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TEXT:  Edward Owen
Taken From Spain Gourmetour September-December 1998 (pages 62-71)

MONTILLA-MORILES

Fine Finos & Superb Dessert Wines

JUST SOUTHWEST OF THE FABLED CITY OF CORDOBA, IN THE SUN BAKED HEART OF ANDALUSIA IN SOUTHERN SPAIN, IS THE HISTORIC MONTILLA-MORILES WINE REGION WHERE A TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION IN THE PRODUCTION OF HIGH QUALITY VINOS GENEROSOS HAS ASSURED A CLUTCH OF TOP AWARDS AND INCREASED WORLDWIDE RECOGNITION.  THE REGION IS NOW PRODUCING SOME OF THE BEST VALUE FINOS AND PEDRO XIMENEZ DESSERT WINES IN SPAIN.

Leaving the Madrid-Córdoba highway, the country road snakes lazily between fields of wheat and giant sunflowers. On low rolling hills, olive trees march in neat rows towards the next gentle valley.

One passes the magnificent gray castle of the Duques de Osuna perched high above the whitewashed hilltop village of Espejo. Just beyond, the vineyards start in earnest and soon one enters the town of Montilla where almost every lange building seems to be a bodega.

Archaeological finds show that wine has been produced in this region since Roman times when Córdoba was the capital of Baetica. The fame of the powerful wine, with a natural strength of up to 16 percent of alcohol, spread after it was enjoyed by both Rome and Pompeii.

In 719 AD, the Emirs of Damascus took over Córdoba after the invasion of the Moors and fon the next seven centuries the Muslims, officially teetotalers, took an ambivalent view towards the wines the Christians so enjoyed. Although many vineyards were uprooted, monks in the city were allowed to sell wine to their flock from their own taverns and it became known as vino de monasterio.

The Moors themselves were not averse to having a tipple and the 9th century poet, Al Gazal, born in nearby Jaén and who was a member of the courts of Al-Hakan I and Abdar-Rahmán II, wrote an exuberant poem entitled: ¡Echa Vino, tabernero!— Serve the wine, innkeeper! The final defeat and expulsion of the Moors in the 15th century led to a regeneration of the cultivation of vines and wine production, making the region famous again. Miguel de Cervantes stayed in Montilla for six months when he was a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada. He was later to use in his writings the local story of the camachas, women who were condemned as witches in 1572, although some said they were just intoxicated by the local wine.

In 1775 the noted Milanese cleric, Norberto Cama, included the wines from Lucena and Montilla in his list of the best Spanish wines.

Amontillado wine, old fino that is allowed to oxidize, originates in Montilla. The wines of Montilla are naturally strong enough to produce exceptional finos whereas fortified wines, or liqueur wines as they are officially known in the European Union, are those that have added alcohol because the wines are weaker.

And now, with an increasing number of international awards, the bodegas of Montilla-Moriles are out to prove their vinos generosos have their own appealing personality and are a worthy addition to any cellar or wine list. They already represent excellent value.

THE REGION

The Denomination of Origin (DO.) of Montilla-Moriles covers 10,573 hectares (26,125 acres) of vineyards and starts some 25 km (16 miles) ‘south of Córdoba on rolling landscape, between 300 and 700 meters (984 and 2,297 ft) above sea level.

The soil is mostly white and sandy limestone with more chalk, which retains winter rains in the best wine growing area, 2,680 hectares (6,622 acres) of higher ground in the Sierra de Montilla and the Moriles Alta.

The area has one of the hottest Mediterranean climates in Spain with around 2,500 hours of sunshine each year and an average rainfall of only 600 mm. Temperatures vary between -5 and 45°C (23-113°F) in the shade, regularly hitting 40°C (104°F) during the summer. The main vine is the sweet, fragrant and fruity white Pedro Ximénez, which excels here and accounts for 90 percent of production. The constant heat ensures a high sugar—and therefore alcohol—content. For whites and finos the harvest usually takes place in August, much earlier than in other areas. But grapes to make the regions justly famous Pedro Ximénez dessert wine are picked later and dried in the sun on straw matting for about a week to become succulent raisins. Then strong hydraulic presses extract the sweet, dark nectar for aging in casks.

