inky Pedro Ximénez. Only 81 half-bottles of each wine will be sold – just 17 of the Pedro Ximénez – with most destined to end up in Spain’s top restaurants, while a handful are scheduled for export markets, notably the UK. Each bottle features a colourful label, hand-painted by the celebrated Madrid-based calligrapher, Goyo Valmorisco. It goes without saying that each bottle bears a serial number, but the addition of the name of the customer and the date of the saca (the process of drawing the wine off from the butt) is an unusual flourish.