Unveiling the mystery: Gonzalez Byass and its Palo Cortados 

A really impressive tasting this one: the chance to taste Gonzalez Byass’ vintage palo cortados, including not just the current release but past and future releases too, and with Antonio Flores himself on hand to lead the tasting. The event was organized by the Unión Española de Catadores and due to the large number of attendees hosted by Gonzalez Byass themselves in their (pretty flash) Madrid headquarters.

Given the quality of the wines and the surroundings though I was surprised by a couple of aspects of the organization. First, the wines were served in very nice Riedel glasses but, as you can see above, glasses with not much more diameter than a traditional catavinos, whereas for wines of this age, concentration and complexity I would have killed for a bigger glass. Second, the wines had all been served before we arrived – hard to say how long before but it seemed a goodish while – and as a result the wines were at a warmish room temperature when they would probably have shown better a few degrees cooler.

Anyway, we soon got underway and you have to say Antonio Flores is a showman. He had us all imagining we were transported to Jerez for the evening (not hard to do given the sunshine outside and the aromas filling the room) before launching into an account of the history and origins of palo cortados, with equal measures of charisma, shtick, photographic and documentary evidence, graphs representing chemical changes in the wine over time and anecdotes that you would call both historic and historical. For me it was particularly interesting to hear Antonio reference with approval the views of the Sobrinos de Haurie, and in particular Ramiro Ibañez, acknowledging the relevance of the original añada wines, the importance of terroir and the quality of the mosto and even the role and importance of Sanlucar in the development of the solera process. However, Antonio is clearly a believer in the “mystery” that the title of the tasting referred to and kept returning to the mysterious, accidental or incidental origins, in particular involving cunning old capataces, and concluding that palo cortado was wine with not only a soul but actual fairies in it. (Fair enough: the man is described as the “Poet of Jerez” after all.)

While all this was still being explained I got stuck into the wines and a fascinating flight it was too. Gonzalez Byass reserve 200 botas each year (out of 26,000 produced) of first press wines using a specific kind of press whose name now escapes me. The botas are american oak and have 100l of air to allow the wines to develop, and when ready/in the best years, they release 987 bottles. Once those 987 bottles are consumed they move on to the next vintage. (And this really did strike me as a mystery, since 200 botas can produce quite a bit more than 987 bottles – either I am getting something wrong here or a lot of wine is being kept for some ulterior purpose.)

The first wine up was Leonor, not a vintage wine but Gonzalez Byass’ 12 year old palo cortado. A first press, fermented in stainless steel, fortified and aged in a solera. The resulting wine is 20% proof has 6g/l of residual sugar and a nice 4.2g/l of acidity. The sugar is there in the honey and nut aromas and although the sugar isn’t as evident on the palate it is a juicy caramel with a bit of spice and bite. Very decent indeed.

The first of the vintage wines was the Añada 1994, which the excellent ficha told us came from an extremely dry year with only 35 days of rain (347mm) and an average temperature of 19.7C. It was a punchy 21.5% proof, had 5.2g/l of residual sugar, 7.1g/l tartaric acid and 1g/l acetic acid and was absolutely top drawer. It had a fine, brandy-like nose of roasted nuts and spices, and a searing palate which after a first, acidic attack delivered a big, long mouthful of nuts and spices, even dried fruits like figs. I was surprised to hear Antonio say that he thought the wine lacked something on the palate – I found it had plenty of character.

Next up was Añada 1989 – wet year, with 76 days of rain (694 mm), warm with an average temperature of 20.1C. 21% vol, 7.0g/l tartaric acid, 0.82g/l acetic acid, 5g/l sugar. Really distinct to the first wine – on the nose a lot more haybale and even sawdust, then on the palate rather than nuts and spices I got burnt caramel and woody flavours. A fine, dry wine with a lot of concentration but, for my money, slightly less juice that the 1994. I was intrigued by the comparison and the information on the growing season – would the wet year have meant less concentrated fruit, or would the higher temperature compensate for that? Does all this concentration concentrate the nuances of the original wines? My impression, for what it is worth, was that in this wine the barrel maybe had taken over from the original wine – would have been interesting to try it five years ago.

Next was the current release, the Añada 1987 – 21.9%, 8.04g/l tartaric acid, 0.97g/l acetic acid, and 11g/l glycerin (only mentioned in this ficha). It was clear why the glycerin was pointed out – it was really evident in a wine that despite being older and even more acidic seemed fuller and with a sensation of sweetness. Had a really powerful, eye watering acidic attack up front and a full palate of very roasted nuts and spices like a blackened Christmas cake or the baked crust of something. Again lasted a long, long time and held its profile while it lasted – I begun to see what Antonio meant about the palate of the 1994 not being as substantial, although I am not sure all wines need to be this immense. (Unfortunately no information on the growing season for this wine.)

Next was the Añada 1978 – nearly forty years in the making (although now I think of it I am not sure when these wines were bottled) and 21.2%, 7.5g/l tartaric acid, 1.5g/l acetic acid and fully 8.3g/l sugar. On the nose it was that bit richer and heavier, reminiscent of church furniture polish, and on the palate too it was astringent and sharp, with black treacle sweet to bitterness and a bitter to bitter finish with notes of coffee and tobacco coming through. Impressive stuff and one to savour for a long time, but compared to the previous wines it struck me that it had gone a bit over the top in terms of drinkability.

The final vintage wine was the Añada 1967 – a dry year with only 475mm precipitation and a wine with 22% abv, 8.7g/l tartaric acid, 2g/l acetic acid, and 9g/l sugar (interesting that the sugar levels were so much higher in those older wines). Again the nose seemed foreboding, with woody, polish and bitter treacle aromas to the fore, and on the palate it was all concentration, bitter and astringent like burnt caramel and old furniture, with aniseed, coffee and tobacco flavours coming through on the finish. Not a wine to be approached lightly though.

And we finished up with a glass of Apóstoles (87% palomino and 13% pedro ximenez, 20%, 6.2g/l tartaric acid, 0.8g/l acetic acid, 50g/l sugar). Here we have palomino fortified to 18% and the pedro ximenez to 15.5% and placed in separate soleras for 12 years, before being blended and aged together in a single solera for a further 18 years. No longer labelled a palo cortado it is nevertheless a classic and was interesting to try after the añada wines. The sweetness balances it up – sweet tomato aromas on the nose and figs or dates on the palate – and it is certainly more accessible than the older vintage wines, but as often happens it feels a little more bolted together than the monovarietals.

Unfortunately I had to hurry off and was unable to ask any of the questions that were piling up in my tiny mind. What are they doing with all these reserved botas? Why don’t they release a few more añadas? Is all the concentration really necessary? Wouldn’t it be better to bottle and release the same wines at different stages so the variation in vintage might be more apparent? Interesting as the wines had been, all that power and concentration made them hard to really enjoy for me, and it all struck me as a shame that this huge reserve of high quality single vintage wines was only producing very small quantities of extreme wines that are so very difficult to obtain.

Antonio signed off by encouraging us to take our favourite wine and dip our handkerchief in it so that we could enjoy the aromas in the days ahead. I didn’t take him up on it (Mrs Undertheflor has strong enough views on the subject of wine tastings without me coming home whiffing of bodega), but even without the aural cue I came away with memories of some exceptional and very interesting wines.

As for the mystery, I didn’t notice the presence of the soul or fairies in the wines, and unless I missed something I understood they were first press oxidated wines – palo cortados that might once have been called olorosos – rather than the product of any cellaring error or intervention divine or otherwise. The only mystery, if you ask me, is why they are so old, so few, and so hard to get.

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