For a long time, Montilla Moriles stood in the shadow of its well-known neighbour Jeréz, sporting the image of an inferior, cheap alternative to sherry. However, the wines from Montilla Moriles do have their own personality, partly due to extensive use of the Pedro Ximénez grape, which is still legally shipped to Jeréz and Malaga for blending.
Key success factors for the quality of Montilla Moriles
The production area of Montilla Moriles extends over around 7,000 ha, with an area under vine of 5,300 ha, 40 km south of Córdoba. The river Guadajoz delimits its northern boundaries while the Genil stream does the same in the south-western part of the appellation.
Within this area, two superior quality sub-zones made of albariza soils, the chalk-white top soils seen in Jeréz, are of particular interest. One is located in the Montilla Sierra and the other is in the Moriles Altos. Elsewhere, ruedas or sandy soils are the norm. The albariza superior quality terroirs account for around 2,000 ha of total production area. Average elevation is between 125 and 600 m.
The average size of vineyards is around 2 ha, which explains why some 3,200 growers are involved in producing Montilla Moriles, 70% of them taking their grapes to the local co-operative. There are 92 wineries operating in the appellation. Together, they produce around 200,000 hl/year, 88% of which is sold in Spain, either in bulk or bottled.
The climate is essentially Mediterranean with a continental influence. Winters are cold and summers hot, long and dry with maximum temperatures of 45ºC. Average rainfall is in the 500 – 1,000 mm range and tends to be concentrated over the winter months. This is why the clay in the sub-soil is so important: it retains water well and averts water stress for the vines which have deep roots of up to four metres. The best albero soils are able to retain 33% of their weight in water. Due to these particular conditions, harvesting in Montilla Moriles is among the first to start in Spain. Sunshine hours are also considerable, ranging from 2,800 to 3,000 h/year.
It is very likely that the Pedro Ximénez grape has a more extensive area under vine than Palomino from Jeréz, since it is the main grape not only in Montilla Moriles, where it accounts for 70% of all plantings in the appellation, but also in Málaga. It is a thin-skinned grape and prone to disease. Other relevant grapes in the area are Moscatel and Torrontés. Less relevant grapes are Airén, Baladí-Verdejo and Moscatel.
The Solera system
The wine is placed in American oak casks; the casks are then grouped together in batches, each one housing a wine of differing age. The groups of butts stay in the same place so it is the wine that moves round and not the casks. They are generally 600-litre casks, filled to 500 litres with wine, thereby leaving enough room for air to be effective, either feeding the ‘flor’ or oxidising the ‘oloroso’, depending on wine styles.
Wine is drawn off from the ‘solera’ (the butt closest to the soil) for bottling and the resultant void in the casks is replenished with wine from the first ‘criadera’, which in turn is replenished from the second ‘criadera’ and so on. The void is filled with a slightly younger wine of the same style, with the younger wine gradually taking on the quality of the older one. After a few months, the wine in the cask will be absolutely indistinguishable from what it was before. This is what makes the ‘solera’ system possible. Each stage of development, represented by a ‘criadera’ or the ‘solera’, is called a ‘scale’.
Each ‘scale’ is stronger in alcohol than the one immediately before it; acidity is also slightly greater, while the proportion of aldehydes and esters rises rapidly.
The wine taken from the different butts in a ‘criadera’ is pumped into a tank where it is mixed together before being pumped in to the butts of the next ‘criadera’.
Wine styles: a companion for every moment
The magic of Montilla Moriles is that you can find a wine for every occasion, starting with the ‘vino joven’ or young wine and then following through with the ‘fino’, the ‘amontillado’, the ‘oloroso’, the ‘palo cortado’, the Pedro Ximénez, the Moscatel and finally blends of different sugar levels.
The ‘vino joven’ is the simplest wine of all: it does not undergo any kind of ageing and can include Pedro Ximénez, Airén, Verdejo and other grapes. The wines are usually pale, fruity and generally dry in the palate. They are light wines and easy to drink between meals or as appetisers. In order to preserve the freshness of the grapes, the fruit is picked early so that the wines offer up evident freshness due to the acidity levels.