Other varieties grown are Baladí-Verdejo, Lairén, Moscatel, and Torrontés. Jesús Flores, President of the Spanish Association of Sommeliers and Technical Director of Aula Española del Vino, admires Montilla wines: “I like them because they are naturally strong wines whereas fortified wines have been strengthened from 11 percent to 15 percent by adding alcohol. That means the wines of Montilla-Moriles have more body but at the same time they are delicious and delicate. The bouquet of the Montilla finos is of thyme, rosemary, and rock rose and there is a hint of hazelnut in its taste. In Montilla-Moriles there are great bodegas such as Toro Albalá in Aguilar de la Frontera as well as Alvear, Pérez Barquero, and Gracia Hermanos in Montilla,” he says. “It is generally recognized that the best sweet Pedro Ximénez are the bottles from Montilla-Monjes. One has to realize that the finos of Montilla-Moriles are also acquiring a notable quality.”

THE WINES

Manuel María López Alejandre, the charismatic secretary of the Consejo Regu lador (Regulatory Council) of the Denomination of Origin Montilla-Moriles established in 1932, explains that his bodegas have made tremendous progress in the last few years.

Many bodegas have installed more sophisticated presses and the major trend has been to also install stainless steel tanks for cold fermentation. These tanks can also be used for the second fermentation process, which traditionally took place in the tinajas—the huge Ali Baba type jars—and can also be used for storing wine, using inert nitrogen gas on top to stop it from oxidizing. More recently several bodegas have, or are about to, put in new state-of-the-art bottling plants.

The 1997 vintage was described as excellent, producing 67 million liters. Actual D.O. sales last year totaled 29.5 million liters of which 8.8 million, or 30%, were exported. By far the largest export was medium (44%) followed by fino (25%) and pale cream (18%).  “There have been enormous changes during the last 20 years, especially in technology,” he says. “This year, 1998, the bodegas are going to invest more than 1 billion pesetas in equipment for making the wines. The quality is much better now. We are slowly increasing domestic and export sales because of the prizes we have won. The two star wines are the fino and the sweet Pedro Ximénez.”

There are three categories of D.O. wines produced in Montilla-Moriles. The first are the vinos generosos —finos, amontillado*, oloroso*, palo cortado and others— with a minimum alcoholic strength of 15 percent, aged for at least two years in solera systems (see below).

The second are Pedro Ximénez wines of between 13 and 15 percent aged in the solera system and sold as aperitivo and dessert wines such as pale dry, medium, pale cream, and cream.

The third category are the white wines—young, light, fruity at 10-12 percent, with or without crianza.

The grapes for the young wines are the first to be picked—usually about mid-August—followed by those for the liqueur wines and finally by those to be sun dried for the Pedro Ximénez dessert wine.

Many grapes are pressed at a lagar, a small pressing house in the country, before being taken to the bodegas. Many cooperatives and bodegas have their own lagars which ensure the grapes are pressed fresh straight from the vine. In the 1980s the introduction of cold fermentation not only improved the first fermentation process for all wines, stopping the must from warming up as it ferments, but enabled bodegas to offset the worldwide slump in sales of fortified wines with the production of the young wines. After their first temperature-controlled fermentation, liqueur wines are filtered and either put into huge concrete tinajas to sit during the colder months of the winter or stainless-steel tanks. The fino is protected from oxidizing in both the tinajas and later in the barrels by a layer of yeast, called velo en for—unique to Spain—that forms on the surface exposed to air.

During February or March the selection of wines for fi-no or oloroso takes place. The capataz, on cellar master, decides which wines will be used to produce what. The wine which oxidizes to make oloroso is put in barrels which are usually aged by the solera system in the shade outdoors (the change in temperatures speeds up the oxidizing process) and the fino is moved to the criadera barrels to start the aging process over several years.

A domino process takes place in the solera system all year round between the stacked barrels in the fino warehouses to bring in the new fino and draw off the old for bottling. The oldest is in the solera butts on the ground and between a quarter and a third of the fino is drawn off at a time for blending and bottling. The liquid is replaced from a blend from the barrels above, the first criadera. The chain works upwards through the criaderas until there is room for the new fino in the upper tier. Fino barrels—all American oak, each with a capacity of 500 liters, some over 100 years old—are always filled only two thirds to allow the vital velo en flor to develop. This sounds familiar to you? But the Pedro Ximénez grapes, the microclimate, and the soil make the difference.

The capataz will be taking samples from the barrels, using a long handled venencia (see Spain Gourmetour No. 45). Although he will initially use his nose and mouth to assess the sample, these days laboratory tests will also be made and he will write his cryptic comments in chalk on each numbered cask. In the 18th century the capataz of the Alvear bodega was Carlos Billanueva, who signed the best fino barrels “C.B. ,“ the initials used today for the label of Alvear’s leading fino. An aspilla—a measuring stick—is used to gauge how much liquid is in each barrel.

