Producer’s profile: Gonzalez Byass


Gonzalez Byass traces its roots to 1835, when Manuel María González Angel, at the time still 23 years old, purchased a bodega in Jerez and became a sherry shipper. He started exporting wine to England with the help of Juan Bautista Dubosc and Francisco Gutierrez de Aguera, supported by their London agent Robert Blake Byass. From shipper to producer the distance is short and in 1844 the company acquired its first vines (today the company holds 650 hectares of vineyards and it is the biggest sherry producer). In 1849 famous Tío Pepe fino brand, named after the founder’s uncle, was born and in 1855 Robert Blake Byass became a shareholder in the company (though we will have to wait 1863 to see the birth of Gonzalez & Byass, renamed Gonzalez Byass & Co. 7 years later). For over than a century the two families jointly remained at the helm of the enterprise, until in 1988 Robert Byass heirs sold their share, leaving the firm in the hand of the Gonzalez family.

Gonzalez Byass is a legend and the life of its founder is especially entertaining: the shipwreck of his cargo of potatoes (retrieved thanks to his mother’s wit) in the early years, Manuel’s love for Victorina de Soto, the visit of Queen Isabella II and the birth of El Cristo blend. In the fifth chapter of his book “Sherry”, Julian Jeffs reports these episodes and more, making a very pleasant reading.

Today the company holds a vast portfolio not limited to Jerez: Beronia in the Rioja (and Rueda), Viñas del Vero in Somontano (just south of the Pyrenees), Villarnau in Penedes (the “sparkling arm” of the firm), Finca Moncloa near Cadiz (focused on still wines), Finca Constancia not far from Madrid (D.O. Terra de Castilla, concentrating more on daily wines). Two brandies (Lepanto and Soberano) are also produced in Jerez. All in all a well balanced group with a presence in many of today interesting Spain wine regions. Gonzalez Byass is also directly involved in the distribution, particularly in the UK and the USA, with a portfolio including also Champagne Deutz, Undurraga and Quinta do Noval. 

But the nucleus of Gonzalez Byass rest in its Tío Pepe brand which of course is not limited to fino production, but holds a full lineup of different sherries, traditional and modern. One of the most interesting is Tío Pepe en Rama which basically is an unfined and unfiltered Sherry fino, bottled straight from the cask. The category had been pioneered by Barbadillo in 1999, but Gonzalez Byass was one of the firsts to follow in 2010: Tío Pepe en Rama was first made in small quantity, but it got good reviews (here the words of Tim Atkin) and attracted market interest, so much that in 2011 production was doubled and this year the wine is going through its sixth release.

As is often the case with companies of such magnitude, the focus of Gonzalez Byass lies in the export market: in a recent article Harpers reports that exports in 2014 represented 66% of its business, an impressive increase from the already high 53% of two years ago. In the words of chairman Mauricio González-Gordon, the firm is concentrating especially on US, UK and Mexico key market, though brands are exported in many countries (let’s not forget Japan, where Mercian, owned by Kirin, retains a tiny portion of Gonzalez Byass share). The challenges that have arisen in late years for sherries and other fortified wines (overall declining in volume if not in value) have been faced with a brand diversification strategy: still and sparkling wines, spirits, direct involvement in distribution, even the sale of sherry casks for whiskey production. While CEO Jorge Grosse declared optimism towards a recovery of sherry (which we all hope), the direction of company seems to be one of expansion in different markets, gin being one of the most closely watched.

From what we see this policy is bearing its fruit: the company enjoys good health, with a 63% rise in net profit in 2014.


Japan Market update: January – April import figures

New data are available from the Statistics Center of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and have been published on the June 11th  (number 1880) issue of Shuhan News. Here the most relevant figures:

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As always the big match is between France and Chile, at least if we consider quantity. Value data are not available, but I suspect France being ahead (high priced wines all lies in the under 2L category). Italy and Spain do not fare bad, while exotic countries like Macedonia and Mexico made an impressive increase though it is not clear how long their growth will last.

France dominion in the sparkling sector is evident and confirmed by Vincent Perrin, general director at CIVC, who visited Japan on May 18th. According to monsieur Perrin, whose words have been reported by the June 1st issue of Shuhan News, in 2014 Champagne sales increased by 21% (looking at value), which makes Japan the third biggest foreign market after USA and the UK. Japanese people are particularly fond of high level champagne, with the “prestige champagne” category (not really defined in the article) amounting to 10% of the quantity imported and 27% of the value.

Bad news for the fortified wine producers, with quantity decreasing for all exporting countries. There is a global trend in fortified wines towards a decrease in export volume with a simultaneous increase in export value: this might be also the case of Japan, but sadly there are no data available to confirm this (and figures from IVDP and IVBAM for 2014 are note very reassuring). With still wine slowly increasing year by year is a bit sad to see Porto, Sherry and Co. struggling thus. Lack of aperitif culture? Excessive alcohol levels? Difficulty in food pairing? Questions that must be posed and possibly answered if producers want to stop this downward trend.

Tinta negra mole: the workhorse of Madeira


Tinta Negra Mole is a red grape variety which, according to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, is said to have originated from Andalusia and then spread to the Islas Canarias and Madeira. It could possibly be a cross between Garnacha and Pinot Noir, but DNA tests have not confirmed this hypothesis. “Negra Mole” means black soft, due to the berries being soft and fleshy. In South America it is known as Negramoll.

