From vine to bottle: the production of fino

by Great British Chefs 10 March 2022

Renowned for its distinctive flavour and ability to pair brilliantly with food, there’s no bigger name in the world of fino than Tio Pepe. We talk to master blender Antonio Flores to find out more about how this famous fino is produced and why it’s the perfect pairing to all sorts of dishes.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

Fino is a drink known for its refreshing, crisp versatility. The driest of the classic sherries, not only does it make a brilliant aperitif but it is also a perfect accompaniment to food, both cleansing the palate and complementing a variety of flavours; and no fino better epitomises this than Tio Pepe.

Dating all the way back to the nineteenth century, over the years Tio Pepe has grown to become the number one fino in the world. ‘Not only is Tio Pepe the world's best-selling fino brand,’ explains Antonio Flores, Tio Pepe’s master blender who has worked at the winery since 1980. ‘But it is frequently held up as the benchmark fino and we believe this is down to the consistently high quality of our production.’

But how does a fino become the one to beat? As with any type of wine, the final flavour of Tio Pepe can be traced all the way back to the type of grape it’s made from and the terroir of the area where the vines are planted. Like most varieties of sherry, the majority of fino, including Tio Pepe, is produced in the warm Spanish wine-growing region of Jerez, using the Palomino grape. Yet it’s actually the vineyards’ soil rather than the area’s climate which allows the vines to flourish and gives fino its distinct taste.

‘At first glance the region, with its long, hot and dry summers, appears to offer an inhospitable environment for grape vines to survive,’ explains Antonio. ‘Irrigation is not allowed under the rules that guide sherry production so it’s actually the bright white chalky Albariza soil that makes it all possible. Not only does the porous soil retain rainfall to enable the vine to survive the summer months, but the white soil also reflects the sunlight and aids the maturation of the lower bunches of grapes.’ It is also this chalky soil that’s largely responsible for the distinct salinity present in fino.

Once the Palomino grapes have been harvested in mid-August, the production process begins with the pressing of the grapes. A key feature of Tio Pepe is that it’s only made using the ‘mosto yema’, or ‘free run’ (the name given to the juice produced by the grapes splitting under their own weight), along with the juice from the first press. This ultimately leads to a product that’s full of character, as Antonio explains: ‘The free run and the first pressed juice has the lightest and purest character,’ he explains. ‘It is bright and fresh and allows the fino character to flourish and become even more expressive.’ After the juice has been gathered, it’s left to ferment until it’s around 11% ABV, before being fortified to 15%.

Nothing is more important during the production of Tio Pepe than the lengthy ageing process, which takes place in American oak barrels under a delicate layer of yeast, known as Velo de Flor. When producers noticed yeast naturally forming in their barrels hundreds of years ago, they initially thought the sherry had spoiled and discarded the liquid. However, over time it was discovered that this layer of yeast was beneficial to the sherry, giving it both more freshness and a distinctive character. Since then, ageing under the flor (as it’s now known) has become a key part of fino production, and 100 litres of empty space is now left in every cask to allow the yeast to grow. ‘Not only does the flor layer impart flavour but it also consumes glycerine and protects Tio Pepe from oxidising. This is what makes fino the perfect match for savoury dishes.’

Another vital element of the fino ageing process is the use of a ‘solera’ system, where barrels are arranged in tiers, known as criaderas, according to the age of the liquid they contain. Every year a proportion of fino is extracted from the oldest barrels ready for bottling before being replaced with wine from the next tier down, which is then in turn topped up with wine from the next youngest tier. This goes on all the way down to the youngest layer of barrels, filled with wine from the latest harvest. Not only does this blending achieve great consistency of flavour, but it adds further complexity to the fino. ‘It is a complex system of blending which creates a beautiful partnership between the young and the older wines,’ says Antonio. ‘The older wines take in the younger wine and ‘educate’ them, sharing their wisdom and shaping their character.’

There isn’t one specific part of the production of Tio Pepe which is responsible for its distinctive salty yet fresh and intense flavour; it’s a combination of every meticulous stage from the tending to the grapes, to the blending and ageing in the solera system. The result is a drink can be drunk before, with, or after a meal, whether sat out in the Spanish sunshine or tucked up indoors, and the possibilities are endless in terms of what you can serve it with. ‘Tio Pepe is perfect for tapas-style eating as the dryness cleanses the palate between bites,’ Antonio explains. ‘I love it paired with some cured meats or a bowl of olives. Its savoury freshness really cuts through oily, salty foods to create the perfect match. The salty yet light character of Tio Pepe also goes hand in hand with seafood.’

Its ability to pair so well with all kinds of different foods and its palate-cleansing dryness are just some of the many reasons why Tio Pepe is becoming a go-to drink to have with a meal, both in restaurants and at home. But it’s the amount of care taken by the winemakers in Jerez that ensures that Tio Pepe remains the benchmark fino.