WWC 10 – Andrew Licudi


The tenth contributor to our wine writing competition is Andrew Licudi, who introduces himself as follows: 

I am a WSET diploma graduate and I live in Gibraltar though I travel regularly to Edinburgh where I am part of a long established wine tasting group. My professional background is engineering though, having sold my businesses, I can now concentrate on my wine addiction. I also write a monthly wine column for The Gibraltar Magazine

You kindly published my article A solution for sherry? some time ago. 

I have enclosed two articles: one on Palo Cortado, and another on a talk I was due to give on the history of wine at a charity event, where, like other speakers, I will be limited to five minutes and 30 seconds – hence the title.

Palo Cortado

One gets the distinct impression that in Jerez, Palo Cortado is the thinking man’s sherry. It has arguably become the most analysed sherry among aficionados (see Jancis's article on Palo Cortado sherries) and one which continues to generate mystery, discussion and disagreement even among producers. Many believe that Palo Cortado occurs accidentally yet others are strongly of the opinion that given the right conditions Palo Cortado can be coaxed into existence. In either case it will take decades for the wine to reach its full potential, during which time it will take up valuable space and evaporate at an alarming rate. Making a sound economic case for its production would requires the verbal dexterity of Boris Johnson and the optimism of a bungee jumper. It is no wonder production of old and rare wines is undertaken grudgingly in a city that grew prosperous, not on the production of niche wines, but on the large-scale conversion of insipid Palomino mostos into magical, complex fortified Finos. Rare Palo Cortados, when they appeared, were reserved for the family or used as showcase examples but never considered good business.

The morning is cloudless and at this time of year the sun shines without anger. Fields extend around us as far as the eye can see, only broken by a pair of palm trees incongruously standing side by side in the middle of nowhere, their owners long dead and the buildings they once guarded melted into the famous Albariza soils of Jerez.

Arriving at the centre of the city, for Jerez is considered a city, I make my way to the Consejo Regulador housed in an impressive palazzo, its grand facade, elaborate doors and intricate ironwork hinting at days when sherry was king and producers sent their male offspring to be educated in England, returning with a distinctive crust of Englishness baked on as only the public-school system in Blighty can. Impeccable English, a love of fox hunting, and a long contact list of future politicians and captains of industry as indelible proof that school fees had been well spent. The halcyon days in Jerez might be over but the British like the Moors have left their indelible print in the city’s psyche.

Entering the building I am directed up a white marble staircase and I am soon talking to Beltran Domecq, president of the Consejo Regulador. Beltran’s presidency would have been less onerous during the golden age of sherry but the industry has been facing falling demand for decades and Beltran’s role today is complex. The Consejo Regulador’s function is to ensure that sherry quality remains high, not easy at a time when producers face intense pressure to cut costs in an effort to meet price targets required by supermarkets and others. Sherry sales started declining when the Beatles were a band; slowly at first but gathering momentum as the twentieth century ended but, unlike Champagne, nobody worried if there would be enough sherry to welcome the new millennium. Beltran and I agree that sherry, at its best, is an undisputed world-class wine and none more so than Palo Cortado, the reason for my extended visit to Jerez.

I am soon ushered into the Consejo’s tasting room where a dozen Palo Cortado bottles are sitting on the clinical, white marble tasting bench. I am soon ploughing my way through Jerez’s best under his watchful eye. The Palo Cortados are complex with immensely long finishes. Only one or two examples let the side down, examples of forced Palo Cortados by a producer who otherwise is highly regarded and another whose very old wine has been blended with young PX in an effort to make it approachable to modern tastes! One however stands above the rest and I am stunned by its sheer elegance and complexity. Is this the most complex wine I have ever tasted? I come to the conclusion that it probably is and has what could be described as a terroir-driven quality, something considered alien in Jerez where vineyards are obstinately treated as homogeneous contrary to the fine-wine world’s obsession with terroir – see A solution for sherry? After the tasting ends and I take leave of my host, I decide to make my way as soon as I can to Chipiona, a small, old fashioned seaside town much loved by Spanish holiday makers and eschewed by all other nationalities, where I hope to find Cesar Florido, the producer of the exceptional wine I have just tasted. Before driving there I have a scheduled stop at Bodegas Tradición, where I had arranged to meet Pepe Blandino, a semi-retired industry veteran with a long memory.

