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Natural High

by Alegria 

Posted: 28 April 2005
Word Count: 1526
Summary: 1500 word article about Montilla, Andalucia's "secret sherry", describing its history, how it's made at one venerable bodega, and providing tasting notes and food pairings.

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Unlike its famous neighbour from Jerez, Montilla’s reputation has not travelled far outside Spain. But these elegant aperitif and dessert wines deserve a wider audience, says Arpi Shively.

Under a deep blue springtime sky, the sunlit hills of Cordoba province present a gentle, surprisingly green landscape of wheatfields and summer sunflowers, almond and olive plantations, and closer to Montilla-Moriles, a tapestry of vines reaching to the horizon. These gentle scenes belie the region’s history of fierce battles, and equally fierce variations of climate; in one of the hottest parts of Spain, summer days can clock up 45C, falling to –5C in winter. And at 600mm a year, rainfall is just a blip in an average 2,500 hours of sunshine.

The Montilla-Moriles wine region, a few miles south of Cordoba, actually covers about 14 small towns, including Baena, famous for its top-quality olive oil. But the best wines come from the two towns that give the region its name.

Montilla’s climate may not sound like heaven to us warm-blooded creatures, but the sweet, fragrant and fruity Pedro Ximenez grapes thrive here in the chalky, sandy soil. The relentless heat of summer ensures a naturally high sugar/alcohol content of 15-16 percent, so that many of the Montilla wines, unlike their sherry counterparts, don’t need to be fortified with added alcohol. Among other things, locals insist you won’t get a hangover with Montilla wine. Its purity is just one of the differences that Montilla aficionados say sets their favourite tipple apart.

Fiercely loyal Cordobes and Montilla-Moriles locals explain the greater popularity of sherry by pointing out that it is produced in Jerez, closer to the coast and export markets, while Montilla, further inland, has traditionally lacked an international audience. However, Montilla has more reliable sunshine and therefore riper grapes, to compensate for any geographical disadvantage, while modern transport and distribution methods continue to narrow the availability gap.

Both sherry and Montilla are aged using the criaderas y soleras system, a method of ageing where older wines are carefully mingled at various stages with newer wines, and one that is unique to southern Spain. However, sherry is made mainly from Palomino grapes, which yield lower natural alcohol, while naturally strong Montilla is almost entirely the product of the Pedro Ximénez grape. The remaining 10 percent of grapes are Moscatel, Baladí-Verdejo and Torrontés.

The Montilla-Morales region can trace its winemaking tradition to Roman times, while later Moorish conquerors left their mark here as they did throughout Andalucia. Commercial winemaking was established in the late 17th century, and the region is home to some of the oldest bodegas in Spain. Respected bodegas include Alvear, Carbonell and Montecristo.

Montilla’s prized status as a quality wine region with its own Denominación de Origen (D.O.) was confirmed in 1945. Before that, much of its production was sent to Jerez for blending and sold as sherry.

By this time, the Alvear bodega, one of the oldest in Spain, had already been producing fine Montilla wines for over 200 years. From pale gold to deepest amber, they have flowed in the veins of eight generations of dashing Alvear soldiers, priests and statesmen, and the name itself goes back centuries earlier. Today, the handsome, almost monastically austere Alvear bodega stands in its own grounds in the center of bustling Montilla town, an intriguing blend of antiquity and ultra-modern technology that reflects the label’s journey into the 21st century.

Montilla’s story begins each year with the vintage, or grape harvest, at the beginning of September. Grapes destined to become light, white wines and finos are picked first; others are left a little longer to sweeten on the vine, then dried on straw mats in the sun for about a week. These raisins will eventually become rich, dark dessert wines for which the Pedro Ximénez grape is justly famous.

After harvesting and drying, both types of grape travel next to the lagares, or presses, yielding a fine grape juice or ‘must’, which is fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats. This fermentation is completed in traditional tinajas, huge four-metre (13ft) open topped earthenware vats stored in dark cool rooms. The following January, the wines are classified for ageing as finos or olorosos, and begin their stately journey through the criadera y solera ageing system. A third style of Montilla, the vinos jovenes afrutados, are young, fruity wines that are sold without ageing, and only in this region.

The maturing wines are stored in 500-litre barrels of old American white oak, (new oak would transmit its flavour to the wine) in vast church-like bodegas whose packed earth floors are watered every summer day to keep humidity at perfect levels.

In the largest of the Alvear bodegas, ‘La Monumental’, 20,000 casks nestle in their wooden brackets. Outwardly still and silent, inside many of the casks, a miniature miracle is taking place. The fino style wines will spend part of their minimum two-year ageing process under a fluffy blanket of flor, a naturally-occurring yeast unique to the Montilla/Jerez area of southern Spain. The flor prevents air from oxidizing the wine, so that it retains its pale straw colour and light, clean flavour – the classic fino character.

