A quite outstanding masterclass, by the Master himself, appropriately enough in Taberna Palo Cortado. Many of the points were not new, but it was an excellent presentation bringing some much needed factual clarity to an area too often given to folklore while at the same time deftly comparing the industrial present to a past that was more respectful of the vines and the wines. My own retelling is going to be painfully inadequate by comparison, but I feel compelled to try.
History, not mystery
I particularly like the asymmetry in the title: “History” contrasting with the “Mystery” you get told about in 9 out of 10 tastings of palo cortados. With Ramiro the story usually begins back in the mists of time with the formation of the continents – or at least the Iberian peninsular – but here we pick up the story a mere 250 years ago at the back end of the 18th Century.
Until then the guilds in Jerez had prohibited the ageing of wines in el marco and the wines produced were young wines differentiated by style. The wines were not monovarietal: although palomino fino was largely dominant in Sanlucar, in Jerez less than fifty percent of vines were palomino, and many of them later ripening varieties that gave heavier wines. In practice, the growers would ferment the wine in botas fed with all the varieties in their vineyards, harvesting in several passes to account for the differing maturities of the distinct varieties, but the varieties were not kept separate. The wines produced in this way were then classified according to their characteristics – palma for the finest wines, and palo and raya for the heavier wines.
Ageing and classification
As the Century drew to a close the great Juan Haurie brought and won a historic lawsuit against the prohibition of storage and ageing, making possible the development of all manner of cellaring. Bodegas that previously had classified young wines by style also started selling wines that were a year, two years and three or more years old using classifications, adapted to reflect how the wines had developed in bota with “cortados” (palma cortado and palo cortado). (Confusingly, at first there were in fact different classifications corresponding to different stages of the wines: raya, raya/dot and two rayas at fermentation and then as the wine developed palma and cortado (for the finest wines, destined for biological ageing) and raya.)
Plurivarietal, vintage specific, and unfortified
But the wines of Jerez would have been fundamentally different to those we know today. First, they were vintage specific “añada” wines. Second, there was no fortification. Third, the wines were not monovarietal.
We were treated to three examples of wines from this “pre-industrial” age: a Palma from palomino fino on Miraflores Alta, and a Raya, also from palomino fino on Miraflores Baja, that had been harvested later, and a plurivarietal wine, the Encrucijado 2014, 40% uva rey, 40% perruno and 20% palomino fino. There was a notable difference in weight, girth and punch between the palma and the raya – an excellent illustration – and a massive difference between the palomino finos and the other varieties. And the Encrucijado was excellent on the night, with its overripe melon start, delicate structure, sharpness and zip.
The plurivarietal vineyards met their end thanks to the gradual adoption of palomino fino in Jerez and, in particular, tiny little sap suckers: the phylloxera crisis laid waste to the many indigenous varieties of the region. As a result, vineyards that had previously been plurivarietal or of varieties other than palomino were not replaced, and one of the key variations between the wines was lost.
However, wines continued to be statically aged as “añadas” in many cases, and even those wines that were used to refresh soleras were generally only introduced to the solera after three or four (or in some cases even six) years of static ageing. As a result, only a limited percentage of such wines went on to be finos, since nothing but the finest, first press mosto would survive four years of static ageing under flor (finos that incidentally being used to refresh the soleras of the most highly valued wines of them all, the amontillados).
Monovarietal, but still vintage specific
We were once again treated to wines that would have corresponded to those of this early-industrial age (end of the 19th to early 20th Century), specifically the Oloroso la Barajuela 2013 and the Williams & Humbert Oloroso de Añada 2001.
The Oloroso la Barajuela was fantastic. Probably my favourite wine of the night, it had bright acidity and potent fruit with just a hint of nuts and caramel. The Williams & Humbert also had a bright acidity to it, fruity nuts like hazelnuts and a velvety texture (there was a mention of residual sugar), but a lot more concentration as you would expect – a revealing comparison in that respect.
But what was really interesting about these two wines became more obvious as we moved on to the “modern” palo cortados: the Williams & Humbert “Dos Cortados” and the Barbadillo “Obispo Gascon“.
Monovarietal, solera and fortified
These wines from the modern age of soleras are monovarietal palomino finos subjected to the bare minimum of static ageing: selected and fortified at the sobretablas stage after only a few months, rather than the several years of earlier times. This is one of the less well known but really important changes in the development of dynamic ageing over the years: whereas once wines were classified after several years of static ageing, they are now classified young.
They also offered examples of the two dominant styles of modern palo cortado. Palo Cortados are famously defined by the Consejo Regulador organoleptically – wines that are as fine as an amontillado in aroma and as structured as an oloroso on the palate. And since there is no definition stipulating how it should be made producers tend to play up the “mystery” of how they make it (is it made, or is it born, etc?)
But with all due respect to the hype, it is all a load of bunk. As figures as illustrious as Jesus Barquin, Alvaro Giron and others have already pointed out, in the modern winemaking of single varieties and temperature controlled inox mystery is in short supply. While the name may derive from wines that once truly were accidental, today’s palo cortados are made by simply producing a slightly lighter oloroso – either selecting a lighter mosto than used for the oloroso (if the house oloroso is made from the second press, the palo cortado would be primera yema), or by subjecting the mosto to a little biological ageing.
Of these methods, the Dos Cortados would be an example of the former, and the Obispo Gascon the latter. They both showed the solidity and power of solera bred wines: although the añada olorosos were potent and flavourful in their own way, they were noticeably finer and more elegant. The solera wines were impressive though, no doubt (and maybe the Obispo Gascon had a touch more salinity).
And there a great evening came to an end, but not before some delicious tapas and a cheeky glass of Encrucijado – in many ways the star of the evening and a delicious throwback to the time when these wines really were a mystery. I for one hope that it isn’t the last of its kind, and that the history of palo cortados has not yet been fully written.