Palo Cortado, Jerez’s most enigmatic wine continues to raise controversy and disagreement not only amongst producers there but aficionados as well.
One gets the distinct impression that in Jerez, Palo Cortado is the thinking man’s sherry. It has arguably become the most analysed sherry amongst aficionados and one which continues to generate mystery, discussion and disagreement even amongst producers. Many believe that Palo Cortado occurs accidentally, yet others are strongly of the opinion that given the right conditions Palo Cortado can be coaxed into existence. In either case it will take decades for the wine to reach its full potential during which time it will take up valuable space and evaporate at an alarming rate. Making a sound economic case for its production would requires the verbal dexterity of Boris Johnson and the optimism of a bungee jumper. It is no wonder production of old and rare wines is undertaken grudgingly in a city that grew prosperous, not on the production of niche wines, but on the large-scale conversion of insipid Palomino mostos into magical, complex fortified Finos. Rare Palo Cortados, when they appeared, were reserved for the family or used as showcase examples but never considered good business.
The morning is cloudless and at this time of year the sun shines without anger. Fields extend around us as far as the eye can see broken only broken by a pair of palm trees incongruously standing side by side in the middle of nowhere, their owners long dead and the buildings they once guarded melted into the famous Albariza soils of Jerez.
Arriving at the centre of the city, for Jerez is considered a city, I make my way to the Consejo Regulador housed in an impressive palazzo, its grand façade, elaborate doors and intricate ironwork hinting at days when sherry was king and producers sent their male offspring to be educated in England returning with a distinctive crust of Englishness baked on as only the public-school system in Blighty can. Impeccable English, a love of fox hunting, and a long contact list of future politicians and captains of industry as indelible proof that school fees had been well spent. The halcyon days in Jerez might be over but the British like the Moors have left their indelible print in the city’s psyche.
Entering the building I am directed up a white marble staircase and I am soon talking to Beltran Domecq president of the Consejo Regulador. Beltran’s presidency would have been less onerous during the golden age of sherry but the industry has been facing falling demand for decades and Beltran’s role today is complex. The Consejo Regulador’s function is to ensure that sherry quality remains high, not easy at a time when producers face intense pressure to cut costs. Sherry sales started declining when the Beatles were a band; slowly at first but gathering momentum as the twentieth century ended.
I am soon ushered into the Consejo’s tasting room where a dozen Palo Cortado bottles are sitting on the clinical, white marble tasting bench. I am soon ploughing my way through Jerez’s best. The Palo Cortados are complex with immensely long finishes. One however stands above the rest which has a distinct terroir-driven quality, something considered alien in Jerez where vineyards are treated as homogenous. After the tasting ends and I take leave of my host, I decide to make my way to Chipiona, a small, old fashion, seaside town much loved by Spanish holiday makers, where I hope to find Cesar Florido the producer of the exceptional wine I have just tasted. Before driving there I have a scheduled stop at Bodegas Tradicion where I had arranged to meet Pepe Blandino a semi-retired industry veteran with a long memory.
The Consejo Regulador, Sherry’s governing body describes PC in only terms of smell and taste criteria leaving its exact production technique up to individual producers. Unlike Finos, Manzanillas, Amontillados and Olorosos, Palo Cortado has followed its own fortunes – a path which has taken it to near extinction, scarcity, mistaken identity and simultaneously presented Jerez with arguably the best wines ever seen in the region. It is loosely described as having the finesse of a Manzanilla, the elegance of an Amontillado and the structure of a fine Oloroso. A description many feel is simplistic and today true Palo Cortado, remains an enigma, and one of the world’s rare and controversial fine wines whose origins can, arguably, be traced back to a pre-phylloxera age when the landscape in Jerez was very different.
“To understand Palo Cortado one needs to understand the production of sherry not as it is conducted today but as it was in the distant past. Palo Cortado is the past not the present,” says Pepe Blandino, as we stand next to a row of 600 litre butts in the cool bodegas of Tradicion – the well-known producer of old, expensive sherries.
Our meeting with Pepe Blandino, now virtually retired, had started his apprenticeship with Bodegas Domecq when he was thirteen and still vividly remembers the “Nose” quickly and expertly classifying wines at the start of their journey to hopefully become the bread and butter of Jerez – Fino. Various chalk marks defined each butt’s progress but even then Blandino recalls that few butts ended with the dreaded V sign – indicating wines suitable only for vinegar production.
Blandino explains this relative lack acetic contamination was due to improved knowledge and techniques already available at the time and geared to large scale Fino production. Any deviation from Fino, irrespective if it was vinegar or wine with the characteristics of Palo Cortado was considered a fault though by the time he started in the industry these ‘accidents’ were few and far between. Today it is even more unlikely for deviations to occur and ‘true’ Palo Cortado has become as rare as hen’s teeth something hotly disputed by many producers who feel PC can be made to order.
Chipiona, clearly built before cars were invented, reminds the visitor of a Spain now almost disappeared. Only after driving around the town several times do we find Cesar Florido’s bodega. When I explain the reason for my visit Cesar seems taken aback that I have come all the way from Jerez to talk about his wines giving the distinct impression that this is far from a regular occurrence.
Cesar seems happy when I tell him that of all the great Palo Cortados I tasted his was the one that really stood out. He explains that his vineyards are almost lapped by the waves and attributes this to the pronounced salty flavour and character his wines possess. “In France they would call this terroir,” I suggest. His Palo Cortado he explains is at least 40 years old and he has only very small quantities. He considers it a relic of the past and a wine to be drunk on special occasions. He apologises for not having any for me to taste but he only bottles half bottles on order once a year for the only client he has for his Palo Cortado – De Maison Selections in North Carolina. I later Google De Maison Selections who turn out to specialise in unique producers in Spain and France. I wonder how they found their way to this hard to find small producer whilst everyone else seems to have missed him.
Sometime after my visit Sobremesa Magazine run a blind tasting of Jerez’s best. Much to everyone’s surprise Cesar’s Palo Cortado beat the good and the great to take home first prize. Cesar is now a celebrity and no longer taken aback by visitors coming to see around his bodega!
A longer version of this article by Andrew Licudi was published by Jancis Robinson in 2016 as one of the finalists in a world-wide wine writing competition.