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The Myth Behind Palo Cortado

28 Oct

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 22.59.50 If you believe in magic, fairies and Wikipedia then I advise you not to read any further as you will just be disappointed. Wine making is full of mysteries – some are the beauty of nature, some are just unanswered questions we have and some are created by people for pure amusement. Palo Cortado, the trendiest and the most loved sherry style by wine aficionados, is somewhere between all these.

Ever wondered how Palo Cortado is actually produced?

It is true that Palo Cortado used to be developed accidentally but now any skilled winemaker can also set out to make this style. Romantics may protest but I think it is great. The more consumers enjoy this style, the better for producers as these are the only wines that afford sherry producers anything like a premium price.

Jan Pettersen, director of Fernando de Castilla, predicts a great potential for Palo Cortado. He has already seen noticeable interest in London and New York, despite the overall decline in sherry sales. The business model for Palo Cortado is different to widely distributed Finos and Creams that tend to collect dust at the bottom of the supermarket shelf or our drinks cabinets. The strategy for Palo Cortado is to stick to small quantities, premium price and memorable quality that challenge our preconceptions – and it works.

Palo Cortado used to be rejected Fino (light-coloured bone-dry sherry) which accidentally lost its flor (a film of yeast on the surface of wine) and could no longer be protected from oxygen.  It was treated as an untypical style and due to its sporadic occurrence it was consumed only amongst bodega family members, never released to the public. The name is based on a cross that a cellarmaster or ‘capataz’ would make on any such cask, indicating its recognition. It would then be fortified a second time to at least 17.5% abv in order to kill off the protective waxy cap and essentially allow the wine to age oxidatively, similarly to Oloroso.

The distinctive clarity, freshness and flavoursome intensity of Palo Cortado has earned renowned respect. Its success led to the recreation of this style.  Montserrat Molina, the oenologist of Barbadillo, reveals her secret. In order to develop the best Palo Cortado (or Jerez Cortado as it’s called when produced in Sanlucar de Barrameda), she chooses the lightest Palomino base wine which is then fortified to a high level and aged oxidatively, as if to produce Oloroso. To ensure this light and delicate base, only free run juice is used. Oloroso, in contrast, is a blend of both free and more flavourful pressed juice to produce very rich opulent sherry. The key point is that Monserrat ‘s Palo Cortado does not undergo biological ageing, which is very different to what you may read about Palo Cortado in books or on the internet.

Similarly, for Gonzales Byass to create Leonor Palo Cortado is a conscious decision. Martin Skelton, the managing director, explains that a delicate base wine is chosen and after a few months developed under flor it is fortified to 18% abv and then aged and blended through solera for at least 12 years.  The final product is 20% due to the concentration of flavours and alcohol during the extended ageing, resulting in an extraordinarily complex sherry.

Palo Cortado can also be produced intentionally “by blending Amontillado with Oloroso”, according to Wikipedia, in order to produce look-a-like at lower price. However this method seems unpopular. In fact it goes against everything we know about Palo Cortado. No single producer has admitted to this method and there are no branded examples in the market. The price of Palo Cortado is one of the highest of all sherry styles and its production is very minimal. It is estimated that only 20,000 bottles are made out of total 60 million bottles of sherry produced annually.

It is the lack of or a minimal flor influence that is the key difference between purposefully created and accidental Palo Cortado. Mirabel Estevez, the winemaker of Groupo Estevez, tells a story of her latest Palo Cortado discovery.  On the 17th of September 2013, the day of her mum’s birthday, she was tasting through the Fino solera and suddenly she comes across a cask that contains a liquid of unique richness and fragrant intensity.  Palo Cortado is somewhere between rich Oloroso and light Amontillado in flavour, she explains. It is neither straight as Amontillado nor is it round in the mouth as Oloroso. It touches your cheeks, she continuous, as she puts her two index fingers in her mouth and stretches her mouth apart. Do you understand what I mean? she whispers.

So why do some casks develop this way and others don’t?

Even after years of experience of tasting and discovering these accidental Palo Cortados, Mirabel is still unsure. It is a mystery that has not found scientific explanation, yet.   I found one possible explanation which talks about a batch of wines that have an unusual high content of malic acid which leads to a malolactic fermentation (secondary fermentation that never happens during classic sherry production). But this does not explain why one cask is different from another despite having the same base wine. I guess search goes on.

You may ask – what is the difference between Palo Cortado and Amontillado?

The biggest difference is that Amontillado undergoes full ageing as Fino and then is fortified again and aged oxidatively as Oloroso. Palo Cortado, on the other hand, has no biological ageing if produced intentionally or only a minimal if developed accidentally. The flor dies on its own accord for Palo Cortado whereas Amontillado undergoes purposeful second fortification in order to kill the flor.

So why the mystery?

It is difficult to talk about sherry and not mention its falling sales over the last 40 years. Many producers have taken the attitude of denial or defeatism but I believe there is potential that many are missing. In fact, Jerez as a tourist destination has not realised its unique possibilities yet. Change is needed but it does not come naturally to those who have depended on tradition for so long. Just look at Gonzales Byass’s boom, one meeting with the ambitious Martin Skelton and you will understand why their sales are so healthy. Palo Cortado used to be made accidentally but as Skelton says “the mystery continues and wineries have all developed their own ways of making this style of sherry. Everyone presumes to have the best Palo Cortado as there is no real fixed definition for its production. And of course we have the best one with Leonor.”

Mystery sells. And it works for Palo Cortado. It will not make you rich but may make you famous.  The time of sherries is coming as Robert Parker has just discovered its treasures and awarded three sherries 100 points for the first time in September this year. One of these was a Palo Cortado from Barbadillo Reliquia while Equipo Navazos La Bota de Palo Cortado n. 41 was given an amazing 98 points. Sherry rocks!

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1 Comment

Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Spain

 

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One response to “The Myth Behind Palo Cortado

  1. Martin

    November 3, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    A good read Dani while I’m tucking into some mature Payayo cheese with a glass of old Apostoles. Great to hear about yet another new sherry bar in London just opened called Drakes Tabanco. Hope to catch up with you soon. Martin

     

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