Palo Cortado, a legendary wine with an elegant and mysterious rebellious streak

…That sense of passing time
and the ability to see it pass with great speed
and the feeling of looking at something so pure…
Josep “Pitu” Roca, Celler de Can Roca sommelier
(Documentary “Sherry & the Palo Cortado mystery”)

…A roller coaster of sensations…
“Dabiz” Muñoz, Chef at the DiverXo Restaurant
(Documentary “Sherry & the Palo Cortado mystery”)

Velo flor

Palo Cortado, two words that mean nothing to some people and everything to others. The name is taken from a simple symbol drawn in chalk on a barrel, but this barrel contains a complexity and finesse that has given rise to the mystery, the legend. They are somewhere between amontillado and oloroso wines, but filled with nuances.

Do you know what makes a wine a Palo Cortado?

You know that here at Decántalo, we are passionate about wine and, for everyone with an interest in the subject, the Marco de Jerez is like of one of the best theme parks in the world. It involves joy, fun, excitement, mystery, adrenaline overflows, you cry, scream, laugh and then finally come back down to earth and then you just look forward to doing the whole thing again.

And in this vast and amazing theme park, Palo Cortado would be the best “roller coaster of feelings”, as David Muñoz, Chef at DiverXo says, in the documentary “Sherry & the Palo Cortado mystery”.

But how about we get our bearings first?

The area that makes up Marco de Jerez is found in Cádiz, in southern Spain, with a prime geographical location, and the Guadalquivir and Guadalete rivers as natural borders, as well as the Doñana Marshes, a wet lowland ecosystem.

Although in the summer temperatures can be very high, the nearby Atlantic Ocean brings winds from the sea to cool the atmosphere around the large vineyards with open and gently undulating horizons. These vineyards are covered with a peculiar soil made up of white earth that is rich in calcium carbonate and silica, and known as ‘albariza’, which shines with a dazzling whiteness.

This location reflects the purest character of southern Andalusia, with days of sun and sea and landscapes of gentle white hills, all of which contributes to the creation of magic. The mystery is only reinforced in the winery.

To make Sherry wines, the Palomino variety is used. This variety can be used to create five different styles of fortified wine: Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso and Palo Cortado, and it starts with the usual procedure used in white wine making.

We could say that Sherry wines have free will, they decide what they want to be, we just need to listen to them, and it is the maker’s job to work out what that is. It is a poetic way to taste and classify the base wines to decide which show promise for becoming Finos and Manzanillas, with a lighter and more pungent character; or those that show they could be an Oloroso, with more structure and body and the only ones that will not go through aging under flor. These will fortify and pass straight to oxidative aging in barrels, the same as with red wines.

The wines that will become Finos and Manzanillas are fortified with wine brandy up to 15º so that they begin what is known as biological aging, a procedure that distinguishes Sherry from other wines that are produced around the world and that essentially defines what is different about fortified wines.

What does biological aging mean?

In the Marco de Jerez, wines are aged in oak barrels using the criaderas and soleras system, where barrels are not completely filled and where a thin layer of white yeasts forms spontaneously on the liquid, which is known as a yeast cap, or “flower veil” and which stops the wine from oxidising by sealing out the air, consuming its alcohol, providing nutrients and providing it with organoleptic attributes that are not found in other wines, which makes them unique.

Finos and Manzanillas age for a minimum of 24 months, the definitive time that shapes the characteristics that will turn these fortified wines into one of the types of Sherry wines we have outlined. In this second variety, there are wines that will be bottled, others that will continue their biological aging and others that will be chosen to make Amontillados, that is, they will go from being aged under a flower veil, to being fortified again with alcohol until they reach 17º to continue aging in barrels, this time using oxidative aging, similar to how normal red wines are made.

Meanwhile in the winery, managers, oenologists and winemakers continue to listen to what the wine is telling them so they can work out what it wants to be.

From these tastings and after many years of patience and aging time, extraordinary Amontillados, young or aged, can appear, from test to test, from solera to solera, something happens…

So is Palo Cortado born or made?

Each of the barrels containing Sherry wine has a chalk mark to help identify the type of wine that is being aged within. For example, those containing a Fino wine have a chalk mark in a vertical line, or stick.

