Getting to know Paola Medina, a revolutionary in the Sherry world
Although she first went to the Escuela Superior de Publicidad de Madrid, where she graduated as a technician in Architecture and Interior Design, her path led her back to the family winery, where she has become one of the great figures in the Marco de Jerez. A key player in making these gems known, Paola encourages people to lose their fear of them and she never shies away from her mission: “You shouldn’t let responsibility stop you.”
- For all those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you yet (which is hard to imagine), who is Paola Medina?
Thank you very much! Well, I work as an oenologist at Williams & Humbert, the family winery and I pour a great amount of passion into my work.
- Although you have always been connected to the world of wine, when did your true passion for them begin? What are your earliest memories?
For my family, the winery has always been where we would get together and celebrate. One of my earliest memories is of running and playing among the sherry butts when I was a child, in our family winery in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It felt completely natural and I wasn’t really aware of the treasure all around me. When I decided to study chemistry in Granada, I did so without any intention of going into oenology. It was a tasting organised by the university that piqued my interest (I imagine it was driven by my connection to the world of wine). So, once I finished my degree, I decided to study oenology. My first job was as assistant winemaker at Bodega 14 Viñas in Ciudad Real.
- You first studied Chemistry at the University of Granada, then Oenology at the University of Cadiz and finally a Master’s Degree in Viticulture, Oenology and Legislation at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. Was this always what you wanted to do?
No, far from it. Despite having grown up in a family of winemakers and having been familiar with this world during my childhood, as a child, it wasn’t clear to me that this is what I wanted to do. I have always liked Architecture and Interior Design. In fact, I qualified as a technician in the latter from the Escuela Superior de Publicidad de Madrid. And finally, as I said, I chose Chemical Sciences.
- You are part of the second generation of the Medina family who run William & Humbert, a winery with a long history (founded in 1870) and now with a presence in 80 countries. It must be a little dizzying to think about maintaining that legacy. How are you handling the responsibility?
The sense of responsibility is certainly there: responsibility for maintaining and honouring all the legacy that our predecessors left us; but without ever letting that responsibility hold us back. Quite the opposite in fact. I always remember my father and uncles saying that “You can’t go from analysis to paralysis”. It is important to appreciate where you are and what you have achieved, but not to let it hold you back when it comes to making decisions and taking on new projects. So I apply this rule to myself and I try to ensure that this enormous responsibility serves as an incentive so that, starting from tradition, we continue to innovate, always aiming for quality in every new thing we do.
- The renowned Decanter publication speaks highly of you and considers you one of the six most outstanding and influential winemakers in Spain. Where were you when you heard about that? What does it mean to you?
I was at the Bodega and that’s when I heard the news. For me it is a source of great pride and satisfaction. A tremendously positive energy boost to keep working. The recognition of the effort of a whole team that puts a lot of passion in the production of the wines of Jerez. So it is a source of pride for our wineries, but above all for the wines of Jerez. They are the real stars of the show and the focus should be on them.
- Part of this is due to what is known as the Sherry Revolution. What is that? And what part do you play within this movement?
This movement is simply the reflection of a growing interest in knowing and learning more about sherry wine, its origin, the vineyards, its production processes, the ways it can be enjoyed, etc. All this translates into an outstanding presence of sherry wine in gastronomy, where it has an increasingly prominent place. And also in the interest they are getting from an increasingly younger audience. As for my role, I simply limit myself to doing my work as a winemaker and through this work, showcasing the enormous richness of these wines.
- How would you explain sherry wines to someone who has never had the opportunity to try them?
With words as simple as history, oenological richness, complexity and versatility. These wines have a great amount of history behind them, they have had a strong presence abroad since the beginning, and they have made a vital contribution to the world of oenology, like the Criaderas and Soleras system. And this dynamic aging system works alongside the static system of vintages. It is fascinating to see the number of different types and production methods that the varieties from the Marco de Jerez can create. What I would say to those who still aren’t familiar with them is to lose their fear and have the courage to try new things. Most importantly, don’t miss the opportunity to put sherry on the table and pair it with any type of dish because you will be surprised by the versatility of these wines.
