Posteado por: descubreelpuerto | 8 enero, 2013

Sharing a Sherry Treasured in Spain

AMONG high-end sherries, palo cortado is a mystery. A century ago, perhaps longer, tasters would check on the casks to ensure that the sherry inside fell into its proper category. Was it the lighter manzanilla or fino? The drier amontillado? Or the darker oloroso?

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Occasionally, sherry noses stumbled on a wine that was none of the above. Unable to classify it, the tasters marked the barrel with two slashes of chalk. This palo cortado (“cut stick”) meant the barrel could not be sold, and the wine inside was often tossed.

What a pity, many sherry-makers thought. That a sherry could not be defined did not make it a bad sherry. So many bodega owners decided to keep a few barrels around for limited sales or for personal use. The sherry was appealing in its enigmatic way. It refused to be defined with its own rebellious spirit, much like the sherry-makers themselves.

Their bodegas are concentrated in a region called the Sherry Triangle, demarcated by three cities in southern Spain. The tradition for many there is to drink as many as eight glasses of sherry a day, starting at noon, often earlier. Locals go to the bodegas with plastic jugs and have them filled with the lighter and younger manzanilla or fino for only a few euros. In contrast, palo cortado is hard to find and can retail for upward of 40 euros per bottle (about $52, at $1.29 to the euro) and higher, a price point that is out of reach for daily sherry drinkers. There are bodegas that serve it, though, or will plunge their tasting canes into their private barrels to indulge the curious and thirsty. While many palo cortados out there are merely different sherries mixed together, and aren’t considered pure by aficionados, some bodegas have been in the business of making the real thing for more than a century. Below are three who opened their doors to a visitor last summer.

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Bodega Gutiérrez Colosia

The space felt like a dark cathedral, cool and damp, and hanging lanterns glowed against the old arches and the faces of the big oak barrels.

Resting his tasting cane over his shoulder like a hunting rifle, Juan Carlos Gutiérrez walked to the back, through a door, and into a chamber where he kept his oldest, most prized creations. He removed the cap from one barrel, plunged the cane into the liquid and began the intricate pour: a flick of the cane up fast, letting the amber-colored sherry drip from the flute at the bottom of the cane like a rainbow. It fell in a perfect stream, and landed several feet later into the pit of a glass.

“I cannot tell you how to make this wine,” he said, handing the glass to me. It was a surprising statement, considering that Mr. Gutiérrez has been making sherry wine all his life in El Puerto de Santa María, one of the three points on the Sherry Triangle.

What he meant, of course, was that he couldn’t explain that specific sherry. But he insisted on giving me an overview of the process before I had a sip. Think of making sherry as the opposite of making other types of wine, he told me. In traditional winemaking, for instance, the vintner is mainly dependent on the natural world for the quality of the wine. The terroir of the grapes, what the weather was like the year that they grew there and how well they aged. With sherry, none of these factors matter. The only grape that sherry-makers here use and that grows well in the dusty, sun-baked soil of Andalusia is the palomino, a small, lightly colored variety. Vintages are also irrelevant since the sherry process doesn’t rely on a particular year. It relies on all of them.

There is a science laboratory feel to sherry-making. The system — called solera — relies on an elaborate network of tubes that flow between the barrels, slowly pumping the newer wines into the older ones, and the older ones eventually into bottles. The goal is to create a uniform taste, all years mixing with one another. The process gives sherry drinking a timeless quality, as opposed to the experience of uncorking, say, this year’s Beaujolais nouveau.

BODEGAS GUTIERREZ COLOSIA

Tasting his own palo cortado, Mr. Gutiérrez had no idea how old the original batch was. It could be 50 years old. Could be older.

How the wine tastes is also part of the mystery: sweet and dry at once, hard and soft, and dizzying (the alcohol content is 22 percent). There is also a saltiness to it, a flavor shaped by the environment, Mr. Gutiérrez said. His bodega sits along the Guadelete River, blocks from the Bay of Cádiz. The air from these waters is critical, he said, pointing to the windows. There were only a few. They were small enough to keep the oppressive sunlight out, and strategically placed to capture the dueling winds that blow through here: the levant, the brutally dry hot wind from the east, and the aponiente, a cooler moist wind from the Atlantic.

Above all, it’s the air that blows through the bodega that gives the wines their flavor, he said. In contrast to other wines that don’t come in contact with oxygen, sherry is in constant contact with air. You can take the cap of the barrel and taste it. That’s one reason sherry bottles do not come corked.

Because they are more in control of their wines than other vintners, Mr. Gutiérrez said that sherry-makers have the opportunity to express their vision more distinctly. They don’t have the luxury of blaming the grapes for a bad bottle. Or the rain. Or the sun. They can blame only themselves.

Avenida Bajamr, 40; El Puerto de Santa María, Cádiz; for visiting hours, see gutierrez-colosia.com.

Bodega Obregón

“Here is our palo cortado,” Álvaro Obregón said, pointing to the barrel in the corner of the bar and bodega his family has run in El Puerto de Santa María for four generations. Bodega Obregón is the rare bar in Andalusia where there is no bar. It is simply a tall room, lined with bullfighting posters and filled with barrels. A few seats are interspersed, like the break area of a warehouse, and Mr. Obregón and his brother and his father walk the room with plastic funnels to direct the bodega taps into glasses.

“My grandfather thought it was not very personal,” Mr. Obregón said about the decision not to have an actual bar for resting a drink or an elbow. Moving around the room, he passed a palomino tree growing into the ceiling. Underneath it sat a customer he knew: a large man with a bald head. Mr. Obregón approached the man and then playfully smacked him on the forehead. “You have a bar, the bar becomes a divider between you and your friends,” he told me. “It separates you and them. This is not who we are.”

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For a sip, he retreated to the back room, where pictures of his family hung amid the old barrels.

“This wine is an accident,” Mr. Obregón said, marveling at the complexity of flavors that have been mixing and aging for decades, and tasted just as befuddling as Mr. Gutiérrez’s batch. More caramel and leather notes were here and less salt, probably because Obregón is several blocks inland from the river and the water.

Unlike other sherries they offer, his family’s palo cortado is not advertised. If you want a glass, they won’t turn you down. But good luck trying to pay for it. Here, the palo cortado is treated like a tradition, one that the family has kept alive for generations. So it’s also pride that they are serving, and pride that they want to share, not profit from. It’s best to enjoy with friends, and paired with an aged cheese.

Zarza, 51; El Puerto de Santa María, Cádiz; 34-95-685-6329.

James Rajotte for The New York Times

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