Thick skinned, mid budding and early-mid ripening (Barbeito picks it up at the end of August), it is the most planted variety in Madeira, representing around the 80-85% of the total plantings. It yields very well, it is very versatile and resistant to diseases, all elements that accounted for its success in the middle of 19th century, when the vineyards of the island were struck by phylloxera and replanting became necessary. Bunches are big and loose, with high sugar content.

The wine obtained from it is not considered delicate as the one coming from the four noble varieties and it is mainly employed in the production of the sea of sweet cheap madeiras that floods global markets. For this reason after fermentation and fortification it commonly undergoes the fast process of estufagem, where the must is put in huge vessels (between 20,000 and 50,000L) and artificially warmed by an internal coil or external pipes heated by hot water. Some producers (like Barbeito) are trying to dignify this variety by making colheita version and using the process of canteiro in the winemaking process, where 600L casks are stored in badly insulated rooms under warehouse roofs and left heating naturally in the warm Funchal climate. Barbeito Single Cask “Colheita” 1997 Cask 113 is one of these “experiments”. For better results the grapes are fetched from high altitude vineyards, giving higher acid fruits.

A madeira without any varietal indication on the label (“Fine rich”, “medium sweet” and so on) is very likely to contain Tinta Negra Mole, because at present the wines made from this grape cannot be varietally labelled, but according to a recent article by Drinks Business the Madeira Wine Institute is considering varietal labelling for this variety too.

Producer’s profile: Blandy’s


Blandy’s is one of the most ancient Madeira producing companies. The first of the family to arrive to the island was John Blandy, who came in 1808 and founded the house three years later. His son Charles Ridpath Blandy is known for having wisely guided the company with his foresight during the hard days of oidium, by buying generous stocks of old wines to ensure enduring production. In 1925 Blandy’s joined the Madeira Wine Association, today Madeira Wine Company, later acquiring its controlling interest. Today the family is still at the helm of the company, after having bought back a big part of the shares previously owned by the Symington from Oporto.
Blandy’s is not just a wine company, but it also owns, between the others, a travel company, a shipping agency, apartments and resorts.

As an innovator, Blandy’s can be cited as the inventor of Colheita Madeira, a single vintage Madeira (at least 85% of the grape must come from a single year) aged for 5 years. The product is aimed to consumers willing to try something higher level than the age-indicated series, but still unable to afford the traditional vintage madeira (which needing at least 20 years of ageing can be very expensive). Another interesting experiment is Blandy’s Alvada: this is a (very unusual) 50-50 blend of Bual and Malmsey, aged in canteiros for 5 years in American oak before being racked and fined.
Other than these the company maintains a full line-up of multi- and single-vintage Madeira. The 20 year old non-vintage one is made from Terrentez, another rarity in the vineyard of the island.

Official statistics show that in the last ten years (2004-2014) commercialization of Madeira has decreased in volume (3,591,524 to 3,372,160 liters), but increased in value (14,193,671 to 17,904,794 euros). There is in other words a shift towards consuming better Madeira, though in less quantity. Chris Blandy, CEO of the company, is well aware of this trend and in a recent interview to Drinks Business stated that much work is being done in the organization of events in high end wine shops: the goal is to show the true image of Madeira, whose name is too often linked with low-level cooking alcohol or just an out-of-fashion drink, and promote its premium side.
In 2013 the company has also acquired 8ha of vineyards, the firsts in around twenty years (since late 1990s Blandy’s has had no vineyard). The move aims to guarantee a minimum level of production, for scarcity is one of the issues Madeira wine must face, and to avoid the land ending up abandoned (new generations of Madeira are gradually losing interest towards viticulture). Steps are also being made in wine-tourism promotion, with the historical wine lodge in the centre of Funchal and projects for a new tourist centre somewhere in the island.

Taittinger goes to Sapporo


A small earthquake has hit the japanese wine market: from September 1st Taittinger will be distributed by Sapporo beer, ending its contract with Nihon Liquor.
It is a very interesting move for Sapporo, which at least since the loss of Gosset in favour of Kikkoman-owned Terravert has not showed much interest in Champagne (the only other brand they distribute is Martel’s Comte de Noiron Brut).
President Oga Masaki explained that this move is aimed at diversifying Sapporo portfolio, capitalizing on the constant increase in wine demand. Satisfaction has also been expressed by Clovis Taittinger, export manager of the house.


Producer’s profile: Symington Family


Symington is one of the most important family involved in port production. Their general quarter is in Vila Nova de Gaia, but of course much of the production takes place up in the Douro. Its history goes back to 1882, when Andrew James Symington at just 18 arrived to Portugal from Glasgow. The family became part of the port trade, working first from Graham’s, setting up as a port shipper after a few years.

During its long history Symington has always been a pioneer in the industry: in the 1960s they launched the concept of temperature control for fermenting must and they introduced robotic lagares, a mechanical system to tread grapes. This last step was particularly important because it addressed a big problem of the Douro region, that is the shortage of labour. In the 1980s they were instrumental in promoting a renewed interest in single quinta ports, acquiring the prestigious (but decadent at the time) Quinta do Vesuvio.

Other than Quinta do Vesuvio today the company includes famous brands like Dow’s, Warre, Graham and Cockburn. It also holds a share of the Madeira Wine Company, though it sold the biggest part of its stake to Blandy Group in 2011. Today it exports the 90% of their production and continues in its policy on investing in vineyards and wineries. Paul Symington, managing director of the company, recently told to Bloomberg that low value port is suffering and Symington will concentrate on premium ports, a category which on the contrary shows a relative good growth. At the same time he commented the acquisition of Cockburn, explaining that a mid range relatively high volume port was exactly what the company needed to break trough a number of different markets.