I don’t know at what point the Palomino grape was reviled. I guess it was in the 70s when chemicals and tractors entered the vineyards of Marco de Jerez. This caused the production per hectare to triple -because the Palomino is a variety that can become very productive- and thus inevitably lost its intensity and character. From that moment they began to say that it was a “neutral” variety, but as my partner David Léclapart says, “it is not that the Palomino is a neutral grape, it is that any variety in the world at 20,000 kilograms per hectare is neutral.”
At that period, thanks to the entry of rotavators and tractors (before all the land was tilled by hand), the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers, the average production of a hectare of palomino grape vineyards on albariza soils increased from 5,000 kg /hectare to 20,000 Kg/Hectare. The great Sherry VORS wines over 40 years old that we drink today were made with a very concentrated palomino grape, the result of a respectful, ecological and handmade viticulture, which was the same as before this transformation.
To this process of change in viticulture, the economic crisis that existed at that time was also added -one of many-, which forced the large wineries to sell a large part of their vineyards. Inevitably, this meant a before and after since, in order to maintain power, the winemakers had to begin to defend that the value of the wine was in the cellar; that the Palomino grape had no value in itself, and that for that very reason the veil in flower and the complex system of criaderas and soleras were so necessary.
What was actually happening is that those winemakers forgot the inheritance they received from their parents and ancestors; a wisdom of enormous quality and that was based on a very well worked vineyard, without large productions and on a system of criaderas and soleras that each winery adapted to its terroir and its vineyards. The personality and identity of their wines came from that relationship/connection.
The Palomino grape, well worked (without rotating the soil, without the use of chemical fertilizers, without herbicides, without pesticides) is not neutral. It is subtle, mineral, elegant, saline and persistent. A unique grape, capable of remaining in the mouth with a kindness and at the same time a wonderful grip. Here, in the Marco de Jerez, it is located especially in the calcareous soils of Albariza, transmitting like no other the calcareous and Atlantic purity of this place.
In fact, without going any further, at the end of the 19th century, many regions of the world took it and planted it to imitate Sherry wines: Australia, California, South Africa and other Spanish regions such as the Canary Islands or Galicia. It was then one of the moments of splendor of the Marco de Jerez where the Palomino grape had already been massively selected for several centuries and adapted to our Atlantic climate and this Albariza land. In fact, there is documentary evidence of its presence in the Marco de Jerez since the 11th century, and possibly it has been here much longer.
There are also many types of Palomino and selected clones that can be differentiated (California, 84, Pelusón,…), and many types of rootstocks (161, Ruggeri, Colombar,…). All of them have different behaviors that are reflected in the wine. For us, the best Palomino grape is the Palomino Fino Antigua, of mass selection, that is, coming from the activity of the winegrowers, who selected from their best vines, the wood that they were later going to graft in the replacements and in the new plantations. This practice, repeated for decades and centuries, generates a very rich genetic diversity, and a harmonious palomino adapted to the environment. These vines are currently only found on plots that are over 50 years old. 85% of the Palomino planted in the Marco de Jerez is from the California clone, which is a clone selected and reviewed at the University of Davis (California). It is a very productive clon, in addition to presenting very large clusters and a disproportionate amount of grapes compared to to the leaf surface.
Thus, not all the Palomino grapes from Marco de Jerez have similar characteristics; among them there are different qualities. Rootstocks also have a great influence on the behavior of the plant and the characteristics of the grape. In the Sanlúcar area, for example, 161 has always been used, a very subtle and elegant rootstock, which does not produce much wood, and which presents a harmonious relationship between leaf surface and quantity of fruit. Inevitably the grape from this rootstock will generate a wine with a behavior of the same identity. There are other more productive rootstocks, and that produce a lot of vegetation, such as Colombar or Ruggeri, which have been used for more clayey soils because they are more vigorous and adapt better, but there are those who have planted them on albariza lands seeking greater production.
Planting is also a moment that marks all the subsequent development of the plant. The old vineyards that were planted by hand, were meticulously made by making large boxes. The rootstock was planted in them, and it was allowed to grow for two or three years before grafting the palomino grape wood of mass selection. The palomino grape plant was formed slowly, starting to produce after two or three years. The winegrowers had the principle of “first the plant and then the grape”. This allowed an enormous development of the roots of the plant, which inevitably over the years influenced the quality of the fruit. Currently the process is mechanical, with the plant already grafted from the first moment, coming from the nurseries, and starting to produce in the first or second year.
Therefore, not all Palomino grapes from albariza soils have the same quality: it will depend on their genetic material, their planting process, the rootstock used and the viticulture that takes care of it.
Bearing this in mind, I am very happy that in Eric Asimow’s latest article for the New York Times, of the 10 Spanish white wines he has selected, four are from Palomino or Listán (which is the same grape). I’m very proud because it is our palomino grape, the one from Marco de Jerez, the one selected by winegrowers in a massive way during the last eight centuries. Also in March 2022, in Decanter magazine, which was dedicated to Spain, we can see the wines selected by journalists such as Darren Smith, with origins from the Palomino or Listán grapes, such as our Lumiere wine.
It is time to once again give Palomino the value it deserves, based on respect for viticulture and the vineyard, and respect for the generations and generations of winegrowers who knew how to select it and adapt it to the Marco del Jerez terroir, unique in the world.