Care is taken not to disturb the flor, which maintains its protective veil as a result of both feeding off the newer wine, making it thinner and more delicate, and oxygen. The fino itself becomes stronger in alcohol during the solera process because it loses about ten percent of its water content by evaporation through the wooden barrels. “The flor is a type of yeast which needs oxygen to grow and survive. It consumes the volatile acid and improves the taste,” explains enologist José Ignacio Ugarte at Montilla’s award winning Bodegas Robles, “Montilla finos are the lowest in the world in volatile acid and the only wines in the world which can be kept, using the solera system, for 100 years in barrels without oxidizing.”

The barrels have to be cleaned now and again because the flor leaves a sediment as it regenerates itself. But the live flor is taken from the barrel before cleaning and then returned to it afterwards to continue its vital role on the next fino put into it.

SOME MONTILLA BODEGAS

Alvear, founded in 1729, is not only the oldest bodega in Montilla but one of the oldest in Spain. It is owned by the distinguished, aristocratic Alvear family. Diego de Alvear (1749-1830), a brigadier general in the Spanish navy, saw his frigate sink with his wife and nine children aboard during an English attack.

He was imprisoned in England but was finally released to many an English girl, Luisa-Rebecca Ward, and returned home to establish an export business with his former enemy which thrives today.

The Alvear bodega is in the middle of Montilla and is affectionately called La Monumental. Its buildings are beautifully maintained with palm-lined courtyards and purple bougainvillea climbing up whitewashed walls. Part of the complex includes a vineyard for experimental growths on the town’s formen football field.

The bodega has recently installed a new bottling plant with the latest clean room technology and is planning to incorporate new stainless steel tanks in its lagar, put in up to 2,000 more casks for oloroso production, and improve shipping with a new pallet system.

Robbert op de Beek, Alvear’s assistant export director, points to the distant Sierra de Montilla where Alvear owns 200 hectares (494 acres) with its own lagar. They also buy from approved suppliers and produce about 10 million liters of wines a year plus a million liters of vermouth.

“The wine industry here is much more professional than 20 years ago,” he says. “There is an incredible difference in technology and we are much more market oriented. We’ve been looking at what can be sold, what people like and then we’ve made it.

“People also recognize Montilla as a good balance between quality and price. People are becoming aware that we are not cheaper than fortified wines because of quality but because there is tax on the alcohol added to them.” Alvear supplied most of the U.K.’s main supermarkets with own label Pale Dry, Cream, Medium, and Rich Cream. It is also one of the few bodegas to supply the U.S.A., Canada, andJapan in quantity. Alvear blends a special cream fon the U.S.A. which is sweetened with light dessert wine to 18 percent and lasts well.

At the International Wine Challenge 1998 in Bordeaux, Alvear’s Pedro Ximénez 1927 won a gold medal and Alvear’s Fino C.B. took a silver medal. At the same event in 1997, Alvear’s Oloroso Asunción won the gold. Its Marqués de la Sienna white wine has been exported fon the past 15 years.

Another major bodega is Pérez Barquero, established in 1905, now allied with Gracia Hermanos and the Compañía Vinícola del Sun, which markets Monte Cristo. The group accounts for 25 percent of the region’s total production and has 190 hectares (469 acres) of its own vines.

Rafael Delgado Ruz, export director of Pérez Barquero, says that the U.K. is the principal export market (30%) followed by Holland (25%), Belgium (10-12%).

“With Pedro Ximénez grapes we have wines with a natural alcoholic strength of 15 degrees and in some years higher if the climate is hotter,” he explains. “The concentration of sugar in the grape does not reduce during the night, as in other areas, but continues increasing.

“The first pressing is very gentle, squeezing about a liter from 1.4 kg of grapes, and this must is used to make the best finos in orden to maintain the fruity taste of the grapes in the wine,” he

says. “The Sierra produces high quality and there are many small lagars we traditionally use. A heavier pressing is used for olorosos.”

Most bodegas have a tasting area, called the sacristy, and here Pérez Barquero offers its award winning wines: Fino Gran Barquero, Amontillado Gran Barquero, Oloroso Gran Barquero, and Dulce Gran Barquero Pedro Ximénez.

