They are these marvellous dry fortified wines produced in Jerez which are at last making a determined re-appearance in bars and restaurants.
In truth, until quite recently things looked grim. Finos and Manzanilla found on the supermarket shelves sell for around 6 euros; a ridiculous – even insulting – price for the quality they have, they have even become considered as “feria wines”, that is to say wines consumed in massive quantities at the spring festivals in Andalucía, sometimes mixed with lemonade to make those insufferable “rebujitos”.
The more complex wines: Amontillados, Olorosos, VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry) are considered as “wines for meditation” consumed in Spain by very few, mainly lovers of this kind of wine and experts of an advanced age. It is true that in the United States there is a modest but serious level of growth; and that in the historic destination of the United Kingdom, the “Sherry Bars” are helping maintain and even grow sales. But not much more.
Those halcyon days when one sat down in a restaurant and the waiter proposed an aperitif, and one asked for a Fino, have passed into history, swept aside by beer and some sort of white wine. Even in the bodegas themselves a pessimistic mood established itself and the more powerful of them moved into table wine like Osborne in Rioja and Toledo, González Byass in Rioja, Somontano, Toledo and Cádiz, Barbadillo in Somontano, Alvear in Extremadura…..
And yet suddenly, almost imperceptibly, not one but a few of these wines are appearing on the blackboards of bars in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia… In that distinguished group of Japanese restaurants, one is beginning to see these wines appear, and they are a brilliant match for Japanese food. Distribution companies which until recently did not list Sherry are now scrambling to get hold of some. At the same time, a curious movement has arisen. The Sherry Women consists of dozens of female sommeliers and specialists united in their love of these wines and their wish to spread the good news. In the Sherry zone itself, small producers are selecting butts and barrels here and there to make their own wines and sell them to specialist bars. At last the cycle is changing and it is young wine lovers who are leading this revolution. It is one we can give a name to: the Palo Cortado Revolution, perhaps because of the documentary film “The Mystery of Palo Cortado” or perhaps because of a Madrid bar of the same name which only serves Sherry and is always packed.
Palo Cortado is one of the great rarities among styles of Sherry, a wine which deviates from its destiny as a Fino and becomes something else, and it is certainly delicious.
It gets its name from the chalk mark the cellar masters apply to the butts destined for Fino, an angled stroke or “palo”. When, during their regular inspections, they see that the wine has changed direction, they add a horizontal mark, cutting the original, so the palo has been cortado.
What I most like is that it is also defending the wines which most represent the best winemaking traditions of this country. Alvear is the oldest bodega in Andalucía with documentary evidence of its foundation in 1729 in Montilla and has made its own brands of wine ever since. The British taste for wine – they virtually created Bordeaux – and their continuous confrontations with the French, led them to look elsewhere for supplies. At the end of the XVIII century, Cádiz was the most important port in the country and perfectly situated for trade with Britain. Not only that but there was wine, white wine, and not too strong despite the sunshine. British merchants like Ivison, Osborne and Terry, and the French Domecq along with some Spaniards like González set up in business. Transporting these wines to Britain by ship ran the risk of spoilage; but the simple solution was, like in Oporto, to add a little alcohol to prevent problems. We are talking about the end of the XVIII and beginning of the XIX centuries. After the independence of the American colonies, many Spaniards returned with their capital and invested it in establishing bodegas and the Sherry market.
The Cathedrals of Jerez
The “cathedrals” of Jerez were built, these huge bodegas, unique in the world, which every wine lover must see; with floors of gritty sand which are sprayed with water to keep the atmosphere fresh in summer. They built large oak barrels of 600 litre capacity called “butts” and even invented a special tasting glass, the “catavino”. In those days, Rioja was a mere piece of ground.
But best of all are the wines. After the harvest the base wines made from the Palomino grape are tasted and their future decided. The majority will be Finos – or Manzanillas if they are made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. They are fortified to 15 degrees with wine alcohol and put into butts which are left 5/6 full. There natural yeasts called “flor” cover the wine’s surface and it develops anaerobically. This is called “crianza biológica” or biological ageing. Wines which were not selected for Finos are fortified to 18 degrees and put into butts.
Here the Oloroso wines age, but without flor, they age in contact with oxygen: oxidative ageing. With the Finos, “accidents” can occur in the occasional butt where the surface flor dies off prematurely. These wines will be separated out and aged oxidatively, like the Olorosos. These accidents are the Amontillados and Palos Cortados. Then there is the Montilla grape Pedro Ximénez which when raisined gives unique sweet wines. A blend of Oloroso, Amontillado and PX gives the Cream Sherry which is very popular in export markets.
Aromas of yeast, saltiness, bread, dried fruits and nuts, and on the palate light and crisp, dry, and tremendously tasty with great length, these are the core characteristics of the fortified wines, wines which are at last making a comeback and are conquering a whole new generation of wine lovers. How wonderful!
This article was written by Enrique Carduchel, wine critic of the periodical Expansión in the Revista Vinos Restaurants, Spain.
21 July 2016