Spanish Grape Basks in Success
Pedro Ximénez wine. Photo by: DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry
Traditionally cultivated under the Andalusian sun, Pedro Ximénez grapes and the wines they yield reflect centuries of history, international renown, prestigious awards and noteworthy exports—all the while embodying the flavors and culture of southern Spain.
Pedro Ximénez: a white Spanish grape that is so important it has a first and last name. Although its origins are still debated, one of the most romantic and enchanting stories of this grape’s history originates in the Canary Islands. From there it was supposedly carried to the Rhine region of Germany and eventually brought back to Spain by a soldier in Charles V's army named—you guessed it—Pedro Ximénez. Indisputably, this Spanish grape has been cultivated in Andalusia for centuries, and it is the heart and soul of the wines of DO Montilla-Moriles, as well as some of the famed sweet wines of DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry and DO Vinos de Málaga.
Under the Córdoban sun
Although Pedro Ximénez (also known as Pedro Jiménez or simply PX) is typically associated with fortified and sweet wines, this grape variety is extensively cultivated throughout Andalusia, and is often used to make pleasantly neutral and dry white wines as well. The cradle of this thin-skinned grape is the hot, dry climate of DO Montilla-Moriles in southern Córdoba, where it accounts for 95% of the 5,500 hectares of plantings. Here it is used for white wines and dry fortified wines like Finos, Amontillados and Olorosos, which are subject to either biological and/or oxidative aging.
According to the Regulatory Council of DO Montilla-Moriles, the local flor (layer of yeast) responsible for the biological aging of Finos (and initially Amontillados) lends almond and saline notes to the wines, while the oxidative aging imparts aromas of nuts, raisins and balsamics. But perhaps the most famous PX wines from this region, at least from an international standpoint, are its sweet wines. Characterized by their ample dry extract and soft, velvety palate, these mahogany-hued wines are aromatically complex and richly sweet, while retaining a level of acidity that makes them imminently drinkable. These singular characteristics are the result of the traditional and artisanal wine-making technique well adapted to the hottest wine making region in Spain.
After a selective manual harvest, the loose bunches of Pedro Ximénez grapes are laid out one by one on braided esparto grass mats to dry in the sun for 5 to 15 days, depending on the temperature, daily sunlight and winery’s preference. Turned periodically by hand, these thin-skinned grapes slowly dry out in the sun, concentrating their sugars and generally taking on a deep, maroonish-brown hue. Once they reach the desired state, they are taken to the winery and laboriously pressed to obtain their sweet, caramel-colored juice. This juice is partially fermented and then fortified with alcohol. Not all sweet PX wines are aged, but the ones that are employ the traditional criadera y solera system that is characteristic of this region and DOs Jerez and Málaga.
Traditional wine-making process
According to María Alvear, the Export and Marketing Director of Bodegas Alvear, a family winery in Montilla-Moriles that was founded in 1729, this traditional wine-making process is key to the character of Pedro Ximénez. "It exhibits its full aromatic potential only when aged and dried." She goes on to say that, "Not only does the grape's sugar become concentrated when dried out under the summer sun, but aromatic compounds and much more complex flavors are also formed within the grape. These contribute to the organoleptic richness of sweet PX wines."
In addition to its sweet PX wines, the winery also uses Pedro Ximénez grapes to make dry Finos, Amontillados (literally, "in the style of Montilla") and Olorosos. Bodegas Alvear exports around 40% percent of production, and its sweet PX wines have drawn attention from the likes of Robert Parker, who awarded the winery's PX Solera 1927 with 98 points and its PX Añada 2011 with the coveted 100 points—making it one of only a handful of wines in Spain to hold this distinction.
The sweetest Sherry
Sweet Pedro Ximénez wines are also characteristic of acclaimed Spanish sherry region DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry. Although once cultivated en masse here, most of the PX vineyards have been given over to the hardier white Palomino grapes, which are used to make most of the region's different types of Sherries. Today, the Regulatory Council of DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry reports that there are only 47 hectares of Pedro Ximénez planted here. In fact, Jerez wine makers source the partially-fermented, concentrated grape juice directly from Montilla-Moriles, where the climate is ideal for drying these grapes. In any case, this doesn’t make the PX wines of DO Sherry-Jerez-Xérès any less exceptional.
One such wine is Pedro Ximénez Tradición VOS, from venerated Jerez winemaker Bodegas Tradición. Aged for an average of two decades, this wine is completely natural and made entirely by hand, including the bottling, corking and labeling processes. The approximately 4,000 bottles produced annually are individually numbered. This deeply-hued wine is very dense, smooth and silky, with notes of fig and other fruit, black liquorice and roasted aromas that give way to lingering notes of chocolate, coffee and toffee on the palate. Like other sweet PX wines, it should be served chilled and is excellent with chocolate, certain cheeses and other desserts. These characteristics are not lost on international wine lovers, translating to exports of around 50% of the winery’s production.
Though the most abundant grape in this region is Moscatel, Pedro Ximénez is no less traditional and historic. According to Javier Aranda Bautista, the Quality Manager of Denomination of Origin Vinos de Málaga, Pedro Ximénez wines were responsible for bringing fame to this wine-making region. Here, PX is used to make different sweet wines, aged in traditional wood criaderas y soleras, that range from very light and pale in color to dark and deeply hued. They are hallmarks of this region: stalwart sweet wines that develop their aromas and complexity over time.
The approximately 335 hectares of Pedro Ximénez grapes cultivated in Málaga are concentrated in the county of Antequera, on the province’s border with Córdoba. The climate here is similar to that of its northern neighbor Montilla-Moriles, so it’s not surprising that PX grapes here undergo a similar drying process in the sun, before the fermentation process transforms them into the traditional PX wines of Málaga. Although Aranda recognizes some similarities between these sweet wines and those made in Montilla-Morilles, he says that the former are slightly more acidic, making them crisper and fresher on the palate, as well as slightly less full-bodied.
Sweet and Sour
Pedro Ximénez grapes also play a starring role in the excellent vinegars made in this country’s three vinegar denominations of origin— all of them in Andalusia: DO Vinagre de Jerez, DO Vinagre de Condado de Huelva and DO Vinagre de Montilla-Moriles. Perhaps the most representative of these are the semi-sweet or sweet-and-sour versions that are common in DO Vinagre de Montilla-Moriles, aptly reflecting the region’s tradition of sweet Pedro Ximénez wines.
PX grapes are used for three-quarters of the vinegars from here, which are made using the same criaderas y soleras system employed for the region’s wines. They are categorized based on the type and length of aging—Añada (minimum 3 years in a single oak barrel), Crianza (6 months), Reserva (2 years) and Gran Reserva (minimum 5 years)—as well as by their sweetness. These deeply colored and velvety vinegars are no strangers to international palates, with wineries like Bodegas Alvear currently exporting more than 90% of its (Pedro Ximénez) vinegar production to the far corners of the world.
Adrienne Smith is a sommelier, chef and freelance writer. She has spent the last decade eating and drinking her way through Spain.