As spring arrives in Seville, two weeks after Semana Santa (Holy Week), it's time for Feria. Ladies prepare their flamenca dresses, horses are groomed, carriages polished, and Seville's vino-gastro crowd waits expectantly for the big pre-Feria sherry event.
Every year, for the past four years, the Monday when Feria starts (Lunes de Pescaito), has been the day for launching the latest Tio Pepe en Rama. This is a raw, unfiltered version of the famous dry sherry, well-known for its logo of the man (Uncle Joe) in the red hat and jacket. Tio Pepe en Rama is a very special sherry, chosen from just 60 out of 22,000 barrels. As Master Winemaker Antonio Flores explains, 100 barrels are selected in October, from those which have lasted best through the heat of the summer. He then keeps an eye on these, continuing with tests throughout the autumn, winter, and into spring, and finally the 60 which make the cut are bottled in April. Only 16,000 bottles are produced - the first year, this limited-run sherry was only available in the UK, and sold out within 48 hours. Now it is also sold in the US, around Europe, and even in newly sherry-loving countries such as China. This year's launch was held at the gourmet market, Lonja del Barranco, by the Triana Bridge. A stripy caseta-style tent in Tio Pepe's signature colours of red and white, next to the market, was where we first arrived, with a guitarist playing and a venenciador pouring sherry with great skill. Later, for the tasting, we moved down to a long, narrow bar on a terrace closer to the river, when the wind whipped in the open sides from the river, causing a few spilt sherries. The front section was full by the time I arrived, so watching Antonio on a TV screen as he led the tasting of this year's En Rama: "Pale yellow with golden tones, a bit cloudy; in the mouth, long and salty, with a slightly bitter aftertaste." With tastebuds dulled by a vicious cold, I couldn't fully appreciate this magnificent wine, but I certainly got a sense of its "wildness" - the flavour is much fuller than a regular dry sherry. The labels are always beautiful and vintage-style, inspired by the Gonzalez Byass archive. The other two sherries we tasted were Leonor Palo Cortado, described by Antonio - ever the poet - as "long and seductive"; and Viña AB, a 12-year-old amontillado which smelled wonderfully of hazelnuts (my poorly nose was more sensitive than my tongue). As any sherry lover will tell you, this is a wine which marries extremely well with food; each brings out the others' virtues. From the gourmet market's stalls we enjoyed intensely-flavoured mini-squid ink salmorejo topped with onion and octopus, delicate but dense mini-tortillas, salmon tartare, and meaty goodies not to my taste, including little "bonbons de chorizo" - wrapped up in filo pastry to look like sweets. A moody sky, which had threatened rain throughout the event, opened just as it finished - to kick off a Feria week which is starting with unsettled weather, but with another superb limited-run sherry to enjoy.
Tio Pepe on the iconic hat style table