Pérez Barquero is about to build a completely new bottling plant at its bodega. It will incorporate all the latest clean-room techniques and enable the company to increase production.

The elegant bodega of Gracia Hermanos, part of the Pérez Barquero group, is in an old flour mill next to the Montilla railway station. Gracia’s Maria del Valle bottled fino sells well—the bodega exports mainly to the U.K., Holland, and Belgium. It also sells brandy to Mexico and Venezuela.

In 1982 Gracia Hermanos pio— neered the production of a young white wine, called Viña Verde. Now the company is installing four new pneumatic presses to update and increase its overall output.

The two major groups in Montilla, Alvear and Pérez Barquero, have created an export association, Montisierra, to promote the sale of all generic Montilla-Mo-riles wines outside Spain. Montisierna was originally formed in 1981 when exporting was tough.

“Rather than have every bodega struggling to export on its own, we decided to act together,” says Rafael Delgado of Pérez Barquero. “We have been especially successful in the U.K. in creating awareness of our wines and we are now embarking on promotions to wine critics and wine buyers in France and Germany. We distributed leaflets on Montilla-Moriles wines in general at points of sale at all the major supermarkets in the U.K. It was the first time we had done it—but we made it!” says Señor Delgado, “We also distributed a well written and detailed press pack.” Two other major Montilla bodegas are Bodegas Navisa and La Aurora. Navisa is run by Miguel Velasco Chacón. It uses 70 percent of its own grapes from its 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of vines and sold 3.5 million liters of wine last year, exporting nearly a third. Navisa was founded in 1950 and in 1990 acquired new installations where the warehouse was remodeled and an ultramodern bottling plant installed. Bodegas La Aurora, established in 1973 because low sales meant grapes were wasting on the vine, is headed by José León Raigón. Aurora is a cooperative with 828 farmers who have 1,300 hectares (3,211 acres) of vineyards, exporting to five countries.

Always striving to improve quality, with a 20 percent increase in sales last year, La Aurora is investing 250 million pesetas (1.6 million US$) in special tanks which will improve extraction of the fresh fruit and primary aromas from the wine. It is also installing an Italian Pieralisi machine which uses centrifugal force to more effectively separate solids, like stems, from the virgin must.

AN OUTSTANDING PEDRO XIMÉNEZ

In nearby Aguilar de la Frontera, Antonio Sánchez, has built an excellent reputation for his Bodegas Toro Albalá, founded in 1844. In 1997 the Toro Albalá Don P.X. (meaning Pedro Ximénez) Reserva 1939 won the Gran Bacchus de Oro as the world’s best wine at the prestigious annual international competition in Spain organized by the Unión Española de Catadores (Spanish Wine Tasters Union).

Señor Sánchez, a professional enologist and one of the region’s most engaging characters, is dedicated to producing limited quantities of top quality wine. His 1939 Pedro Ximénez, exquisitely presented as a limited edition with a notary’s scroll, is on the wine list of some of the world’s top restaurants. The bodega is in an old power station, acquired in 1924, and locals called the fino, Eléctrico. The name stuck and now Toro Albalá even sells fino in a bottle that resembles a large light bulb. One of his other bottles has a label in Braille for the blind. Señor Sánchez also boasts an extraordinary museum, which includes a collection of 2,000 books on wine, and plans to open a cultural center for visitors—they already come from far and wide— which will include a practical demonstration of how solera barrels lose ten percent of their water content. Torres Burgos, one of six bodegas in Lucena, is run by José Ignacio Torres whose great-grandfather founded

the bodega in 1890. Last year he sold one million liters of wines, a third of which was his TB black label fino which won the Bacchus silver award in 1998. His grapes come from the higher slopes of Monies Alta, 10 km (6 miles) to the west. “In Mo-riles Alta there is a special microclimate with acid chalk soil,” explains Señor Torres. “It produces less grapes but the quality is better.”

Further south at Bodegas Crismona, founded in 1904 in Doña Menda, director José Molina offers a particularly smooth and fragrant fino, Los Cabales. It also offers a range of old wines with the label Crismona Selección which includes an 18° oloroso and a fine Pedro Ximénez Reserva. Crismona has a total of one million liters of wines aging in 2,000 barrels.

 

Edward Owen lives in Madrid and writes for The Times and The Express of London as well as Lookout, Spain ‘s English language magazine.

*N.B.: The use of the terms fino, amontillado, and oloroso for Montilla-Moriles wines are not permitted in the U.K.

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