Palo Cortado Sherry: An Accidental but Glorious Wine
by Ken Gargett
This time, a rather touchy subject. For me, wine is wine, in all its glorious forms, but I am coming to understand that it is not so straightforward for everyone.
Take sherry. A wonderful and incredibly versatile style of fortified from southwest Spain, which rides the waves from parched bone-dry to extraordinarily luscious and sweet. And everything in between. Yet many see it as not real wine at all but some form of outmoded curio that represents the last vestiges of the dying ashes of a once great empire (British, not Spanish, or perhaps both).
Others just don’t like it and don’t think it should be included under the umbrella of fine wine. Which is utter rot, of course. I thoroughly enjoying those times when I can bring a bottle of Jerez’s finest to lunch with wine friends. You can be certain that some will react in horror, as though they have just found half a maggot in their apple. Others eyes light up. It is a divisive wine.
If you think all that is strange (of course, you may not – you may agree with those whom we will term sherry deniers), I have spent the week doing two things, or so it seems – fighting off my first bout of Covid (even less fun than advertised) just in time for a five-day wedding (honestly, the wedding went longer than some marriages), and arguing with a few friends as to whether Champagne can be considered wine.
Yes, I am serious. Regular readers will be all too aware of my great affection for champagne (and also sherry), but some just don’t get it. Fair enough and their loss. But whatever one thinks, it is inarguable that both sherry and champagne are wines.
Back to sherry. As we have discussed before, there are many styles, but there is one which is perhaps the most perplexing and confusing of all – Palo Cortado. An accidental wine if ever there was one, but a glorious one.
If we turn to the definitive guide to sherry, “Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla”, by Peter Liem and Jesus Barquin (both authors have appeared in Q&P before – Liem as one of the world’s leading champagne experts and Barquin as part founder and owner of the brilliantly innovative sherry house, Equipo Navazos), they refer to Palo Cortado “as the most ambiguous of all the sherry styles”, further noting that “the reverence with which it is regarded is undoubtedly fuelled by its air of mystery and legend”.
They further point out that many see it as “a relic of the past”, but note the contrast as, while it might hardly be the most common style of sherry, it is certainly available today. That said, the estimates suggest that around 100,000 bottles of palo cortado are sold each year around the globe, in comparison to 60 million bottles of sherry. One suspects that with the growing interest in the style, production will increase.
There is also debate as to whether or not the palo cortado of today is indeed the same wine as enjoyed over history, noting it was more common in pre-phylloxera times. This is interesting but hardly relevant to today’s drinkers, unless you have a time machine or an extraordinary cellar.
So, just what is Palo Cortado? As the duo say, some consider it as a form of Oloroso while others see it as something completely different. Sherry is ruled by the Consejo Regulador, which determines that Palo Cortado must be a wine combining the delicacy and aromatic refinement of an Amontillado but with the structure and body of an Oloroso.
All well and good but really, that does leave it up in the air as there are no specifics as to the method of production. One man’s delicacy and aromatic refinement may have little to do with the perceptions of another.
The best way to look at this is, as Liem and Barquin detail, that Palo Cortado “occurs”, rather than is deliberately made. The wine begins under flor, as is traditional for sherry, but then “deviates” in some way which renders it unsuitable for fino. They put this down to issues with the flor, the actions of the yeasts, possibly an excessively warm vintage or the characteristics of the individual cask in which the wine is fermenting or maturing.
If that wine was considered to have “an unusually full body but retained a notably clean finesse on the nose”, it would be removed from the solera. It is now that the wine gets its name. That barrel will already have a steep diagonal line marked in chalk on it, determining it to be a biologically-aged wine. That line is known as the palo or stick. It will then have another horizontal line drawn across it. That horizontal line is known as the cortado or cut.
At this stage, the wine is refortified to around 17.5 degrees of alcohol. This kills the flor and permits the wine to continue aging oxidatively. That barrel will then join a solera of similar wines. If the wine continues to have issues, it may receive a second or even a third or fourth dose of spirits to ensure it behaves. They then become dos cortados, tres cortados or cuatro cortados. Others say that these terms apply simply to sherries that have increased age and refinement. It is clear that the category would benefit from some stricter definitions, at the very least.
These days, there is far less variation during the winemaking process, which could lead to a severe diminution of the quantity of palo cortado available, or even in its ultimate extinction. So obviously houses are doing more than simply allowing it to “occur”. The duo see it as likely/possible that “authentic Palo Cortado could still be deliberately produced by using a selection of particularly fine and delicate musts, aging them under flor for a short period of time and then fortifying them to 17.5 or 18 degrees of alcohol in order to initiate oxidative aging, whereupon they would develop into wines of elegant complexity and finesse.”
Liem and Barquin note other methods of making Palo Cortado which may be indulged in by less scrupulous houses. Blending Amontillado and Oloroso is an obvious option (“sounds suspiciously like cheating”). They see these wines as likely to be “disjointed and unharmonious”. There are also examples of very old Amontillados being sold as Palo Cortado, as the extended oxidative aging reveals a wine somewhere between Amontillado and Oloroso. These are, of course, not true Palo Cortados.