The Consejo Regulador, Sherry’s governing body, describes Palo Cortado only in terms of smell and taste criteria, leaving its exact production technique up to individual producers. Unlike Finos, Manzanillas, Amontillados and Olorosos, Palo Cortado has followed its own fortunes – a path which has taken it to near extinction, scarcity, mistaken identity and simultaneously presented Jerez with arguably the best wines ever seen in the region. It is loosely described as having the finesse of a Manzanilla, the elegance of an Amontillado and the structure of a fine Oloroso. A description many feel is simplistic and today true Palo Cortado, remains an enigma, and one of the world’s rare and controversial fine wines whose origins can, arguably, be traced back to a pre-phylloxera age when the landscape in Jerez was very different.

'To understand Palo Cortado one needs to understand the production of sherry not as it is conducted today but as it was in the distant past. Palo Cortado is the past not the present', says Pepe Blandino as we stand next to a row of 600-litre butts in the cool bodegas of Tradición, the well-known producer of old, expensive sherries.

Our meeting with Pepe Blandino, now virtually retired, had been arranged after a series of phone calls and I can only assume that our mission to uncover Palo Cortado had touched a nerve with Blandino, agreeing to see us much to the surprise of the bodega’s management, who had turned up in force for the meeting wielding tape recorders. Blandino, now in his seventies, had started his apprenticeship with Bodegas Domecq when he was 13 and still vividly remembers the 'nose' (see Whatever happened to Harveys?) quickly and expertly classifying wines at the start of their journey to hopefully become the bread and butter of Jerez – Fino. Various chalk marks defined each butt’s progress but even then Blandino recalls that few butts ended with the dreaded V sign – indicating wines suitable only for vinegar production.

Blandino explains this relative lack of acetic contamination was due to improved knowledge and techniques already available at the time and geared to large-scale Fino production. Any deviation from Fino, irrespective if it was vinegar or wine with the characteristics of Palo Cortado, was considered a fault though by the time he started in the industry these 'accidents' were few and far between. 'We wanted Fino the more the better', emphasised Blandino. Today it is even more unlikely for deviations to occur. In his youth, Blandino points out, he worked with men nearing retirement age who in their youth had in turn worked with men nearing the end of their working lives. Word of mouth pointed to a very different Jerez, now virtually forgotten, where rogue or deviant wines from wealth-creating Fino were not rare.

Blandino explains, 'in those days each pago or vineyard would have fermented their own musts before the wines were sold and transported to larger bodegas with maturing and export capabilities. Some pagos were high, some lower, and vintage dates may have varied by as much as 24 days. Now it's Palomino but in those days many grapes were used such as Beba Rey. Larger pagos may have fermented as many as 200 butts but with little control and no cooling, huge differences arose between wines. It was common to see butts overflowing when the fermentation became over-vigorous. The only tool available to the capataz was the addition of alcohol. By the time of the first classification in December it was enough to flick the sample and if you could see your fingerprint on the other side of the glass then it had passed its initial test. Some butts may have continued to ferment at a very reduced rate for years! Under these circumstances what everyone wanted, Fino, was not as easy to achieve as later on, and defects or variations were treated with alcohol in an effort to bring errant wines back into line. Even true Palo Cortado, when it appeared, was still rare and a few butts would be set aside, forgotten and perhaps rediscovered decades later. Nobody considered Palo Cortado as potential business.'

