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Getting to know César Saldaña, president of the Jerez Regulatory Council

César Saldaña, president of the Regulatory Council of the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Vinagre de Jerez Denominations of Origin, is a tireless champion and is considered an eminent figure; a generous sage who eloquently spreads his passion for the wines of the Marco de Jerez. 

The Regulatory Council, which he leads, is also in charge of organising Sherry Week a global event that serves as a showcase for some of Spain’s most prized oenological jewels. In 2020 it was awarded “Best Social Media Campaign” by publications like The Drinks Business and Drinks International and competitions like the International Wine Challenge Spain.

This year Sherry Week celebrates its tenth anniversary and has established itself as the world’s largest festival to promote and celebrate the most international wines from southern Spain. 

Let’s find out a bit more about César Saldaña, who will also talk about the tenth anniversary of Sherry Week.

- What does wine and especially sherry mean to you?

Wine is many things at once, of course. But for me, wine is one of the most beautiful, true, complex and complete forms in which a territory can express itself. It is the materialisation, in something physical, of the land, the climate and the history of a certain place, and in a way we can really enjoy. At least that is what true wines are, those that are the result of and at the same time an integral part of a certain culture, the culture of a specific territory. Sherry wine would be a perfect example of this. Wine is of course also a food, an agro-industrial product, but I am less interested in that.  

- Do you have any memories of sherry wines that have left an impression on you from a very early age, and would you like to share those with us?

Well, I don’t think I’ve had any special epiphany around sherry wine; no magical moment of sudden discovery, or anything like that. Sherry wine was there in my earliest memories, like when we were told to take the glasses off the table and we took the opportunity to be cheeky and drink the very last drop left at the bottom. When you are born and grow up with something, the process of becoming aware of it is natural and progressive. It happens just like it does in the relationship with your parents or the people you live around. Sometimes a little distance is needed. And, in my case, that distance was given to me by going to study in Madrid and starting to visit La Venencia, one of the most incredible places in the capital: a little piece of Jerez in the middle of Madrid. That is where I felt like the glass of amontillado that came out of the cask fed me like a mother’s milk does a baby, like there was something intimately mine in that wine that was so good.

- Sherry wine has always been a source of inspiration. It has appeared in dozens of films, books, and songs. So what inspired you to write a book about sherry wines? You also did the illustrations for the book, which has been so successful that it is considered “the reference book to learn about, understand and love some of the best wines in the world.”

Yes, over the centuries a lot of good stuff has been written about sherry wines. Time will tell if my book ends up being a reference work or not. In any case, I don’t think it is comparable to any of the many works of art inspired by sherry. My book is a simple manual, a guide for anyone who wants to approach the vast world of our wines: their history, their viticulture and enology, their culture and their protagonists. A simple work of sharing, which is still a part of my work. As it is the most recent one to be written, it is naturally the most complete and up-to-date; but it is not definitive. It is one more link in a chain of works that have tried to make these wonderful wines understandable to the general public.

The illustrations were a gift for me, because the challenge of illustrating the book has allowed me to rediscover a hobby that I had left behind in my youth.

- Since you are a great lover and sharer of the wines from the Marco de Jerez, you must be very happy with the success of Sherry Week, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this month. What is its significance in the world of wine and how has it evolved over the last ten years?

Sherry Week is one of the most important promotional initiatives that the sector has had for a long time and the tangible proof of two things: firstly, of our ability to take advantage of new forms of communication, because without new technologies Sherry Week simply would not have been possible. And secondly, the extraordinary degree of internationality of sherry wines, which are able to unite fans from five continents in a global celebration. The way it has evolved has been incredible, not only in the number of events, but especially in their quality. Over these past ten years we have seen all kinds of activities around sherry and some of them have been enormously creative.

- What do you think has been the most significant impact of Sherry Week when it comes to the promotion of Sherry wines at an international level?

Sherry Week’s ability to bring together professionals and sherry enthusiasts from different countries and cultures, generating a permanent exchange of ideas and information between markets, is of particular interest to us. What marketers call “cross-pollination”: learning from each other. Ideas for consumption, creative ideas for educating about and sharing our wines, new pairings or cocktails, etc. And, most importantly, the opportunity it represents for the many sherry enthusiasts to celebrate their passion for our wines in an open and collaborative way.

- What would you say are the most significant challenges and opportunities facing the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Denomination of Origin today?

As with any other wine region, in my opinion there are two global challenges facing our denomination at the moment that we must focus our attention on: the effects of climate change and generational change in the wine industry. The latter requires us to make a special effort to make agriculture not only profitable but also attractive .

