People often ask me about my favorite style of wine. This is a tough question for anybody that works in the wine business. It is inevitable that, over time, you tend to love them all. Nevertheless, for a long time I always felt that Sherry-style wines were on top of my list. Yet, after learning more about “Sherry-style” wines, I realized that I was making a mistake by grouping all those that shared a similar style with Sherry. There are different areas, under different legislations and each one has a unique sense of place. For example, wines that are made in areas like Montilla-Moriles deserve to be called by their own name.
Last September, I had the opportunity to travel to Andalucía for the first time. After arriving to the picturesque city of Córdoba, I travelled to Montilla, where the Consejo Regulador of the D.O.P Montilla-Moriles hosted me during my training to become a certified specialist for the wines and vinegars from this region. More than 6 months have passed since and I finally found the time to sit down and tell you about this amazing region. Since there is so much to talk about, I will split this into three parts. In this first part, apart from giving a short introduction, I want to talk about the natural factors that influence the style of wines from Montilla-Moriles.
Montilla and Moriles are in fact two different municipalities out of a total of 17 that form the entire area of production of the D.O.P Montilla-Moriles. The climate of this region is Mediterranean with some continental influence, mainly due to its distance from the ocean. If we compare it to the Sherry triangle, where, during the night, vines get a relief from the hot summer days thanks to the influence of the ocean, the vineyards of Montilla-Moriles are exposed to very dry and hot conditions throughout the entire day. This is the perfect environment for the development of Pedro Ximénez, the variety that makes and defines the wines of this region. From here on, I will refer to Pedro Ximénez with the commonly used abbreviation PX (pronounced “Peh Eckees”).
The other white varieties that are also allowed are Moscatel, Chardonnay, Macabeo, Verdejo, Baladí, Sauvignon Blanc and Airén, but they are only used to make fresher styles of wines that are not fortified. Red varieties are also planted, but their wines can only be labeled as IGP Vinos de la Tierra de Córdoba. Here, the allowed varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Tempranillo and Tintilla de Rota. Tintilla de Rota is an indigenous variety from the town of Rota in Cádiz. This entire series, though, will focus only on the well-known wines from Montilla-Moriles, which are aged using the traditional solera system and can only be made using PX.
There are around 29.500ha of vineyard in Andalucía, out of which 5.100ha are part of the D.O.P Montilla-Moriles and 95% of those are planted with PX. PX is a neutral variety that can produce very high yields. What makes it special is its capacity to reach high concentrations of sugar at its peak of ripeness on the vine, which amounts to around 238-255 gr/l of sugar. This usually results in a wine with 14%-15% of natural alcohol, ideal for the production of fortified wines. PX has a difficult time reaching this level of ripeness in the Sherry region, which is why the sweet PX wines from Sherry traditionally use PX grown in Montilla-Moriles.
Water is scarce during the ripening months. It rains approximately 500 to 700 mm of rain per year, but mainly during winter and spring. Irrigation in this region is only allowed under special circumstances or when the vine is under the risk of dying, and can only been done once the Consejo Regulador establishes it.
The effect the soil has on PX is a defining factor in the production and classification of the different styles of wines made in Montilla-Moriles. There are 3 main types of soils:
- Albarizas with a high content of calcium carbonate, good for water retention, poor in nutrients. It is also very loose, which allows the roots to grow deeper in order to search for the missing nutrients, as well as water reservoirs, for when the weather is extreme. This type of soil is considered the most precious, producing the finest wines from the region and generally destined to undergo a biological aging. It is mainly present in the areas of Sierra de Montilla and Altos de Moriles (two specific parts in Montilla and Moriles respectively). The best vineyards on these soils are located at higher altitudes reaching up to 600 meters above sea level and are classified as subzones of “Superior Quality”.
- Arenas rojas, which translates to red sands, consists mainly of sand and stones in the first meters of the soil, followed by a layer of soil rich in calcium carbonate. This soil absorbs more heat than Albarizas. The vineyards planted on Arenas rojas ripen earlier, which is ideal for the production of sweet PX since the grapes need to dry under the sun before being sent to the press. The “asoleo”, which refers to the drying process of the grapes, happens much faster and is more successful in the middle of summer when temperatures are at their highest and the risk of rain is low. In the third part of this series we will go into depth on the production of sweet PX.
- Vertisoles are soils with high clay content, rich in nutrients and capable of retaining high quantities of water when it rains. Due to the clay, it typically cracks when it’s too dry. This type of soil is not ideal for the development of the vine; it is generally used for other crops like grains, cotton and olives. Nevertheless, some vineyards located in flat areas grow over this type of soil, producing lower quality grapes for simpler wines.
For many years, producers would focus their winemaking efforts on the aging process within the solera system and give less importance to the influence of the vineyard over the quality of the final wine. Nowadays this is changing, not only for Montilla-Moriles but also for Sherry. No matter your skill in the cellar, a wine made with poor quality grapes will never have the chance of being a great wine. This is not a new concept: while the best vineyards from these regions have always been known, their significance was put behind for various reasons.
The D.O.P Montilla-Moriles faces many challenges in the future. In little more than a decade the region has lost 1/3 of its vineyards, mainly due to the cultivation of more profitable crops like olives. There is a lack of labor and newer generations hesitate to take over the family business. Many incentives have been offered to vintners for replanting vineyards in ways that make them more productive, with higher densities and suitable for mechanization, resulting in higher profitability.
In the years to come, climate change will force winemakers to steer their attention towards the vineyards. Hotter temperatures and drier years could result in higher water stress for the vine. This could significantly reduce the grape yields and, as a result, the overall quantity of wine and income for the vintners and winemakers.
For any person who is passionate about wine, identity of place is a differentiating factor between a decent wine and an outstanding one. For me, the wines from Montilla-Moriles have the capacity of showing where they come from. Understanding and knowing the factors that influence the winemaking process and the tradition behind them enhances the experience.
In the second part of this series we will look at the different styles of dry wines from Montilla-Moriles and learn about some interesting aspects about the vinification and aging process.