Chipiona, clearly built before cars were invented, reminds the visitor of a Spain now almost disappeared. A labyrinth of narrow streets, inexplicably at right angles to each other, confuses the Navigator and after driving up the same one way street several times I am on the point of giving up and driving out of town when I find myself at Cesar Florido’s bodega. There is nowhere to stop and a long line of impatient drivers wait until I tortuously reverse into the bodega’s small yard where three men watch me getting out of my car. It turns out that one of the men is Cesar Florido himself and when I explain the reason for my visit, he seems taken aback that I have come all the way from Jerez to talk about his wines, giving the distinct impression that this is far from a regular occurrence.

Cesar seems happy when I tell him that of all the great Palo Cortados I tasted his was the one that really stood out but he brushes this aside and seems keener to talk about his other wines. He explains that his vineyards are almost lapped by the waves and attributes to this the pronounced salty flavour and character his wines possess – 'in France they would call this terroir', I suggest. His Palo Cortado, he explains, is at least 40 years old and he has only very small quantities. He considers it a relic of the past and a wine to be drunk on special occasions. He apologises for not having any for me to taste but he only bottles half bottles on order once a year for the only client he has for his Palo Cortado – De Maison Selections in North Carolina. I later Google De Maisons Selections,  who turn out to specialise in unique producers in Spain and France. I wonder how they found their way to this hard to find small producer while everyone else seems to have missed him. Later in Cesar’s small, cluttered working office we try his other wines and it is easy to identify the salty character, which runs through all his wines. His Oloroso excites me with its unique salty, mouth-filling complexity and long finish. I just can’t get my head round its €4-a-bottle price tag.

Whether Jerez will regain its former glory remains doubtful if producers resort to reducing quality to stay in business. I despair at the poor, forced Palo Cortados being marketed by one of the leading lights in Jerez, who until recently was showing everyone else how concentrating on quality paid dividends. Fino is not difficult to make and its lack of terroir and ready-to-drink character makes it at odds with the rest of the fine-wine market, where scarcity, terroir and ageing capability propel some wines into stratospheric pricing thanks to collectors and investors. Niche wines in Jerez may have never been good business but perhaps terroir-driven, single-vintage Olorosos, Amontillados and Palo Cortados, with the designated vineyard and year of production, could reignite worldwide interest not just in these niche wines but in Fino itself.

Post Script: Shortly after my visit in 2014, Sobremesa magazine organised a blind tasting of the best of Jerez. Cesar’s Palo Cortado Pena del Aguila was voted joint top wine in Jerez with a score of 98. Cesar’s bodega is now rather well known. I note that Cesar has removed any reference to the Palo Cortado from his website and has no mention of his prestigious win in Sobremesa magazine. This makes some sort of sense as I had the distinct impression when I met him that his sweet wines and Olorosos gave him more of a challenge than his Palo Cortado. His Palo Cortado solera can produce only small quantities of wine with the new wine gradually taking on the qualities of the 'mother' wine. Try and over-produce and you are likely to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. So does a solera system, where wine is added every year, confirm those who feel Palo Cortado can be made to order? Producers could try and start a new solera but where to get the new 'mother' wine without diluting the first? Would producers such as Cesar, who can, by Jerez’s standard, command a fortune for their Palo Cortado (€50 for 375 ml), not produce enough true Palo Cortado to satisfy all comers if he could?

The history of wine in five minutes and 30 seconds

Benjamin Franklin was undoubtedly thinking about man alone when he famously wrote that wine is proof that God loves us. His presumption that we are therefore special, however, needs to be challenged, or at least clarified, as there are dozens of mammals able to tolerate and actively seek alcohol in much the same way as we do. Drunken elks in Scandinavia, macaques drinking heavily at the end of the day, fruit bats with large amounts of alcohol in their blood able to navigate complex courses are all well-documented examples of alcohol tolerance. There is one species however that is easily the biggest boozer amongst mammals, drinking the equivalent of several bottles of wine daily without suffering any ill effects. The pen-tailed tree shrew of Malaysia wins hands down when it comes to alcohol tolerance and Benjamin Franklin would surely, but grudgingly, have conceded this as proof that God loves the tree shrew more than he does us.

