Often referred to as “cousins” of Sherry wines, the generoso wines of the DO Montilla-Moriles region concede nothing to those of their Andalusian neighbor. History, tradition, artisanal wine making and modern innovations, go hand in hand with the natural features of this extremely hot and dry climate – the most extreme of any Spanish wine region – and the character of its star grape: Pedro Ximénez
Happily wedged into the southern reaches of the province of Córdoba, Spanish wine region DO Montilla-Moriles is nearly at the geographic center of Andalusia, enclosed in a lopsided triangle formed by the storied cities of Córdoba (to the north), Seville (to the west) and Granada (to the east over the Sierra Subbética mountains). Here, in this approximately 5,500-hectare region, some of Spain’s most revered and historic wines are made, thanks to the singular properties of the region’s most important grape, Pedro Ximénez, which accounts for 95% of all plantings. The rest is given over to nine other white grape varieties, including Moscatel de Alejandría, Macabeo and Verdejo. Although all of the denomination’s authorized varieties are white, there also are about 900 hectares of red grapes planted in the area, which are used to make wines that fall under the Protected Geographic Indication, Vinos de la Tierra de Córdoba.
Although its vineyards were almost completely wiped out by the grape phylloxera plague in the 19th century, the rolling hills and valleys of DO Montilla-Moriles are once again adorned with row after row of vines – at times almost glimmering in the reflection of the white limestone soils. According to the Regulatory Board of the Denomination of Origin, there are fifty-five wineries registered with the DO, of which thirty-three harvest grapes and make authorized wines.
There are three main types of wines from this area: young and aged white PX wines, which tend to be dry with somewhat neutral aromas unless blended with more aromatic grape varieties like Moscatel or Verdejo; generosos including Finos, Amontillados and Olorosos, which are subjected to biological aging (under a layer of flor, or yeast) and/or oxidative aging in the traditional criadera y solera system of stacked barrels (having its origins in the mid-1700's); and the sweet PX wines that draw their singular aromas and flavors directly from the Córdoban sun.
The term generoso refers to fortified wines that contain more than 15% alcohol, and those made in Montilla-Moriles share some characteristics with the Finos, Amontillados and Olorosos from DO Jeréz. But the Pedro Ximénez grapes (as opposed to the Palomino grapes that dominate in Jeréz) lend them different aromas and flavors, and also can affect their basic nature as "fortified" wines. Due to their higher sugar content, PX grapes can yield wines with a higher alcohol content – up to 15% by natural fermentation. Other characteristics of generoso wines from DO Montilla-Moriles derive from the local flor, which is responsible for aging Finos and, initially, Amontillados. It produces sharp aromas interwoven with notes of old wood, yeast and almonds. In contrast, the oxidative aging lends aromas of nuts, raisins and balsamics. The characteristic palate is dry, saline and elegantly bitter. Given the centuries-old tradition of these wines in this area, it’s no surprise that the name for the deeply golden Amontillado wines literally means "in the style of Montilla".
Though the traditional criaderas y soleras system of aging wines means that generosos typically don't have a vintage – new wines are blended with older ones as they are transferred little by little down the rows of barrels –, some wineries in DO Montilla-Moriles have released single-vintage generosos like the sixty-five-year-old Toro Albalá's Amontillado Selección 1951, which in 2014 received 95 points from Robert Parker's "The Wine Advocate". Or the Amontillado 1905 Solera Fundacional from Pérez Barquero, which received 100 points from this same publication in 2016.
The sweetest things
This single-vintage trend is particularly common among what most consider to be the region's most celebrated and iconic products: the sweet Pedro Ximénez wines. Take for example Bodegas Alvear's PX Añada 2011, which received a perfect score of 100 points from Robert Parker in 2013, or Toro Albalá's Don P.X Convento Selección 1946, which also received the top score of 100 points that same year. Montilla-Moriles' sweet PX wines are true manifestations of the region's history, tradition and distinctive climate. To make these deeply-hued, velvety and complex wines, the loose bunches of Pedro Ximénez grapes are hand harvested and laid out on braided esparto grass mats in the sun for five to fifteen days. Turned by hand, the grapes slowly dry out, concentrating their sugars into a sweet, caramel colored juice that is later collected by careful pressing. This juice is partially fermented and then fortified with alcohol.
The wines can be aged or not. The criaderas y soleras system only adds to their complexity in terms of flavors and aromas. Pérez Barquero has also had success here, with the winery's Pedro Ximénez 1905 Solera Fundacional receiving 99 points from The Wine Advocate's April 2016 report.
Looking back, moving forward
Though the most emblematic wines of this region stand out as symbols of its culture and wine making traditions, that doesn’t mean there's no room for innovation. In addition to increasingly common practices like the release of single vintage generosos and sweet wines, many wineries are also experimenting with "regular" white wines, creating quality PX wines as well as blends, some of which are now aged in oak.
Another growing category in Montilla-Moriles is organic wines. Bodegas Robles has been an indisputable frontrunner in this field, both here and in the rest of Spain. Presented with the prestigious "Best Organic Production in Spain" award in 2014 by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, Bodegas Robles switched to 100% organic production in the late 1990's. Not only is Bodegas Robles the first Spanish winery to calculate its carbon footprint, but it has also made a commitment to reducing its environmental impact every year. This move has done nothing if not increase the number of international awards bestowed on its wines, of which 20% of total production is exported to the USA, Australia, Japan, and Central and Northern Europe.
In fact, exporting is another key to this region's longevity, thanks to the value that international consumers in Europe and beyond place on these singular wines. The main exporter in the DO is the aforementioned Toro Albalá, "which accounts for 62% of PX exports in terms of liters (72% in value)", as explained by Antonio Sorgato, the winery's Export CEO. Bodegas Alvear's executive president Fernando Giménez Alvear reports that there is a growing market for the winery's vintage PX line, as well as an emergence of young and modern consumers – fans of the world-popular tapas trend – who are helping to make up for the gradual loss of traditional consumers. "Our main markets are currently the United States and Canada, where "traditional" consumption still flourishes, particularly in New England and Ontario, while "urban" consumption is rising in New York, California, British Columbia and Quebec – with even more intensity than in the UK." Other growing markets for the winery include Asian countries like China, Japan and Taiwan.
According to the Regulatory Board, there are currently twelve wineries in DO Montilla-Moriles that are registered for export, with the total export volume of the wine reaching approximately 1.8 million liters in 2014. The principal export markets are the Netherlands, England, Germany, France and the Czech Republic (within Europe), in addition to the USA, Canada, various South American countries, Australia, China, and Japan.
Happily wedged into the southern reaches of the province of Córdoba, Spanish wine region DO Montilla-Moriles is nearly at the geographic center of Andalusia, enclosed in a lopsided triangle formed by the storied cities of Córdoba (to the north), Seville (to the west) and Granada (to the east over the Sierra Subbética mountains)