This most enigmatic style of Sherry is the choice of many connoisseurs for its complexity and comparative rarity. There is great debate as to whether it creates itself or is created (¿Nace o se hace? as they say in Spanish). There is another Spanish expression: “La tiza del Duende” which translates as “the chalk of the spirit (or muse)”, meaning effectively that Palo Cortado is decided by a divine hand. It was the subject of the excellent film “El Misterio del Palo Cortado” in 2014. According to the Consejo Regulador, it has the aroma of Amontillado yet resembles Oloroso on the palate but there are no specific regulations on its production. It is a bit of a rare breed. In Sanlúcar it is often known as “Jerez Cortado.”
The name of the wine stems from the chalk marking on the butt. Traditionally butts in the sobretablas which were destined to be Fino were marked with a “raya” or “palo” (/). They had flor, but occasionally the flor might die off or become too weak, probably due to the individual environment inside the butt. The wine would then develop a slightly fuller fatter style no longer suitable for Fino but definitely influenced by the flor, and the palo mark on the butt would be crossed (or cortado: ł) and the wine fortified to 17.5%. As the wine aged and oxidised it would get fuller still and possibly be fortified again so the fuller and or older it got the more cortados it would get, up to four. The full range is: Palo Cortado, Dos Cortados, Tres Cortados and Cuatro Cortados, the latter two being very rare.
Historians reckon that Palo Cortado was more common in the days before the aphid Phylloxera wiped out the vineyards from 1894, and many different old vine varieties were replaced by Palomino on American rootstocks, making musts less complex. Other reasons might be because of the small lagares where the grapes were trodden so the must from each lagar could have varying amounts of tannin and oxidation. The grapes were hand-picked so there was greater variation in their ripeness when they arrived at the almijar where they were ripened further from brief sunning. This reduced their malic acid content which was further reduced as the malo-lactic fermentation was allowed. Up till the start of the 1970s wines were still fermented in butt so there was inevitable variation from one to another if only because of the seasoning or even positioning of the butt. Now the equivalent of 100 butts is fermented in 50,000 litre temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks so that variation is now from tank to tank or 100 butts to 100 butts. The wines of today are much more homogeneous leaving less room for things to just happen.
Thanks to the popularity of Palo Cortado among connoisseurs bodegas need to have one in their range and modern oenological knowhow allows the wine to be produced without the hit and miss of the old days. Ageing delicate must intended for Fino under flor for a shorter time will bestow some Fino characteristics, and then fortifying to 17.5% will allow for the oxidation. The must will have spent probably not more than two years under flor (rather than say five for a Fino or Amontillado) and therefore while it retains some of those characteristics the oxidative part of its life is in a higher proportion, and less glycerol will have been consumed by the flor giving more roundness on the palate.
An alternative method is to blend good Fino with good Amontillado, fortify to at least 18% and in both cases age the wine through a Palo Cortado solera. The idea of blending Amontillado with Oloroso has, of course, been tried but the results are not great. While Palo Cortado is normally, and perhaps ideally, a dry wine there is the odd one sweetened with PX. Most Palos Cortados on the market have over 12 years’ average age, but good examples can be found from less than four years to over 100.
A mysterious Sherry, perhaps, but it is quite magnificent. A good mystery always helps promotion, so like the Loch Ness Monster, Palo Cortado should always retain its element of mystery.