At some point in human evolution it is accepted that we lived in the forest canopy rarely venturing on to the forest floor; a dark place full of potential dangers with predators on the look out for fallen youngsters or the old, whose loss of agility would condemn them sooner or later to fall down never to return. Even temporarily leaving a safe tree top haven replete with food, water and shelter would only have been undertaken for good reason and one can imagine that fallen fruit full of low alcohol wine could have encouraged many of our tree dwelling ancestors to engage in risky behaviour. We still do. Fallen fruit would have provided us with seasonal supplies of low alcohol wines perhaps no more than 1 or 2% in strength, enough to get us hooked and send us on an evolutionary path to alcohol tolerance and an accelerated journey to increased intelligence and cunning – essential tools to survive the alien forest floor. Of course there would have been other ground living mammals already there but these would not have relied on enhanced intellect to survive having taken a different evolutionary path which may have included camouflage, speed or acute hearing and sense of smell. It could be argued, therefore, that without wine we may have been happily, but soberly, still living in trees.

If you believe in the Darwinian theory of evolution fast-forward the clock several million years. If you are creationist start here – the point at which we are recognizably human, have sufficient intelligence to survive in the forest floor and just invented our first receptacle probably wood or clay. Up to this point our wine drinking would have been consuming fermented fruit on the spot whilst simultaneously spitting out forest dirt and insects. Receptacles would have allowed us to collect wholesome fruit and with spontaneous fermentation, our days of imbibing fallen fruit were over and wine making, of a sort, had arrived.

As time went by larger and larger receptacles would have been specially made in an effort to make the most of seasonal fruit and wine. These larger receptacles, too cumbersome for everyday use, would have been stored from one year to the next resulting in something quite extraordinary.

By reusing wine containers humans would have unwittingly taken on the role of Darwinian natural selection and, sometime, in our distant past a yeast, against all odds, survived fermentation whilst all other yeasts and bacteria around it perished, poisoned by their own alcoholic excreta. This microscopic yeast would have lain dormant in the container until reawakened the following year by water and fruit sugars to start all over again! Over thousand of years, perhaps longer, our yeast and its progeny would have been thrown into annual survival contests, tolerating ever higher levels of alcohol eventually evolving into a distinct species. These yeasts did not exist in the wild and would be found only in wine containers or around early human habitations where spillages occurred.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae the wine yeast par excellence, used for thousand of years, evolved with us, and many believe that it may well be the earliest example of domestication long before we subjugated animals which only occurred a few thousand years ago. Thousand of strains of Saccharomyces can now be traced to different geographical locations leading some researches to believe that ancient human migration patterns could one day be unravelled from deep within Saccharomyce’s DNA.

When the connection between the sweetness of the fruit and the strength of the wine was made we don’t know but it would have been quite obvious that the vine berry, abundant and easy to press with lots of sugary water, was the fruit for wine. Vitis vinifera, the European vine, or rather its wild ancestor Vitis vinifera sylvestris would have flourished widely particularly around the Mediterranean and would have been highly valued as an intoxicant perhaps linked to early religious ceremonies. It is not inconceivable that this hardy, water resistant plant could have been the cause of our first skirmishes for territory. After all vines, unlike game, don’t move from one area to another.

Once humans started making the change from hunter-gatherers to farming vine growing would been established quite early as the vine is easy to plant, needs little maintenance and will fruit for decades. At some point sylvestris is domesticated and vinifera, the species we use today, takes over.

Travelling forward in time, past tribal Europe, the Romans who spread the vine far and wide, the Visigoths and Germanic tribes each no doubt making a contribution to viticulture. We leave behind the Church and Monasteries whose high level of education and study raised winemaking beyond an art and into quasi-scientific principles – though many poorly understood. The monks start the dissemination of Burgundy vineyards into different quality levels and an early concept of terroir enters the vigneron’s psyche for the first time.

