When Queen Victoria died in 1901 at the age of 81, her bon vivant son, having finally ascended to the title of King Edward VII, descended into the royal cellars to take inventory. Among other treasures, he found a stockpile of 60,000 bottles of sherry. The queen had stopped entertaining after the death 40 years earlier of her beloved Prince Albert, but, the new king learned, the palace staff had continued ordering the royal couple’s favorite quaff—and the preferred social beverage of the era—in copious quantities. Edward auctioned off the well-aged surplus, though he no doubt reserved a few thousand bottles for his own imbibing.
Since those days, sherry has lost some of its luster. Most people, even those with fairly savvy taste in wine, consider it more appropriate for Aunt Tillie’s Wednesday afternoon bridge club meeting than for an urbane dinner party. But having been around for centuries, sherry will no doubt weather the vicissitudes of fashion and taste and will continue to fascinate true connoisseurs.
Because of the volatile nature of sherries as they develop, even the most experienced cellar masters must allow nature to take its course with these headstrong wines. They can only watch, sample, nudge, and wait until they obtain the final product. While resting in cask, some sherries develop flor, a covering of yeast that protects them from oxidation, and become pale fino sherry. Sherries that develop little flor will become darker, richer, more rancio-influenced olorosos. The term palo cortado refers to a fino that, having lost its covering of flor, is beginning to assume the characteristics of an oloroso.
The style of palo cortado is dry, and wines of this type are relatively rare. They exhibit the fresh nose of a fino but are darker in color and more full-bodied and complex on the palate. Pedro Domecq’s Sibarita Palo Cortado is a superb example: ruddy to the eye, bone dry, extremely aromatic, and fine-textured, with nut tones and keen spice. Used as an aperitif, it will inject a touch of long-lost style to any social gathering. Or serve it with the turtle soup course, as Victoria would have done.