From €3.04, $8.49, £9.75, 165 Rand, Ca$17.95, and so on
If I put 'palo cortado' in the search box of our nearly 90,000-strong database of tasting notes and order the 54 reviews by date tasted, all of the scores of all of the wines tasted in the last six months are at least 17 out of 20, with two 19s for the Palo Cortados nos 34 and 41 from the impeccable sherry selector and bottler Equipo Navazos. The great thing is that, unlike other sherry styles, there is no single heavily branded, extremely commercial example of this style. And many of these wines are very reasonably priced.
My sensational recent tasting of Legendary fortified wines put me in a sherry mood, only encouraged by experiencing a distinct tumble in temperatures here in the UK. Of course, the lightest and driest sherries, finos and manzanillas, are deliciously refreshing and appetising in any weather, but the darker, fuller variants on the theme really come into their own in autumn and spring. A palo cortado is a wine that begins life as a fino and spends many a year protected from oxygen by a thin layer of the special sherry surface-yeast flor, but finishes its life ageing oxidatively, concentrating its flavour and alcohol, typically resulting in a wine between 19 and 20%.
As Peter Liem and Jesús Barquín write in their excellent book Sherry, Manzanilla and Montilla, there is considerable confusion about the exact production method. Historically the style was meant to be a freak of nature, but the widespread availability of it suggests that man may play quite a role nowadays. The key characteristic is a combination of the finesse of a fino and its aged relative the amontillado, with more body than either. Certainly the wines I recommend below are all wonderfully elegant and dry on the nose, yet have more to chew on, and considerable nuttiness, on the palate. They make absolutely wonderful aperitifs, leaving the palate stimulated rather than sated. Last night I tasted one immediately before tackling a wine tasting with no ill-effects whatsoever. They are also very good with Comté-style cheeses.
Two of the finest palo cortados I have enjoyed recently were bottled by Sánchez Romate. The Wine Society in the UK sell a special almacenista-aged wine Sánchez Romate, Cayetano del Pino Palo Cortado that has the most exciting life and freshness while being deep-flavoured and resonant on the palate. Specially selected from a family-owned almacenista (sherry storehouse) that specialises in palo cortado by old sherry hand Peter Dauthieu (who tells me he has been a Purple Pager from the very beginning in 2001), it seems a steal at £13.50 - especially when one takes its average age of about 15 years into account.
The Cayetano del Pino is minimally treated, and may even develop a light haze in bottle. The admirable house of Sánchez Romate produce one palo cortado themselves. Sánchez Romate, Regente Palo Cortado is also about 15 years old but is made in greater quantity and presumably lightly filtered. It is also a delicious bone-dry wine, perhaps not quite as haunting as the Cayetano del Pino, but hugely rewarding, and much easier to find, particularly but not exclusively in the UK at around £20 and in Australia at around Au$50. It is also on sale in Spain, Ireland and Romania, according to wine-searcher.com.
But even better value than these are the cheapest of Emilio Lustau's very widely distributed palo cortado lines. The biggest bargain of all that I have encountered is that sold under UK supermarket Waitrose's own label, Waitrose Solera Jerezana Palo Cortado Lustau which is at the ridiculously low price of £9.75. Pale greenish gold, it is pungent with whiffs of gunsmoke and delightfully tangy and pretty dry on the palate. This is not as pure and ethereal as the Sánchez Romate pair, and has 15 g/l of residual sugar, but it really is great value and would get the most jaded palate going. In this year's Wines of Spain Awards held recently in the UK it won the Best Value Dry Fortified Trophy. Not surprisingly.
Fernando de Castilla, Antique Palo Cortado is another stunning example of an unblended, untreated wine that is relatively easy to find in the US at around $40 a bottle. Remember that another great thing about all these ridiculously neglected wines is that they are robust enough to last in an opened bottle for weeks, even months.