Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sherry: Santiago Palo Cortado

Wine is easy.  Sherry is difficult.

I want to be very upfront about this article and make the disclaimer right now: There is a geek alert in effect.  Continuing with the article means you may be a developing wine geek.  Understanding my explanation of sherry may require you to be one.

Just the mention of sherry sends me online or into reference books to be sure I’m not making any mistakes.  And even with the help, I’m still not sure I’m right.  Wine - in general - is easy.  Sherry is difficult.

To muddy the water - uh, the sherry - even further, this bottle is not even a regular, garden-variety sherry.  As if there is such a thing.  Palo Cortado is a rather rare type of sherry, only occurring naturally one to two percent of the time in sherry production.  As the sherry is aging in the barrel and under the flor - a film of yeast -  it is on its way to becoming a fino, or maybe an amontillado sherry.  The flor layer protects the wine from oxygen while it turns all the little sugars into alcohols.

Sometimes, though - that aforementioned one to two percent of the time - the flor disappears and leaves the wine exposed to oxygen.  Now it starts aging oxidatively, like the type of sherry known as oloroso.  This wine will be rich - like oloroso - and crisp - like amontillado.  The wine is officially an accident, but Palo Cortado can be manipulated by blending amontillado and oloroso.  That, however, is cheating.

The grapes for Santiago Palo Cortado come from Andalusia, in the southern part of Spain, near the town of Jerez.  It’s a place called the Sherry Triangle, where the bulk of Spain’s great sherry production occurs.  They are Palomino Fino grapes, 100%.  The wine is aged a minimum of twelve years in what is known as the Solera system.  Rather than try and blunder through a description of that myself, I’ll let the website Sherry Notes do that, without so much blundering.

"Barrels in a solera are arranged in different groups or tiers, called criaderas, or nurseries.  Each scale contains wine of the same age.  The oldest scale, confusingly called solera as well, holds the wine ready to be bottled.  When a fraction of the wine is extracted from the solera (this process is called the saca), it will be replaced with the same amount of wine from the first criadera, i.e. the one that is slightly younger and typically less complex.  This, in turn, will be filled up with wine from the second criadera, and so on.  The last criadera, which holds the youngest wine, is topped up with a new wine named sobretabla.  Taking away part of the wine and replacing it with the contents of other scales, is called rociar or 'to wash down.'"  

It goes on from there, but my head is spinning simply from copying and pasting that paragraph.

The finished sherry hits an alcohol level of 20.5% abv and retails for about $23.  A sample was provided to me by The Artisan Collection.

The wine looks great - the amber color of bourbon or a Newcastle Brown.  That deep color makes for high expectations in other areas, and those expectations are met.  There is a fair amount of alcohol on the nose, but wafting in and out - like the sound of a distant marching band on a windy day - are luscious fragrances of brown sugar, burnt caramel and dried raisins.  Now, high expectations are set for the palate.

If this is your first experience with Palo Cortado, the aromas may lead you to expect a very sweet drink, which is not the case.   The sherry is far less viscous than might be expected and quite dry, with none of the flavors having anything to do with the sweet aromas coming from the glass.  It drinks more like a spirit than a wine, with a strong nutty flavor and just an idea of raisins and caramel behind it.

The big story, though, is the acidity.  It zips across the tongue in racy fashion and really makes itself know in the throat, on the way down.  I have always heard sherry referred to as a sipping wine, or a cooking wine.  This one is a pairing wine.  The notes of chestnut and hazelnut are great with pork or even some herb goat cheese on a wheat cracker.  The acidity helps it mate with just about anything you could throw at it.  I'd have it with a steak, no problem.  A big, old-Vegas kind of steak.

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