- As you have suggested, you have also contributed to this new concept of Fino de Añada. Can you explain what this is?
Static aging is something that originated in the Marco de Jerez, and has been around since the beginning. In fact, Williams & Humbert’s historic collection of vintage wines dates back to 1920. My contribution has been, as you rightly say, biological static aging, where the must selected from a given vintage is fortified at 15ºC and, without any intervention, the yeast cap develops spontaneously. This static aging means that the wine is not blended with other wines from other vintages, like it is in the Criaderas and Soleras system. If I had to choose two words to describe these wines, I would say identity and uniqueness, because each vintage sherry is special and unique, a true reflection of that year’s vintage.
- Sherry wines are famous for their great variety and complexity. How do you deal with working with wines that present so many options and also require a lot of patience?
I really relish the challenge. All these options make the work exciting. In fact, in recent years, as well as our traditional Soleras and Criaderas wines, we have produced organic crianza vintages and new vintages in general, organic sherry wines, vinifications by plot, wines made from overripe grapes without fortifying, and some others. So this work is far from boring.
- From your point of view, where is the Marco de Jerez going?
The Jerez Denomination of Origin is in an exceptional position today and is a clear leader in the world of wine. Sherry is an oenological gem and this is affirmed by great chefs and sommeliers. In the last decade, it has undergone a very significant revolution and the challenge is to continue working along these lines, promoting our wines, and telling people about all the different ways to enjoy them. In this sense, I am grateful for the work of the media and publications like this one, which do so much to spread the culture, history and benefits of sherry wine.
- How would you define your style and work as a winemaker? Have you had to face any obstacles because of your desire to innovate without losing the essence of Jerez?
I always say that two of the key ingredients in the whole winemaking process are dedication and excitement: from the moment the grapes are harvested right through to bottling. I believe that this passion is clear to see in the final product and is a decisive factor in the personality of the wines. One of the things I am most proud of is to be surrounded by great professionals who share this passion. In terms of innovation without losing the essence, at Williams & Humbert we try to move forward and experiment, always looking for new ways to make wine, but always with respect for tradition and the centuries-old experience of our wineries, honouring the legacy and heritage we received, thanks to the great contributions of those who have gone before us. Combining tradition with innovation is part of our philosophy. As a result, we seek to make wines that represent the best of our land, our vineyards and our history.
- Although I’m sure it’s hard to choose one, we might put you on the spot. Out of everything you’ve made, do you have a favourite?
Yes that’s tricky! Depends on the time of day. Whether it is to go with a particular appetiser or meal; for after-dinner chat or a mid-afternoon get-together; whether it is a hot or cooler time of year; or even depending on the mood at that moment, what you want can vary. That is one of the great things about sherry wine. From biological to oxidative aging or sherries made through a static or dynamic system... The options are endless! There is always a new combination to discover and be surprised by. I can tell you that I really enjoyed Canasta 20 during the winemaking process and this wine excites me every time I drink it. Finolis, our latest launch, has also been a challenge due to its special winemaking process using overripe Palomino grapes from the old vines of Pago de Carrascal, with manual pressing, fermentation in barrels and biological static aging. And I would love to taste and see how our vintage sherries develop in 20 years!
- Wine is your true passion, but surely not your only one. What else do you like to do in your free time?
Lots of things! I find Cooking relaxing. I also love travelling, painting, architecture, interior design, visiting exhibitions, walking on the beach and tasting wines from all over the place. My job is my hobby. I have a Bodega at home, where I like to meet with friends to taste wines of all kinds, talking about them and sharing our thoughts. I am also passionate about perfumery.
- Even though you’re surrounded by fortified wine, I’m sure you’ve had chance to try some different things. Are there any wines that have surprised you recently?
A while ago we drank a Selosse Rosé Champagne as a family, which we enjoyed very much, and several years ago we also drank a Barolo, Prunoto from 1978, and I don't know if it was the occasion, the company or the place, but it was very special. I was also very surprised by HINE’s Cognac Family Reserve.