Sometimes a wine comes along that makes you re-think a neglected old favourite. That’s the case with Cayetano del Pino Palo Cortado Solera. It has been the subject of rave reviews on The Wine Society website but was I going to fork out even £15.50 for the least definable of sherry styles? Yet I have been paying the like for those new season ‘fresh’ finos tagged as En Rama (‘from the branch’).
As it turned out the Cayetano del Pino is among the wine world’s great bargains. Its creators, Bodegas Sánchez Romate – one of the few family-owned operators left in Jerez – are virtually giving away a fortified wine of this quality. Around 15 years old, pale bronze in colour, nutty, dry with a finish as long as the journey south from Madrid.
Aficionados are always complaining/gloating that the fortified wines of Jerez are undervalued. Image problem, you know? And of all sherry image problems, Palo Cortado’s is the thorniest. So Is it a heavier Amontillado? Or a lighter Oloroso? Neither. Though some cheap end Palo Cortados may be blends of both.
“It is the most ambiguous of all the sherry styles and the reverence with which it is regarded is undoubtedly fuelled by its air of mystery and legend…” write the authors of Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla.
Without going into technicalities, Palo Cortado has been the black sheep of the sherry-making process since the 19th century. This process is based on the unique solera system of maturation across a large number of casks and fractional blending over many years.
A key to a young sherry’s development towards Amontillado status is the protective layer of ‘flor’ or yeasty bloom that settles on the surface of the base fino. Serendipitously it fails to persist in certain cask batches, the subsequent oxygen contact encouraging more intense flavour and alcohol. Each cask is then re-fortified to over 17 per cent and shifted to a Palo Cortado solera to age oxidatively.
Once a matter of chance but with modern techniques it’s down to manipulation. Cortado fans can spend far more than 15 quid on what is a rarity, representing only one per cent of all sherry made.
THE CUT STICK
The name means ‘cut stick,’ in reference to the mark made on the cask when this style of wine is recognised. Since the wine was originally destined to be a fino or amontillado, it will initially have had a single stroke marked on the cask. When the cellar master realises that the wine is becoming a palo cortado, he draws a cross (or cut) through the initial stroke (or stick), resulting in a crossed stroke or ‘cut stick’.
A fond memory from visiting Jerez was tasting in the cellars of Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla in the company of its avuncular owner, the Norwegian Jan Pettersen. I particularly love their Pedro Ximenez but the Antique Palo Cortado is equally distinctive. Boutinot Wines of Cheadle import the range and at each annual Manchester tasting I’d renew acquaintance of this honeyed, saline, finessed example.
For the moment, though, the Cayetano del Pino has stolen my heart. And not mine alone. One of my favourite wine writers, Rose Murray Brown reviewed it thus: “Lovely combo of vibrant freshness and rich texture. Our tasters loved the enticing toffee honeyed aromas and rich nutty complexity (and the pretty label). Bone dry, but not as searingly dry as some we tasted. Sleek elegant and attractive on the palate.”
What is the best food match for it, though? It would be easy, as with Amontillado or Oloroso, to sip it with a bowl of nuts, but it does enhance certain partnerships.
The obvious one is cheese, particularly hard cheese. My compadre and Spanish food guru Gerry Dawes, from New York, opined: ”I stopped using red table wines, really good ones, with cheese quite some time ago. Cheese completely changes the make-up of the red wine, and you lose the nuances. Sherry has enough elements that it stands out in relief.”
Triple cream cheeses might work, but i’m not sure; aged Alpine cheeses are definitely a perfect fit.
I’m lucky enough to have within 10 minutes’ walk, the Calder Cheesehouse, which has a delectable range of unpasteurised Beaufort, Comte, Gruyere and, more under the radar, Schlossberger and Princess Alisia-Victoria, both from Switzerland. In France’s Jura region, which we visited pre-Pandemic, the recognised accompaniment for Comte is the local, oxidised Vin Jaune, that has affinities with Palo Cortado.
In Southern Spain itself it matches well with Iberico lomo or salchichon; at home in Todmorden we tried it successfully with a mixed charcuterie platter (air dried ham, lomo, culatello and coppa) from local producers Porcus. The sherry and cured fat make good buddies. Grilled fish seems to work with Palo Cortado, sardines and anchovies, too, but I’m not convinced about smoked salmon.