Amontillado, literally “in the style of Montilla”, is fino that continues ageing after its flor blanket has died and fallen to the bottom of the cask, acquiring its typical bright chestnut shade and deeper flavour, while retaining its fresh fino origins.

Oloroso, the third of the so called vinos generosos, is wine aged in oak barrels where no flor has developed, so that it is both raisiny-sweet and at the same time, earthy-dry.

Another major category of Montilla wines are known as ‘solera wines’, sold mostly in the UK as Pale Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, Pale Cream and Cream.

But the pride and joy of Montilla wines produced at Alvear are its vinos generosos, each of which has its own distinguished personality and presence:

Fino C.B. is the Alvear bodega’s flagship Montilla wine, found “wherever Andalucians get together for a chat.” (And incidentally, in many branches of Sainsbury’s.) The initials stand for a celebrated early 19th century cellarmaster, Carlos Billanueva, who chalked his initials on the barrels that contained the best wine. You can still see the same initials chalked on casks today.

Aged under the distinctive flor, and palest gold in the glass, Fino CB is crisp and very dry, with a delicate salted almond flavour. Almost too easy to drink, especially chilled, Fino CB is perfect as an aperitif with tapas such as shellfish, cheese and olives. It’s one of the rare wines that will pair happily with vinegar, too, making it an ideal partner for salads.

CB’s older, steadier cousin, Fino Capataz, emerges from its flor blanket eight to ten years later, its golden colour tinged with pale olive green, perhaps a little more fruity, but with the same freshness and food affinities as Fino CB. Both finos should be kept less than a year, refrigerated when opened, and drunk within a few days.

Amontillado Carlos VII develops through long ageing in oak both during and after its flor stage. Serve the light amber wine slightly chilled with nuts, smoked meats and cheese. Its deep fig and roasted nut flavours also add a new dimension to soups and sauces.

Oloroso Asunción is Montilla wine fortified with grape alcohol to reach the required strength of 19% alcohol by volume. Matured and aged in oak where no flor develops, Asunción is a perfect balance of sweet and dry, rich dark amber in colour. It’s often drunk instead of brandy, or with desserts.

Smooth and full-bodied, the Pedro Ximenez Solera 1927 has the taste and rich brown colour of figs. Like a glass of Christmas, this intensely sweet wine is perfect as an after dinner liqueur, and makes a great sauce poured over ice cream!

Finally, the ultimate liqueur wine produced by Alvear is the Pedro Ximenez Solera 1910. Deep mahogany, with a hint of prunes and chocolate, it is perfect to sip with dessert, fruit salad and pastries, or refreshing to drink on its own over ice. Aged for over 30 years, the wine is not even on the market at present, being placed in reserve after Robert Parker gave it 98 out of 100 a few years ago, and sales soared.

Just 16 kilometres down the road in Cordoba, Montilla’s grand neighbour, Montilla fino is drunk ice cold with tapas including olives, prawns and calamares, fried or served in their own ink. In this stronghold of Montilla loyalty, it comes as no surprise to hear that many diners continue to drink it throughout the meal. Montilla is a perfect complement to the range of strong flavours that characterise Andalucian food.

Luckily, there is no shortage of atmospheric old bars and bodegas, both in and around Cordoba, where you can sample Montilla in its native setting. Some of the bodegas even serve their own Montilla. Try it at top Cordoba eatery Bodegas Campo with the creamy cold tomato soup salmorejo, or at bustling Taberna Salinas, with cod ‘sushi’ marinated in orange. Just make sure you don’t ask for sherry!

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 08:41 on 29 April 2005  Report this post
I'm thinking of going to live in Spain for a year, possibly in the Seville/Cordoba area, so was very interested in this account of the wines of the area. It seemed to me a very lucid account. What is the intended market? Where you commisioned to write about the wine?


Cornelia at 08:44 on 29 April 2005  Report this post
I was very interestd to read this lucid and interesting account of the wines of this part of Andalucia. I have been thinking of going to live there for a year or so, and was considering Seville.

It seems quite long. What is the intended market? Were you commissioned to write it?



Sorry; this seems to have been sent twice.

sue n at 11:44 on 29 April 2005  Report this post
Hi Alegria
I guess this is aimed at a wine magazine, where I'm sure it would do well. As a non-expert who buys wine at the supermarket, I had to read the first half twice to sort out the sherries from the wines etc. (Also Arpi Shiveley is lost on me.)
Once you got onto how it was made I began to enjoy it more. If it is for a wider audience I would think more on the countyside, the people, the food you eat the various wines with etc would make it less 'wine-buffy'.
Good luck
Sue n

Richard Brown at 16:19 on 11 May 2005  Report this post
Mouth-watering in many parts but I agree with Sue n about Arpi. Who he? Just a few words along the 'leading expert' or 'well known viticulturalist' lines would be welcome.

I think you have a rich and evocative style. I could imagine a considerably edited version, which simply introduces the idea of Montilla to the general public without the detail, would be of interest to the broadsheets.


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