Following on from last week's course on sherry, I attended a tasting featuring Pérez Barquero, a leading producer in Montilla-Moriles. This is a region closely associated with sherry, as it provides the Pedro Ximénez grapes for that spectacularly sweet style of wine. It also produces similar styles to sherry, so I had always assumed it was in essence an extension of the sherry region. The tasting disabused me of that notion, making me realise just how different Montilla-Moriles is, even if there are of course overlaps.
As I wrote in my last post, sherry is much more of a terroir-driven region than it's given credit for. Montilla-Moriles confirms just how important place is. Whereas sherry is produced near the Mediterranean, whose influence results in subtle differences in styles of wine, Montilla-Moriles is another 150km further inland just south of the city of Cordóba. As anyone who has ever visited this area will attest, this is seriously hot territory, without any moderating influence from the Mediterranean. The wines therefore have naturally high alcohol which results in wines with power and concentration.
98% of plantings in sherry are of Palomino; in Montilla-Moriles, the same proportion is planted to Pedro Ximénez. This is because of the different growing conditions. Pedro Ximénez has thin skins, and is prone to rot and disease. The warm, dry weather in Montilla-Moriles eliminates these issues, so Pedro Ximénez is grown for all styles of wines, dry or sweet.
Pedro Ximénez is famous for producing intensely sweet wines by drying the grapes in the sun to concentrate the sugars. Again, the hot, sunny weather of Montilla-Moriles allows the grapes to dry quickly without risk of any damage to them from rain or humidity - so even for sherry, the grapes are dried in Montilla-Moriles.
The wines of Montilla-Moriles are very different from sherry in one important aspect: they receive little or no fortification. The weather is so hot that grapes will get ripe enough to naturally achieve levels of alcohol of 15% - which is the ideal amount for the formation of flor. An amontillado or an oloroso will receive a small amount of fortification, but the high alcohol in these wines mainly come from evaporation in the hot storage conditions which concentrates levels of alcohol.
Flor, the layer of yeast deposit which forms on a fino, occurs in cool, humid conditions when the wine is around 15% ABV. The wines of Montilla-Moriles achieve that level of alcohol naturally, but the hot weather makes the formation of flor difficult. It still occurs, but the flor is much thinner and more delicate than in humid Sanlúcar de Barrameda by the coast. The finos of Montilla-Moriles are therefore very different: made from Pedro Ximénez without any fortification under a think layer of flor, the wines are fruitier and fuller but less spicy and robust.
It was a great surprise to me to taste wines of all styles made from Pedro Ximénez, as this is a grape associated with some of the most intensely sweet wines in the world. Of course, there is still sweet Pedro Ximénez wine being produced in the region but there was still a surprise in that. We tasted P. X. Cosecha, which was amber in colour, looking and smelling very mature with aromas of dried fruits. Instead of being at least ten years old, as I guessed, it was from 2016. The Pedro Ximénez grapes were picked, dried in the hot sun for just a few days, and then fermented. The sugars in the grapes were so concentrated by this process that the juice when pressed had 550g/L of sugar; after fermentation the wine has a mere 400g/L. I have never tried a wine so young, sweet, concentrated, and developed (✪✪✪✪).
Montilla-Moriles has as long a history as sherry, as could be seen in the wines we tasted that date back to solera systems begun in 1905. The styles were the same as sherry - apart from that extraordinary young Pedro Ximénez - but were distinctively different.
fino / fino en rama
The fino was aged for an average of 8-10 years, quite long for that delicate style of wine. It's quite rich and fruity, with noticeable dried fruit aromas (✪✪✪✪). The en rama - which refers to an unfiltered wine that's like tasting the wine straight from the barrel - has more pronounced flor aromas yet felt more delicate at the same time (✪✪✪✪✪). This style was described as a bridge between fino and amontillado, pointing to the delicate maturity of en rama wines.
Amontillado literally means "like a wine from Montilla," so perhaps it was no surprise that the amontillado was the star of the tasting. The average age of the wine is 25 years, with the youngest wine in the blend being fifteen years old. A small level of fortification was used solely in order to prevent the flor from reforming after it had naturally died once young wine ceased to be added. This is a rich, mature wine, with dried fruit, caramel, toffee, hazelnut, baked apple, orange peel, spicy, and salty aromas. Saline characteristics are usually found in finos and manzanillas made near the Mediterranean coast, but we were told by Rafael Delgado of Pérez Barquero that - at least in the case of inland Montilla-Moriles - those qualities come from the deep roots of the old vines. He described this amontillado as a "small brandy," which is a great way of summing it up. Quite simply, the best amontillado I have ever tasted (✪✪✪✪✪✪✪).
It says something about that amontillado that it was even better than some of the oldest and most extraordinary wines I'm likely to ever try. These were from a solera system begun in 1905 and stopped in 1955 - meaning that the youngest wines in the blends were from 1955, the oldest from 1905, with all the vintages in between. With old sherry solera systems, it's a combination of fortification and consistent blending that preserves the wine's vibrancy and drinkability. However, in the case of these wines they haven't been touched in over fifty years and there's been little fortification.
The palo cortado is 22% ABV, a concentration of alcohol that comes from the evaporation of water over the years in the hot conditions of Montilla-Moriles. I find palo cortado to be the most whisky-like of sherry styles, and the age of this wine accentuated that comparison: musky and old, smoky with aromas of cigar and tobacco, with an endless finish (✪✪✪✪✪✪✪).
The oloroso was equally concentrated; very dry, with dried fruit, tobacco leaves, dried tea leaves and herbs, leather and spice aromas (✪✪✪✪✪✪). The PX meanwhile was as sweet and intense as that style always is, but even more so due to that long ageing. It's extraordinary that a wine over fifty years old that is so sweet, concentrated, and intense, with mature aromas of molasses, figs, raisins, prunes, currants, fruit and Christmas cake, as much wine sticking to the glass as makes its way into the mouth, can be so fresh and drinkable (✪✪✪✪✪✪✪).
Just 250 bottles of these wines are released each year, costing around $300. For wines this old, complex, and unique, they are worth the splurge and evidence of the quality to be found in Montilla-Moriles. If you get a chance to drink them, make sure you have a fine cigar to hand.