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Hugh Johnson: ‘Today it’s a palo cortado, a relatively elusive midfield player’

I feel quite guilty admitting this, but with the whole world’s wine list out there (and with my Pocket Wine Book to nudge me) I still have default wines.

I’m busy, lazy or just tired… it’s half past twelve. I open the fridge and the same familiar labels smile up at me. The same with the repurposed coal hole under the front steps where the red wines live. I won’t tell you exactly what they are – although regular readers can have a pretty good guess.

The ones that get mentioned least frequently are the ones that make an appearance on every routine day. When the soup (winter) or the salad (summer) comes out for a ‘working’ lunch, the bottle beside my little copita (Aha! A hint!) is some variety of Sherry. There! The very word has put you off – and quite right, too. It is a dismal way of referring to some of the most characterful and versatile wines in the world. And, I must add, the most affordable and best value.

Today (grey sky, chilly wind; a soup day) it’s a palo cortado, a relatively elusive midfield player, neither a bracing dry fino nor an oloroso full of fruit-saturated oak, nor even a nutty amontillado (all Sherries, but no more alike than a Morey, a Margaux and a Monbazillac). I can’t think of any drink more comforting, consoling and downright delicious with my bowl of chicken soup and cold ham to follow. If I were finishing up last night’s cottage pie it would fit the slot with the same aplomb.

Sherry’s misfortune is to have been bracketed with Port in the fortified class. Good Sherry doesn’t need fortifying in the way Port does. Our forebears, in their cold houses, just wanted wine with a kick, added alcohol and made their Sherry unnaturally boozy.

The proper precise terms for Sherry are fino (with its important sub-section, manzanilla), oloroso and amontillado (which is effectively a matured fino that didn’t quite make the cut to be bottled in its racy freshness).

In the bodega the cellarmaster (capataz) tastes intently; every butt, every few days. He describes what he finds in a chalk mark on the barrel head. ‘Palo’ is one pretty broad category. He tastes a palo many times before he marks a ‘cut’, a cortado, through its P. That chalk mark is serious promotion; age will give it unique roundness. No sweetness; just length and depth.

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