The wine region of Montilla-Moriles is a short drive out of Córdoba, once the capital of Moorish Spain and the largest and brightest city in Europe. Montilla-Moriles is notable for its sherry-like wines, and, above all, for its sweet Pedro-Ximénez (PX), but remains largely undiscovered in the shadow of the sherry triangle.
The DO comprises some forty square kilometres around the small towns of Montilla and Moriles, with some 6,000ha of mostly Pedro-Ximénez, though there is also some Moscatel, Airén, Verdejo, and others. There are two high quality subzones, Sierra de Montilla and Moriles Alto, in which yields are capped at 60hl/ha instead of the usual 80. The best soils consist of chalk-rich albero, the local name for albariza, prized for its reflective and moisture-retaining properties. Relative to Jerez, the climate in Montilla-Moriles is more continental, with hotter and drier summers and greater diurnal temperature variation. Traditional training is bush with no arms to best protect the grapes from the sun and heat. Fermentation used to take place in large earthenware or concrete tinajas, although, by and large, these have been superseded by stainless steel tanks.
The generosos produced in Montilla-Moriles are classified by the same system as sherry: fino, amontillado, and so on. But whether dry or sweet, they are made from Pedro-Ximénez rather than Palomino. The potential alcohol of the grapes is higher than in the sherry triangle, and the finos and amontillados are not generally fortified, which arguably adds to balance and complexity. Also, the flor is weaker and thinner than in Jerez, leaving the wines with more fullness and fruit. Most of the wines are aged in solera, but there is also a significant tradition of vintage or añada wines. For sweet PX, the harvested grapes are placed on mats and left out in the sun for several days. After pressing, rectified wine alcohol is added. Unlike in Jerez, the casks are filled to capacity, resulting in a fresher, less oxidative style.
My favourite producers in Montilla include Alvear, which is the fourth oldest company in Spain, Toro Albalá, Pérez Barquero, and the organic Robles. Pérez Barquero is a rich hunting ground for independent bottler Equipo Navazos. While in Montilla, I tasted Alvear’s remarkable PX ‘Solera 1830’, a wine with an average age of ninety years: on top of the usual notes of sultanas and molasses, I found chocolate, blueberry, bitter orange, balsamic, tobacco, violets… Being black or almost black in colour, it is easy to forget that PX is actually a white wine!
Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting