I’ve been lucky enough to have met many exceptional people thanks to my blog, and today’s post is about one of those experiences. While I was staying at Maria Cristina hotel in San Sebastian last year, I had the great pleasure of talking with Andreas and Dr Shokat Cohen, organizers of I-COM, a conference focused on marketing data and measurement that took place there last year. While our jobs have nothing in common, we discovered a mutual passion for food and spent the morning bonding over shared tastes.
I’ve been to quite a few technology conferences, but have never seen one like I-COM, which focuses so much on giving attendees an amazing conference, but also exceptional food experiences. Almost one year later, I was surprised and delighted to receive an invitation to a post-summit event at Ximénez-Spínola vineyard in Andalucia. It was a privilege to discover this unique, family-owned and operated winery in one of the finest wine-growing regions of the world.
To understand what makes Ximénez-Spínola so special, we have to start with terroir, of course. The region of Southern Spain near the mouth of the Guadalquivir River where the winery is located has been known for its wine production since the first century BC. Millions of years ago, the area was a series of marshes and lagoons that in time gave way to the chalky, porous “Albariza” soil particular to the region. Warm, dry winds from the East and cool, humid winds from the West converge in the triangle between Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maríato where Ximénez-Spínola has been making wine for nearly three centuries.
But land is only part of the equation. Ximénez-Spínola works exclusively with the Pedro Ximénez grape, a variety with origins in the region between the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Legend has it, the name “Pedro Ximénez” is a deformation of the name Peter Siemens, a 16th-century German soldier serving under King Charles the V, who transported several shoots of Riesling and Elbling when he accompanied the king to Spain as a member of the newly-formed German-Spanish army. Over five centuries of cultivation and adaptation, the original grape species developed its own unique flavor profile and personality that sets it apart today.
The last piece of the Ximénez-Spínola secret is family. With his wife Laura Murphy, Jose Antonio Zarzana carries on the tradition of using the Pedro Ximénez grape begun by his ancestor Philipe Antonio Zarzana Spinola in 1729. Today, the vineyard is the only one in the world to work exclusively with this variety and has the distinction of being the official supplier of Pedro Ximénez wine and brandy to the Spanish Royal House. The current owners are deeply attached to their family history and strive to uphold the vision of past generations while producing wines for today.
During my visit to the bodega, I spent over an hour with Jose in the cellar learning about the family’s wines, which are produced in small quantities to ensure exceptional quality. (Tasting wine with Jose Antonio Zarzana) One in particular, the Exceptional Harvest, is aged 4 months on its own lees in American oak barrels, the only Pedro Ximenez wine to be made this way. You could call it a family secret!
“Time, patience, and self-criticism” is the family motto, and the Spínola Family Council takes this to heart by maintaining a limited production of numbered bottles, making each one a unique piece.
On a tour of the vineyard, I came to understand how the family ensures such high-quality products. First, the grapes are picked entirely by hand. Then, they are laid out to dry in the sun. Every 24 hours, they are manually stirred to ensure even drying. After 21 days, the grapes have shrivelled and darkened. They are then ready to be made into wine using the traditional criaderas y soleras method. For every ton of fresh grapes, 300 kilograms of raisins or 200 litres of the must is produced. This meticulous process makes large production impossible.
Wines that do not meet the family’s high standards for bottling are distilled into a selection of fine brandies, several of which have been developed specifically to accompany cigars, and that’s what I-COM had invited us to discover. Ximénez-Spínola Cigar Club Brandy is the result of distilling the winery’s already-aged wine for a further 15 to 25 years in traditional oak barrels. The resulting spirit balances the bitterness of a cigar with sweet notes, making them a perfect match. While I don’t smoke, I appreciate the time and skill that goes into making a fine brandy. With three varieties and an annual production limited to 350 bottles per variety, Ximénez-Spínola is certainly one of the rarest in the world.
It’s always a pleasure to discover small producers who devote their time and energy into making a beautiful product. Ximénez-Spínola has been doing so for three hundred years— I hope they will for another three hundred!