Arriving at the nineteenth century we find that virtually all of Europe has well-established wine producing regions and sophisticated trade systems. Wine exports have become important contributors to the national wealth and prestige of many countries. All is well with the wine world until in 1860’s disaster strikes.

Earlier, Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, arising from the biggest navigational error of all time, had started a golden age in Spanish history and large swathes of the new continent was soon under the rule of the Ferdinand and Isabella. Later Spaniards hungry for land and wealth started to move into Mexico and what’s now the southern US. Monasteries played an important role in these early settlements and monks, thirsty for wine, soon started to cultivate the local vines. Much to their dismay the local vine species Vitis rupestris and labrusca amongst others, simply did not make good wine possessing distinct animal like smells and aromas. As a result the European Vine was imported and planted but something unexpected happened. The European vine initially flourished but eventually succumbed to disease and died. The reason, not understood at the time, would eventually become painfully clear in nineteenth century France.

Reports of an unknown vine disease in Southern Rhone were first reported in 1863. Not much notice was taken at first but gradually and inexorably, this mysterious disease began to take hold and kill vineyards all over France. Committees were formed to try and fight this scourge and the Government of the day offered over 300,000 francs to anyone able to produce a cure for this blight.

It had been noticed that dying vines had small yellow insects clinging to their roots. The culprit was eventually identified by Jules Emile Planchon as phylloxera but not before the French wine industry had been decimated. How phylloxera came to Europe is disputed but imported collections of plants from the eastern seaboard of the United Sates the home of phylloxera,were almost certainly to blame. (As I write this something similar is occurring to the Cactus in Spain. Originally imported from Mexico this distinctive plant with its wonderful pears is likely to disappear from the Spanish landscape. After being infected by the cochineal, used to make red dye (E120), the hardy cactus takes on a white mantle and then dies. There is no known cure. I no longer come across uninfected specimens.)

Every cloud has a silver lining and Rioja, one of France’s closest neighbours, was an initial beneficiary when demand for its wines rocketed as supplies in France dwindled. Rioja used this period to consolidated its wine industry until phylloxera reached its vineyards in 1899.

At the height of the blight all manner of remedies were proposed presumably in the hope of winning the cash prize. The less outrageous ones were tried and including flooding vineyards or trying to poison phylloxera. Whilst some temporary successes were noted none were considered successful. It was Leo Laliman together with fellow winegrower, Gaston Bazille,who first proposed grafting the European vine Vitis vinifera on to American rootstock. This was not immediately taken up over concerns about the quality of the wine but eventually it became the lifesaver of the wine industry in Europe and beyond. Today there are few ungrafted vines anywhere. Laliman claimed the prize but was turned down by the politicians of the time as grafting, they claimed, was a prevention not a cure.

The twentieth century saw the rise of the New World as serious players in the global wine trade. Australia, demystifies wines by labelling bottles with grape varieties allowing consumers to express preference without specialist knowledge. Californian wines unexpectedly beat France’s finest in a blind tasting in 1976 in Paris. The French judges, unused to Californian wines, rated Stag's Leap 1973 ahead of Frances, beloved grand cru Mouton Rothschild. Other French wines suffer similar fates giving an impetus to Californian wine production and confidence to producers still in evidence today. Not all are winners perhaps the most famous and sad of the losers is Jerez as sales decline decade after decade. Changing fashions and increasing demand for opulent, fruity wines makes Finos and Manzanillas increasingly redundant.

Today wine is made everywhere. China is expected to soon have the largest area under vine anywhere. The US, Chile, Argentina and Australia are now mature players in the global wine trade – their influence is expected to rise as they produce world class wines at prices to match France’s finest. Terroir, a concept derided previously in the New World, is increasingly adopted and the race is on to dethrone France as the world’s top producer of fine wines.