Sherry & the Mystery of Palo Cortado UK Premiere
Ah, the ‘mystery’ of Palo Cortado. When you visit Jerez, you hear a different explanation of how Palo Cortado is made from everyone you speak to, often with a hefty dose of romanticism thrown in. The miracle wine…. the rebel wine…. the wine the family always kept for themselves. You recognise the distinctive aromas immediately, but you never quite get a definitive answer about what it actually is and how it’s made. And of course that adds to the mystique and the attraction.
On Tuesday 23 June the sherry express rolled into Edinburgh for the UK premiere of Sherry & the Mystery of Palo Cortado at Edinburgh International Film Festival. A Q&A with the Director and Producer and Beltran Domecq, the President of the Consejo Regulador followed the screening, accompanied by the perfect tapa – jamon – from Goya23. Perhaps the mystery would finally be solved?
A love letter to sherry
The film was born of an idea from Jesus Barquin (of Equipo Navazos), and brought to life by Director Jose Luis Linares and Producer Antonio Saura. Filmed in 2014 in the bodegas and vineyards of Jerez, El Puerto and Sanlucar, it has at its heart a round-table discussion with makers of some of the region’s finest sherries, bodega cellar masters, sommeliers and wine journalists. Their stories of sherry’s history, heyday, and recent decline in fortunes are interspersed with interviews with other sherrymakers and sommeliers, historical film footage (including movies which feature sherry) and lovingly filmed footage of the people, places and processes involved in making sherry.
For me, that footage is the film’s undoubted star. I could watch the gorgeous slow-mo sequences of Palo Cortado being moved through the criaderas all day. Likewise as the camera takes a stroll through the streets of Jerez and then lingers in the vineyards. The film made me homesick for Jerez, and thirsty for sherry.
But I love Jerez, so am I biased? In the interests of scientific rigour, I watched the movie with a ‘control group’ – a teetotaller who has only ever visited Jerez once for four hours. She has no thirst for the wine, no emotional connection with the place, and yet she was rapt. I suspect if the Jerez Tourist Office started using this movie to promote the city there would be a serious influx of visitors!
Preserving a legacy
A theme that comes through really strongly in the film is legacy. The bodega owners and sherry producers talk proudly of being 5th, 6th and 7th generations of the same family that founded their bodegas, but so do the bodega staff. Pepe, the cellar master at Bodegas Tradicion, tells the story of his son not wanting to go to University and so joining him in the bodega. Nowadays it’s not only his son working with him, but his grandson too. Three generations working in the bodega together. And all those generations – whether bodega owners or workers – understand that the wine they make today may not be finished in their lifetimes. They’re guardians of the wine, not its masters nor its owners.
The film doesn’t shy away from the difficult days that sherry has been facing. I was moved to hear one of the Domecq family talk of his utter devastation when the bodega was sold. Likewise, the very practical worries today’s sherrymakers expressed about the need to preserve essential skills unique to the sherry industry. However, there’s a hopeful note too – with chefs and sommeliers from Michelin-starred restaurants raving about sherry, and new champions such as Equipo Navazos presenting sherry in different ways to new audiences. I especially loved the quote from one sommelier:
If you get a French wine lover bragging about terroir, I’ll give him a sherry that’ll knock him on his ass!
So finally we get to the central question: does this film solve the mystery of Palo Cortado? Spoiler alert – this is not like a Scooby-Doo mystery, where all is revealed at the end. The film takes us through the processes of making sherry, the importance of the solera system and the impact of biological and oxidative ageing methods, but when it comes to Palo Cortado it’s clear the stars of the film don’t all agree. Some say it’s possible to define and ‘engineer’, others say they can’t tell until they taste it. It seems to be a case of:
I know what it’s not
I know it when I taste it
And what is absolutely common across all of them is the complete inability to describe it without lapsing into a little romanticism. Whether it’s a member of the Barbadillo family saying it makes you a better person, or a sommelier telling you it’s a rollercoaster of sensations, this wine clearly inspires the poet in all of them!
So the mystery and the mystique remain. Is it deliberate vagueness in order to preserve the mystery, or is it genuine ambiguity? We’ll probably never know unless we can be a fly on the wall in the bodega. In truth, I like my sherry with a generous side order of story-telling; that’s what made me fall in love the with the Sherry Triangle in the first place. So call me an old romantic, but perhaps preserving a little mystery isn’t a bad thing!
Stills from the film courtesy of Berlinale Film Festival where the film had its world premiere.
Photos from the UK premiere courtesy of Edinburgh International Film Festival, all rights reserved. Thank you to the team at Edinburgh International Film Festival for supplying these photos and at incredibly short notice.