It should be noted that in very rare cases, an old barrel of Oloroso may take on more elegance and revert to the Palo Cortado style – a sort of reverse of the normal course of events.
So what should a Palo Cortado taste like (which is really the most important question)? First up, it will be dry. Liem and Barquin differentiate Palo Cortado from Amontillado in that “it has a more ample body – a gordura or richness, that is present in Olorosos but not in Amontillados”. They then differentiate Palo Cortado from Oloroso by “being more sleekly delineated, and more refined and delicate in tone and texture”. They do note that like Amontillado, Palo Cortado benefits from both oxidative and biological aging, but Palo Cortado spends less time under flor than an Amontillado.
Hopefully, this provides some insight into what Palo Cortado is, although, given the lack of strict regulations, it can be pretty much anything. Perhaps describing it as an elegant and more delicate version of Oloroso is as close as we’ll come.
Scott Wasley, who runs the Spanish Acquisition in Australia, and is an expert on all things vinous and Spanish, describes Palo Cortado rather elegantly – “Finos which didn’t stay true to style and take on elements of Oloroso-rich fragrance”.
The characters one can expect can be like the orange zest, tobacco and leather of Amontillado or the dried fruits, nuts, red fruits of Oloroso, but there is typically a “subtle lactic note” and a “rounded, smooth texture”, caused by the glycerol.
To enjoy a top Palo Cortado, serving it around 12°C to 15°C in a white wine glass is the way to go. It is certainly a wine which can be sipped and contemplated on its own, but goes brilliantly with a range of foods – nuts, cured meats, foie gras, blue cheeses (personally, I find it hard to think of a cheese it would not match) and could even be served with richer meat dishes or game. Gelatinous meats like beef cheeks are recommended. Lustau suggest matching their 30-Year-Old with red tuna.
As mentioned, most sherry houses offer a Palo Cortado. Sometimes more than one. We have looked at various offerings from the wonderful Equipo Navazos on a number of occasions and it was actually one of their PCs that inspired me to take a deeper look at the category.
Over the years, they have released a range – 41, 47, 48, 51, 52, 72 and 75 to name more than a few. They number their releases, hence this system. Sadly, their releases are rarely more than a barrel or two, so unless you already have any of these in your cellar, your chances of locating them are slim.
I looked at three superb examples of Palo Cortado for this article and would happily drink any of them any time (not least as an accompaniment to writing this very piece). I scored them all 96 to 98, so it really comes down to personal preference. I’d recommend them all.
Cayetano del Pino 20-Year-Old Palo Cortado Solera (A$75) – Being sherry, naturally things get even more complicated. We have looked at Almacenistas previously in various articles here. This Almacenista has supplied both Romate and Lustau, which are our other two examples. Once, they were a very large concern, supplying the King Alfonso XIII, but time and the ups and downs of the sherry market reduced their influence. However, they are well known for cracking Palo Cortado.
Today, Romate is the key to their commercial supply to the market, though they are again supplying Lustau. The solera for this wine, 133 butts, is apparently inverted, with the oldest barrels near the roof, where it is warmer, while the younger barrels are at the base, with more humidity.
The color is pale bronze, with the merest hint of green on the rim, signifying the age of the material. This is fragrant, complex and clearly exhibiting that very old material in the most positive way. Notes of old teak, tobacco leaf and orange rind, this is finely balanced, layered, focused and harmonious with a fine line of acidity. Beautifully refined. There is a character that is reminiscent of what one gets from umami. Supple texture with notes of honeycomb and hazelnuts emerging on the palate. Great length and a clean, dry finish. Love it.
Romate Regente Palo Cortado (A$45) – The Sanchez Romate house is sometimes better known for their brandies, but they produce an amazing array of superb sherries.
This is a deep bronze/gold. Immediately, an alluring appeal. Richness here and that glycerol/umami character which is so more-ish, especially when linked to the fine line of salinity running the length. Cashmere texture. Refinement here, right through to the dry finish. Notes of glacéd orange rind, honey, beeswax and walnuts. There is balance with the intensity, finesse and complexity. A glorious texture – slippery, balanced, intense and dancing. Seriously long, this just persists forever. Stunning stuff.
Lustau VORS 30-Year-Old Palo Cortado (A$165/500mls) – We have looked at Lustau in detail previously and for the record, VROS means Very Old Rare Sherry which must be thirty years of age at a minimum.
This wonderful old Palo Cortado comes from a small solera of just seven casks. A rich coppery bronze hue. This has the glorious nose of an aged fortified. Approachable but balanced, harmonious, lingering and very complex. Notes of orange rinds, walnuts, teak, the very finest dark chocolate, and a whiff of woodsmoke. Intense, slippery and sleek, this has such amazing length. Maintains the intensity throughout. A glorious wine which should be on everyone’s bucket list.