Palo cortado is the most mysterious of all sherry styles. But a growth in production, and the lack of definition surrounding its production, is causing problems. Laura Foster explores the dark cellars of PC world
The atmospheric bodegas of Jerez in Andalusia, south-western Spain, hide an open secret among the dusty rows of sherry butts: nobody knows how palo cortados should really be made. It’s all the more controversial because this is the premium wine of Jerez, boasting a beguiling mix of freshness and a nutty, deep intensity that thrills aficionados.
‘This is probably the most elusive wine in the world when it comes to defining it,’ says Tim Holt, international area director at Barbadillo, in one of the drink’s three great towns, Sanlúcar de Barrameda. ‘The difficulty here is that each producer will have its own particular way of making it, so the moment that you try and define it, you will exclude one or other palo cortado.’
This disparity stems from one majorly inconvenient fact: the original definition of palo cortado as a category has been lost in the mists of time. As a result, the only thing that bodegas need to adhere to is the official sherry body, Consejo Regulador’s requirements, which are to produce ‘a wine of great complexity which combines the delicate bouquet of an amontillado with the body and palate of an oloroso’.
The middle ground
This leaves a lot of wriggle room, with bodegas all choosing their own routes to achieve the required flavour profile.
So what exactly is this mysterious category then? Palo cortados traditionally occupy a space that hovers between biologically aged sherries (fino and manzanilla that are fortified to 15% abv and develop a layer of flor on the surface, preventing oxidation) and oxidatively aged sherries (olorosos that are fortified to 17% abv, preventing the development of flor, and therefore allowing oxidation to occur).
The Consejo Regulador’s website itself describes a process where palo cortado is made from the finest must, which is initially fortified to 15% abv – the same strength as a fino – and that allows flor to develop on the surface of the wine.
‘Sometimes in a number of casks of fino, you find that when they are very young – and we are talking of less than one year – that they are too full bodied, or maybe they have lost their yeast, or they are not classic finos,’ says Lustau’s Federico Sanchez-Pece Salmerón. ‘So our cellar master says to me, “Ok, this is not a proper fino.” At a very early stage, normally around four, six, eight months, you draw the wine from there, and you fortify it again [to 17% abv]and bring it to the palo cortado solera system.’
Ignacio López de Carrizosa of Grupo Estevez, the bodega that makes Real Tesoro, Valdespino and La Guita, described this process as ‘a happy accident’.
Thanks to the developments of modern winemaking, however, producers don’t have to wait for the mystical flor fairies to make a layer of yeast disappear, or for an intended fino to suddenly taste more full-bodied if they don’t want to. They’re able to direct the wine in any way they want; bodegas are deliberately making palo cortado, rather than stumbling across it.
‘In the past, palo cortado was a process that occurred naturally, and winemakers didn’t ever know quite how or even when it might happen. But nowadays everything is controlled,’ says Antonio Flores, González Byass’ winemaker. ‘I cannot make the same mistakes as they did in the past, because the technology is so advanced today.’
‘Part of the difficulty in defining palo cortado stems from the fact that sherry production methods have changed drastically in recent years,’ says Holt. ‘As late as the 1950s, most bodegas used traditional ‘lagares’ (big wooden sloping platforms), where the workers would stamp on the grapes to extract the juice. The initial run off was the free-run juice. Nowadays, this free run is obtained mechanically by moving the grapes over cylindrical sieves, and the juice drips out simply by the weight of the grapes themselves.’
‘In the past every wine was fermented in cask, not in tanks like now,’ adds Sanchez-Pece Salmerón, ‘so every cask was different, and you could say, ‘OK, I have a classification of 10 different young sherries in 10 casks, whereas now you have a tank of 10,000 litres of one quality. With the casks you would say, “This is perfect for fino,” or “this would be a good palo cortado,” or maybe “this one is very young and it’s a straight oloroso.”’
All of this means that some producers are skipping the fino stage entirely. González-Byass does this, fortifying its finest musts straight to oloroso level of 17% or 18%. ‘The finesse I am looking for in the nose comes from the must, and the more structured, complex palate comes from the ageing,’ says Flores.
Barbadillo, meanwhile, redirects its palo cortados from its oloroso solera instead. ‘Our palo cortado is taken from certain casks of oloroso of free-run origin,’ explains Holt. ‘Each cask for one reason or another will be slightly different to the rest, and the cask selection is based on finding an oloroso with characteristics that come closer to an amontillado in style, ie olorosos with finesse.’
So how can we pin palo cortados down in today’s modern winemaking terms? Holt thinks he has the answer. ‘I think there are three fundamentals that all palo cortados adhere to, whichever the producer,’ he says. ‘Firstly, the original base wine is free-run juice – the lightest and most delicate must that has to be used if you want to make a fino or a manzanilla. Secondly, the wine must be considered exceptional in terms of quality. And finally, the end result, in terms of flavour, must be somewhere between an amontillado and an oloroso.’
A growing niche
The mysterious romance behind its production may have eroded to some extent in modern times, but palo cortado is still seen by many as the Rolls Royce of the wines of Jerez, and its popularity is growing. Palo cortado sales increased by 25% in 2017, even if they are still a tiny part of total sherry sales.
For some, these growing volumes and relatively modern production methods are cause for concern. ‘We are wary of the growing volume of palo cortados on the market, which would suggest that some are being forced,’ says Beanie Espey, director and co-founder of Xeco Wines, a new sherry brand aimed at younger consumers.
‘We think that the traditional way is the best way to make them,’ she says. ‘Let them occur naturally and let the small volume that is available in this way command its own dedicated following.
‘There are plenty of other exceptional styles of sherry to offer up to the occasional drinker – we don’t think it needs to be heavily commercialised as a category when there are other styles better suited for that.’
Holt, however, doesn’t see the variables in such a negative light. ‘The more you dig the more complex this sherry world becomes. It’s not intentional obfuscation, but a result of centuries of history and evolution, where each sherry town and even each sherry house had its own particular way of making, naming and classifying it. The mystery and confusion creates debate, discussion and ultimately interest.’
Whichever way you view it, this is a wine mystery with plenty of ground for budding wine detectives to get their teeth into.
How to push palo cortado
Two bars share their sherry secrets…
‘We offer it by the glass’
‘We list about 40 sherries, with six palo cortados – of those we offer two by the glass, a couple of others by the bottle, and a lot of half bottles as well. Very, very few customers know anything about palo cortado.
‘It’s the least-recognisable category for your average customer. We explain it as an oxidised sherry made with high-quality, expressive base wines going into it. The mysticism is fun, and they’re a product of pride for the bodega.’ Tom Higham, bar manager of Flok, Manchester
‘We plot our sherries on a flavour map’
‘Our guests tend to be quite food and drink aware, so they have an understanding of sherry or are interested in learning about it. We put a strong emphasis on flavour – we have a flavour map on the wall that we use to plot our sherry selection on.
‘We find this the most useful way to introduce people to certain styles of sherry. Palo cortado is a hard sell, but when we recommend it, we see a really strong reception, so I think more should be done to get liquid on lips.’ Barrie Wilson, co-owner of Sack, London
While you’re here…