Palomino Fino is effectively the only grape grown in the sherry region and has replaced the lesser Palomino de Jerez or Palomino Basto. One of the dullest grapes in the world, which just happens, when grown in a small area of white, chalky albariza soil in the south-west tip of Spain, and aged in a solera system, to produce wines of matchless complexity and pungency. The wine is, of course, sherry – a name that cannot, under EU law, be applied to the fortified wine of any other country or region.
Palomino Fino is effectively the only grape grown
The Pedro Ximénez grapes that may be used for sweetening some sherry nowadays largely comes from nearby Montilla-Moriles. A few bodegas opt for the rarer but fruitier Moscatel as a sweetening wine, but Moscatel’s intense grapy perfume doesn’t make for great sherry. Various ways of concentrating the sweetness of Palomino – leaving the grapes in the sun or concentrating the must – may also be used to produce sweetening wine, according to the desired quality and style of the final result.
The wine is always fermented to dryness, and fortified later. Considering the aridity of the climate and the lack of irrigation, yields are on the high side – between 75hl/ha and perhaps 150hl/ha. High yields are aided by the nature of the region’s albariza soil, which has the capacity to retain 25 per cent of its volume in water. Not surprisingly, vineyards on less good soils have now been uprooted.
The vines are generally trained as low bushes, though training on wires is increasingly popular. Rot is less of a problem with wire-trained vines. In addition, wire training is necessary for mechanical harvesting, and while this has never so far been permitted in the region it is by no means impossible that it won’t sometimes be allowed. It was a ban imposed for social reasons, to provide seasonal work for unskilled labour, but nowadays the number of pickers looking for work is smaller each year.
However, high yields do not really seem to be a problem for quality. Some 90 per cent of the style and quality of sherry comes from the aging, and the position of the bodega and how the solera is managed are far more important than the base wine.
Sherry is divided into two basic styles: those that grow flor, and those that do not. Those that do are Fino and Manzanilla, and by extension Amontillado, since proper Amontillado is Fino or Manzanilla on which the flor has, after some years, died. Flor is a yeast, or rather several yeasts, and each bodega, indeed each solera, may have its own particular balance of yeast strains in its flor.
Flor grows on the surface of the wine in a porridgey white layer perhaps 1cm (⅜ in) thick. It feeds on the wine, keeping it free of contact with oxygen (thus preventing oxidation while keeping it fresh-tasting) but it also changes the chemical make-up of the wine so that it develops a characteristic pungency.
Oloroso sherry does not grow flor. Wines for Olorosos are selected at an early stage – they may well come from the third pressing of the grapes, and thus be higher in phenols and coarser in flavour. (The most delicate wines are used for Finos and Manzanillas, and generally come from free-run juice.) Oloroso gains its dark colour and pungent flavour of nuts, prunes and coffee from long aging in solera, during which time the wine oxidizes and becomes more concentrated.
The solera system is a system of fractional blending in which wine is drawn off for bottling at one end, with the barrels in the last stage of the solera being replenished from those in the next stage back, and so on. New wine is added to the barrels in the first stage. Wine is drawn off for bottling perhaps four times a year, with perhaps a quarter of each barrel being taken at any time. All sherry is thus a blend of old and much younger wine; it is this that helps give it its balance of freshness and mature depth.
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Palomino is also used for producing table wine in the three sherry towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa María and Sanlucar de Barrameda. Many sherry bodegas now produce such a wine, and without exception they prove the utter dullness of the Palomino grape. The wine is low in acidity unless acidified in the winery, and neutral in flavour.
Palomino is also grown elsewhere in Spain, for table wines as well as for fortifieds and rancio styles: in Condado de Huelva, west of Jerez towards the Portuguese border, it is increasingly popular at the expense of Zalema, but in northern Spain, in Rueda and Galicia, it is fading in importance. It is a key variety in the Canary Islands, where its wine even manages to have a little character.
Where it is drunk as a table wine, the solution is sometimes to make it deliberately rancio by leaving it in glass demijohns in the sun to oxidize. It then acquires a taste reminiscent of sherry, even if not very good sherry. It is drunk this way in Rueda. And you wonder why Palomino is disappearing in Rueda.
It is found in decreasing quantities in western France, where it goes under the name of Listán or Listán de Jerez. It is the same grape as Portugal’s Malvasia Rei.
Outside Europe it has almost vanished from South Africa, where it was known as Fransdruif. There are relatively small plantings in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where the variety used to be known as Golden Chasselas, and in Australia, where it makes sherry-style fortified wines. There are still smaller plantings in New Zealand and Cyprus, where it is used for fortified wines, and Argentina. Best producers: (Spain) Argüeso, Barbadillo, Delgado Zuleta, Díez Mérito, Domecq, Garvey, Gonzalez-Byass, Hidalgo, Lustau, Osborne, Valdespino.