GRAPE VARIETIES – Number 21: Palomino

Palomino is the grape variety for sherry; it is a white variety. As Jancis Robinson says in her book Vines, Grapes & Wines, “Palomino happens to produce a potentially great style of wine, but is not an inherently great grape.” Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it needs the particular method that the Spanish use to make sherry to bring out its inherent quality.

There are, in fact, two Palominos: Palomino Fino, originally grown around Sanlucar de Barrameda, and Palomino de Jerez, alternatively known as Palomino Basto. The latter was historically the most widely planted, but the ability of the Palomino Fino to produce both quality and quantity has resulted in its now being adopted almost universally.

The grape is also used to make table wine – the few examples I have tasted are perfectly inoffensive; they are, however, no more than that. The grapes are low in sugar and acidity, and prone to oxidation. Nevertheless, table wines are made from Palomino not only in Andalucia (where sherry comes from), but also elsewhere in Spain, including the north, such as Valdeorras, Ribeiro, Rueda and Bierzo; and it is also widely grown in the Canaries, where it is known as Listán.

Sherry is one of the world’s most seriously underrated drinks. There are sweet sherries, which make use of two other grape varieties, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel. But the reputation of sherry is built on its dry wines, for which the Palomino grape is entirely responsible. The two lightest, driest, palest styles are Fino and Manzanilla (see my article in the April issue), where a layer of yeast known as “flor” floats on top of the wine as it matures in large wooden barrels. More alcoholic styles, Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Oloroso either never saw any “flor” or the “flor” failed to take hold, resulting in the wine oxidising and taking on a deeper, darker colour. For me, good examples of both darker and paler styles are brilliantly fascinating, and worth seeking out. You could try Dry Sack Fino from Williams & Humbert, a top quality bodega whose sherries I have been buying for over a decade, or for a really special Oloroso you could try the picturesquely named Don José Maria Very Old Oloroso from Vinicola Soto, a truly wonderful expression of the Palomino grape – both available from Fingal-Rock!