As far as opportunities are concerned, I believe that sherry wine is currently in a tremendously interesting moment. After the end of the 20th century, when the obsession with volume led to an enormous crisis, most wineries changed their mindset and have clearly opted for quality and added value. Since the creation of the VOS and VORS categories at the beginning of the century, there have been innumerable efforts in the sector to make sherry a more interesting, unique and differentiated wine: the ‘from the branch’ products, the vintages, the special releases... We may sell fewer litres than before, but the level of sherry’s recognition has improved radically and we have a bright future ahead of us, marked by quality. The wineries are now producing the best sherries in history. 

- Speaking of challenges, one of the most significant is climate change, which nature is making increasingly clear to us. What risks are there for the Marco de Jerez and its wines and how are you preparing to prevent or mitigate their effects?

It is a reality that Jerez is on the southern border of the northern hemisphere’s wine belt. That means, on the battle’s front line. But it is also true that our microclimate conditions are mainly marked by the bodies of water that surround us and that will continue to be the case. And in any case, the key element of our viticulture is the albariza soil, so we cannot change our location. What we can do, for example, is try to see which of the varieties that we have used in the area throughout history, or even which clones of those varieties, are better suited to the circumstances that are coming. Or which of the cultural practices we do should be modified or adapted in some way. This is the kind of discussion and research that is taking place in Jerez. As far as winemaking practices are concerned, that is somewhat less of a concern, as we can always better control the environment where we make and age our wines. The real challenge is in the vineyard.

- Given that sherry wines are synonymous with history and tradition, how do you see their development in recent years? Are there interesting trends or innovations that are emerging in the region, but without sacrificing authenticity over time?

What is interesting is that many of the innovations we are seeing appear have their origin in a deep study of our history. I don’t mean to say that everything has already been invented, but in such an ancient wine-growing region with such marked natural factors, history is always a source of wisdom and inspiration. This is the case with the extraordinary movement that is taking place in the region with the so-called “vinos de pasto” (“pasture wines”), white wines made from traditional varieties and from specific vineyards which, although they are not DO wines from a regulatory point of view, they are the best introduction to the fascinating world of sherry. Wines that are part of the history of our area and that today are being recovered by producers from Jerez, with an expert point of view and a truly international approach to the world of wine.

- One of the best allies for the promotion of Marco de Jerez wines has been, without a doubt, gastronomy. Chefs from all over the world have fallen in love with the versatility of sherry wines. Do you remember having discovered a memorable pairing with a sherry or Manzanilla wine? What made it so special?

Decades ago, the decision was taken in Jerez, with the consensus of the wineries and the Regulatory Council itself, that gastronomy would be the key method of communication for our wines. As a result of that decision, we focussed our outreach activities on sommeliers, chefs and food lovers (the so-called “foodies”). This decision also led to certain initiatives that are now absolutely key to our communication strategy, like the Copa Jerez Forum & Competition. After ten rounds of this competition, which we hold every two years and which includes top restaurants from seven different countries, there have been countless pairings that have literally left me speechless. But I will give you two examples of sublime pairings, my favourites: the veal sweetbreads from the La Carboná restaurant in Jerez, with an amontillado. And the cheeks with peas and carrots that my wife makes, with an oloroso. Both pairings left me speechless. 

- What advice would you give to wine lovers who want to explore and appreciate the wines of Jerez during Sherry Week and beyond?

First and foremost, they should approach sherry wine without any prejudices or preconceived ideas. You have to allow yourself to be surprised. But of course, they should approach sherry as any wine should be approached: serving it at the right temperature and in a glass that honours these excellent wines. No small or special glasses: a good white wine glass, like the ones we all have at home. And of course, always with something to eat, even if it is just a few olives or some nuts, because sherry wine shines are very good in company. The time will come to ‘meditate’ on a glass of palo cortado. For starters, a glass of chilled fino or manzanilla and some olives or anchovies can be an extraordinary sensory experience. From there, the journey through the fantastic diversity of sherry wines is endless.

- Surely in your career you have been able to enjoy wines that are extraordinary jewels of the Marco de Jerez, but somewhere out there, there must be a legendary bottle that you have not been able to try yet. Which wine would you like to open and who would you like to share it with and why?

After so many years of history, there are legendary wines that were bottled more than half a century ago and that today we drink with veneration. Going to Corral de la Morería in Madrid and having Juan Manuel del Rey open one of the wines from his collection is to drink art and history at the same time. And there are century-old solerajes in the cellars, that there are very few releases from, and it is a real privilege to be able to taste those. But the bottle of sherry wine that I am always keen to open is the one that will allow me to chat over a couple of glasses with a good friend or with interesting people; those who know how to appreciate both the quality of a wine, with all that lies behind it, and the quality of the moment of enjoying it.

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