The ‘fino’ comes from a base wine that has been aged under a ‘velo de flor’, a veil of yeast that forms on the surface of the wine and distinguishes ‘fino’ from other styles of sherry. Unlike in Jeréz, the ‘fino’ from Pedro Ximénez (the main grape in Jeréz being the Palomino fino), does not need any fortification due to the fact that Pedro Ximénez has a higher alcohol level that is easily attained in the hot summer season. In this respect, the ‘fino’ from Montilla Moriles is more ‘natural’ than that of Jeréz. The wines have a bright yellow colour and are very complex, subtle and delicate on the nose with yeasty notes completed by dried fruits (almond) and sometimes a dash of liquorice. On the palate, they are dry and pungent with a faint, well-integrated bitterness framed by a salty impression with a fairly long finish. The ‘fino’ from Montilla Moriles goes remarkably well with ‘boquerones’ (a typical Spanish anchovy marinated in vinegar), olives and generally small fried fish.
The ‘amontillado’ combines ageing under a ‘velo de flor’ and oxidative ageing. This happens either because the ‘flor’ yeast dies naturally or because the wine is fortified to an ABV of over 16º, thereby killing the yeast. In this instance, the wine changes colour and aromatic profile. It turns amber and acquires a rich nutty note whilst also becoming more pungent than the ‘fino’ from which it derives. It is dry and spicy on the palate with persistent aromas. It goes well with fried artichokes (or other cooked vegetables like green peas) and dices of cured Spanish ham.
‘Oloroso’ epitomises wines undergoing oxidative ageing. The ‘velo de flor’ has only been present for a few months, so that some ‘olorosos’ retain wonderful primary aromas. Its mahogany colour is the result of lengthy oxidation in casks after the base wine has been fortified to 18º ABV. It follows the system of ‘criaderas’ and ‘soleras’. The ‘oloroso’ is rounder and less complex than the ‘amontillado’, with hints of walnut and spices. It pairs well with bull’s tail stew.
The ‘palo cortado’ is a wine with the colour and nose of an ‘amontillado’ and the palate of an ‘oloroso’. It is the most enjoyed and greatest type of Montilla Moriles. It combines the elegance of the ‘amontillado’ with the power and body of an ‘oloroso’. Due to its complexity and subtlety, a ‘palo cortado’ can pair either with red meats such as beef’s cheek stewed in the same wine or fish served in an onion and ‘palo cortado’ sauce.
Pedro Ximénez wine, made from the grape of the same name, is the true pearl of the appellation. The wines are obtained by pressing grapes that have been left to dry in the sun for several days. The length of the process - locally called ‘soleado’ – depends on weather conditions after the harvest and can last from seven to more than ten days. The wine is aged in casks, yielding a thick liquid - almost as thick as molasses - with a minimum sugar level of 272 g/l. Normally, sugar levels are higher and 400 – 450 g/l is the norm rather than the exception. It really is a sight to be able to see entire fields covered with mats spread with grapes drying just after the harvest, with many people in charge of turning the grapes over every few days. The resultant wines are complex and very powerful with aromas of dried fig, coffee, chocolate, cocoa, date and raisin. There has been a recent trend amongst producers to launch ‘vintage’ Pedro Ximénez, lighter in body, texture and colour and somehow fruitier, designed to be drunk younger than traditional Pedro Ximénez wines. Whatever the style, the wines work well with chocolate in all forms and desserts of cooked fruits.
Moscatel – the name of both the grape used and the wine itself – is also made in a variety of styles, from slightly sweet to very sweet. It pairs well with simply roasted foie gras, many desserts and also makes a good aperitif wine to savour just before dinner.
Like in Jeréz, other styles of wines are pale dry, medium dry, pale cream and cream. The cream wines are obtained by adding a sweet wine or liquid to a dry base wine. Common practices – even though they might not all be 100% legal – include the use of cane sugar, concentrated rectified grape must or other, better practices such as the use of sweet wines from Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel. The wines might subsequently undergo ageing using the ‘criadera’ system.
The region and its people
More than anything else, the magic of the wines of Montilla Moriles comes from its people. In Córdoba and its surrounding area, the people are welcoming, hospitable and friendly. Good food, passionate conversation and a glass of Montilla Moriles go hand in hand. In the morning, the rolling vineyards are enshrouded in a light mist, giving a magical touch to the landscape. The sound of a guitar can sometimes be heard in the distance and one word comes to mind: ‘duende’, a mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher has explained, as Goethe put it. And that is what Montilla Moriles is all about: ‘duende’, that special magic emanating from the wine, the people, the landscape and the way life flows: everything is natural, calm and flawless. The different wines of Montilla Moriles serve as perfect companions to every situation. The best way to discover them is to travel to Córdoba, forget about everything else and become ensconced in that ‘duende’ magic!