When managers, oenologists or winemakers came across a barrel containing the beginnings of a wine that showed special characteristics that did not correspond to any defined style of Sherry wine, they used the same chalk line or stick to mark it and differentiate it from the others, as with the Fino, but crossed with a horizontal line: a crossed stick, or “palo cortado”. From this simple symbol the name of one of the most complex, elegant and unique wines in the world was born.

Vino palo cortado

There are winery managers who claim that in Jerez, it never occurs to anyone to say: “I am going to make Palo Cortado” because it comes from the favourable development of wines and cannot be made, it has to just happen.

However, those who are part of the technical team in the winery do not agree with this romantic idea because they say that there has to be some explanation for these wines, which existed for years under another classification but that suddenly show qualities of complexity and finesse that means they do not fit into that category any more, and they become what is known as a Palo Cortado.

Today, without a doubt, extreme care is taken in the classification of soil quality and locations where the different plots are located, in the care and cultivation of the vines and in the selection of musts and base wines which, in short, increase the possibility of creating wines that age with exceptional quality and that at a certain moment, reveal the characteristics of a Palo Cortado.

It is worth mentioning that they are also found in the D.O. Montilla-Moriles, in the province of Córdoba, where they also make biologically-aged fortified wines but, unlike the wines from Jerez, they use the Pedro Ximénez variety instead of the Palomino grape.

So what is a Palo Cortado like?

Josep “Pitu” Roca, El Celler de Can Roca sommelier puts it like this:

“… Suddenly something happens in your mouth that doesn’t happen with other wines. It’s like when you light a match. There is a different feel, a ‘phosphorous effect’, that is reduced and intense, which has a very dry beginning but then suddenly lights up. That ability to surprise you with every sip. A sense of time passing and the ability to see it pass with great speed and the feeling of looking at something so pure…”

The Amontillado, a Sherry wine that, as you know, goes through biological and oxidative aging, has an amber colour and expresses a subtle and delicate aroma that is reminiscent of hazelnuts. Some are paler and have sharper notes if they have spent more time aging under a flower veil. Others have dominant spicy and woody notes that come from their oxidative aging.

Oloroso, a Sherry wine that has only been aged in barrels, without a flower veil, will get darker in colour as it ages. It offers warm, complex and powerful aromas, hence its name. And these aromas bring to mind nuts accompanied by toasted, herbaceous and balsamic notes that hint at noble wood and blonde tobacco.

The Palo Cortado “is a wine of great complexity that combines the aromatic delicacy of the Amontillado and the strength of the Oloroso palate”, according to the definition of the Regulatory Council of the Jerez-Xérès-SherryManzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Vinagre de Jerez denominations of origin. That means it has the best of both worlds. Some people describe it as an extremely elegant, complex and fine Amontillado.

The Palo Cortado also offers the aroma of nail polish accompanied by nuances of sweet spices and citrus notes of bitter orange, and dairy notes of fermented butter. On the palate it is round, deep and voluminous but soft and delicate at the same time, and it leaves behind a pleasant feel.

It is the perfect wine to enjoy on its own, in peace, and at a temperature between 12º and 14º. It sits perfectly alongside hard cheeses, dried fruits and also consommés and stews or meats with a jelly-like consistency, such as oxtail.

It is so international that it goes extremely well with Asian dishes because it enhances the presence of spices on the palate. A small sip is enough to create a sensation explosion in the mouth and a wonderful moment of joy.

So what is the mystery behind the mystery?

As Edward E. Cummings said:

Here is the deepest secret nobody knows
here is the root of the root
and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life
which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide,
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart”

Perhaps the mystery is that this is a wine that is elegantly rebellious, the one that best exemplifies the complexity of Sherry wines, with an imprecise, unclassifiable character that is hard to describable or imitate.

Talking about Palo Cortado is like entering a kind of Bermuda Triangle where there is no explanation: some claim, others believe they have heard, others say it is one thing when actually it is something else…and then there are those who do not fit into any of those categories.

In short, they have us all confused. So we hope that this information will help you draw a map so that you can find a definition beyond the many theories that best fits your feelings and experiences, because after all, that is what matters most.

We suggest you start by trying “the root of the root”: a Fino or a Manzanilla, so that when you make the jump to a Palo Cortado, you know where it has come from.  The answer is sure to be in the glass.


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