IT has produced what must be Andalucia’s most expensive wine.
Yet, 99 per cent of Olive Press readers will not have heard of the region of Montilla-Moriles.
Incredibly though, the area of rolling hills south of Cordoba produces some of Spain’s most delightful, rich and complex wines.
Sherry-like in nature, one in particular, the 1905 Pedro Ximenez of Perez Barquero – has been awarded a mark of ‘99’ from celebrated US wine critic Robert Parker.
The highest mark in Andalucia, he described the bodega as having “perhaps the best fortified wines in the world”.
It is perhaps little surprise then that ‘1905’ sells at the lofty price tag of 200 euros a bottle.
But, before you splutter into your morning coffee, read on.
The incredible Cuvee ‘1905’ was actually produced in that year 105 years ago, and has got better and better ever since.
“It is still as fresh today as it was then,” claims bodega owner Rafael Cordoba Garcia and to be fair there are only 1000 bottles left.
Every year a bigger rival to Jerez, the fortified wines from the Denominacion de Origin (DO) of Montilla Moriles are a joy to sample.
I spent a day travelling around the region, which is part of the famously fertile Campina region, often known as the ‘bread-basket of Andalucia’, which stretches broadly between Cordoba and Sevilla.
At Montilla-Moriles – and nearby at fellow wine town Dona Mencia – acres of wheat suddenly turn into 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. This is one of the hottest parts of Spain and summer days can clock up 45ºC, falling to –5ºC 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 superb olive oil. But the finest wines come from the two towns – Montilla and Moriles – that give the region its name.
Montilla’s climate may not sound like heaven to us, but the sweet, fragrant 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.
This, according to locals, means that you won’t get a hangover from Montilla wines.
They add that the reason that it is not as popular as its near neighbour Jerez, is because Jerez is closer to the coast while Montilla is much further inland, where it does not get found easily by an international audience.
However, Montilla has more reliable sunshine and therefore riper and sweeter grapes, to compensate for any geographical disadvantage, while modern transport and distribution methods have for some time continued 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 blended at various stages with younger 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, with just 10 percent coming from Moscatel, Baladí-Verdejo and Torrontés.
The region has been an important wine making area since Roman times. And while Andalucia’s Moorish conquerors, nominally teetotal, were also known to enjoy a glass, it wasn’t until the 17th century that commercial winemaking was established.
It was then that a series of historic and well respected bodegas including Alvear, Carbonell and Montecristo, first set up.
However it was not until 1945 that the region was first designated as a quality wine region, or Denominación de Origen (D.O.).
Before then, 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, austere Alvear bodega stands in its own grounds in the center of bustling Montilla town.
Its architecture is 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 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 – as they are in the sweet wines of the Axarquia – 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 cool dark rooms.
Some of this wine will be bottled without ageing and sold as vinos jovenes afrutados, young, fruity wines that are mostly sold in this region.
The following January, the remaining wine is classified for ageing as fino or oloroso, and begins its stately journey through the criadera y solera ageing system.
The maturing wines are stored in long rows of 500-litre barrels made of old American white oak, (new oak would transmit its flavour to the wine). They fill vast church-like bodegas whose packed earth floors are watered every summer day to keep humidity at perfect levels.
One range of wines that moves through this system, solera wines, are mainly marketed in the UK as aperitif or dessert wines, including Pale and Medium Dry, Pale Cream and Cream. The rest of the maturing wines have an even grander destiny.
In the largest of the Alvear bodegas, ‘La Monumental’, 20,000 barrels nestle in their wooden brackets. Outwardly still and silent, inside the casks a miniature miracle is taking place, one which will determine the eventual character of the Montilla within, and create the vinos generosos that are Alvear’s pride.
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 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.
The Alvear bodega’s most famous product must be the Pedro Ximenez Solera 1910, perhaps the ultimate Montilla liqueur wine.
Deep mahogany, with a hint of prunes and chocolate, this liqueur wine 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! It was 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 city, Montilla fino is drunk ice cold in the finest restaurants and in tapas bars.
It comes as no surprise to hear that many diners continue to drink it throughout the meal.
Some of the bodegas even have their own brand of Montilla. Take the elegant, well established Bodegas Campos, with its ancient bullfighting posters going back centuries and vats signed by noneother than Tony Blair.
We dined under gold chandeliers, eating fabulous creamy cold tomato soup salmorejo and one of the best rabo de toros in Spain… all appropriately washed down with an ice cold Montilla.
Just remember, whatever you do, don’t ask for sherry!
Additional reporting Arpi Shively