Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Mystery of Palomino

It seems strange that the Palomino Fino grape often makes rather uninspired still wines, yet also can produce amazing sherries. What is it about this grape which permits such a dichotomy? Or is it more due to the methods of production? And is this evidence that other grapes, which are often considered to produce lesser wines, can actually produce excellent wines under the proper circumstances?

The Palomino grape allegedly was brought to southern Spain about 3000 years by the Phoenicians, though some claim that it may have already existed there before the Phoenicians arrived. Whichever is the case, it is an ancient grape, and each glass of wine carries with it a sense of history, a taste of antiquity.

The origin of its name is also a cloudy issue, though there is a popular version. In October 1264, King Alphonse X, also known as El Sabio, the “Wise,” successfully conquered Jerez. The King then granted lands to his knights, about seven acres each, and half of those lands already possessed vineyards. The knights were also encouraged to plant even more vineyards. One of those knights was Fernan Yanez Palomino, and it is thought the name of the grape derives from him.

Originally, the most common Palomino grape was the Palomino Basto, which was also known as the Palomino de Jerez. But, over time, the Palomino Fino, a subvariety from the Sanlucar region, began to take replace the Basto and it is now the primary grape in the sherry region. This was due to the fact that the Fino was better in regards to both yield and quality.

The Palomino grape is known by a wide variety of other names, including Albán, Albar, Gencibel, Jerez, Jerez fina, Palomino Blanco, Palomino de Chipiona, Palomino de Pinchito, Palomina, Palomilla, Palomillo, and Seminario. In the region of Puerto de Santa Maria it is also known as Horgazuela while in Rota and Trebujena it is called Tempranilla. In Lebrija, it is called Ojo de Liebre ("Hare's Eye") while in Algeciras they call it Temprana.

It has been planted in other countries as well, often acquiring new names. In France, it is commonly known as Listán, Listán Común, Listán de Jerez, and Listán Palomino. In Portugal, it is possible that it is the same grape as Malvasia Rei or Perrum in the Alentejo region. In South Africa, it is known as Fransdruif ("White French" in English). Some Palomino is grown in California, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, where it was originally wrongly identified as Golden Chasselas. Palomino is also grown in Australia, New Zealand and Cyprus.

The Palomino grape is medium-sized, golden in color and produces large, loose clusters. They can be used to make wine though they also make excellent table grapes. They also have the least amount of malic acid of any other grape. Palomino ripens early in September, and yields are generally high and regular. It is the staple grape for 90-95% of all sherries, though sometimes is used to make still wines as well.

For example, Bodegas Barbadillo produces the Castillo de San Diego, which is made from Palomino Fino and is also one of Spain's best selling white wines, if not the best seller. It is an inexpensive table wine and I have tasted, and enjoyed it before, though it is certainly not a high-quality wine. Rather it is a very good value wine, a pleasant and easy drinking wine. Yet many other still wines made from Palomino do not even reach that level.

To me, it would seem that the sherry production process somehow elevates the Palomino group to great heights. The use of flor and the solera aging process assist the Palomino in transforming into a great wine, including wines that are as complex and fine as any other wines in the world. It is an intriguing mystery, how the plain becomes so great, yet it raises other questions as well.

Could other grapes, put through the sherry production process, create amazing wines? We already know Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel can do it. But what about others? Could we resurrect the reputations of so-called "lesser" grapes through a process similar to sherry production? Are there other methods of production which might be as effective in elevating the quality of grapes?

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