Founded in 1729 by Don Diego de Alvear y Escalera, it is one of the oldest wineries in Spain and is currently managed by the seventh and eighth generation of the Alvear family. Production facilities are spread across Lagar de las Puentes, in the mountains of Sierra de Montilla – a two hours' drive north east of the sherry capital Jerez and with the same chalky white soils– and the so called Casa Central, a building complex spread across 60,000 m2 in the town of Montilla. Almost all of the 6,000 aging butts in the winery – each holding between 500 to 600 litres– rest at this larger location where the oldest soleras (a fractional blending system) are stored at the 18th century Bodega de la Casa (House cellar).
The wines come from 150 hectares of family-owned Pedro Ximénez vineyards and from grapes purchased from 200 hectares controlled by local growers. Most of the current brands and brandies date from the early 20th century, under the management of Francisco de Alvear, count of Cortina, who oversaw the acquisition of a large number of vineyards and the expansion of the winery. The iconic C.B. Fino brand precedes this time. It goes back to Carlos Billanueva, who was an assistant to Diego de Alvear y Ponce de León, an army officer who defended Cádiz against the French. Billanueva, who eventually became his right-hand man and winemaker, used to mark the best butts with his initials.
Throughout its long history, the Alvear family has always been in charge of the winery. Illustrious names such as Sabina de Alvear y Ward, member of the English branch of the family, opened the UK market in the 19th century and the winery welcomed renowned visitors such as empress Eugenia de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III, or Prosper Merimée, author of Carmen, which inspired the famous opera with the same name.
The wines are made from Pedro Ximénez, the dominant white grape in this warm and sunny region which is harvested in August and has great sugar concentration potential. This means that there is no need to add neutral spirit to Fino and when grapes are dried in the sun, it can produce some of the most dense and sticky wines in the world, known as PX.
Alvear produces brandies, vinegars and dry wines (unoaked whites) and specially sweet and fortified wines (Finos, Amontillado and Oloroso). Its range of Finos include Capataz (€7.5) aged in oak butts for at least six years; C.B. (five years' aging and around €5.5) and Fino en Rama (around three years' aging and €5.4). Then comes the Amontillado Carlos VII (over 20 years' aging, €18) and Asunción Oloroso Abocado, aged for at least 12 years (€18) and the sweet PX range. Robert Parker gave 100 points to the 2011 vintage of its young PX de Añada (€20), an Alvear invention. The work developed by the winery on static aging versus the traditional solera system used in the region has also translated into the complex Dulce Viejo (vintage-dated and over six years' aging, €27).
The legendary PX Solera 1830 (€90), produced in tiny amounts, shows what a wonderfully old PX is capable of in terms of complexity and finesse. This wine – in elegant, classically styled packaging - leads the winery’s new range of very old wines which also includes the very old Amontillado Solera Fundación (€100) from ancient family soleras; the Abuelo Diego, a rare Palo Cortado (this style is more usual in the Sherry Triangle), showing extreme levels of concentration; and the Fino Capataz Solera de la Casa, a 12 year old Fino that is almost on the verge of becoming an Amontillado.
There are daily tours of the winery in four languages (Spanish, English, French and German). Tasting experiences for Montilla wine beginners are also on offer as well as an in-house restaurant -called Las Llares- where visitors can try some tapas and wines.
The family also makes red wines in Extremadura (Palacio Quemado) since the late 1990s. The arrival of Envínate as consultants proved so successful that their partnership continues in Montilla Moriles, where they are trying to bring to light the different terroirs in Montilla in line with the unfortified, terroir-driven Palominos that are currently thriving in Jerez.
Envínate is paying special attention to the marked differences in elevation and exposure and the fascinating tinajas (cement jars) still in use at Lagar de las Puentes at the very heart of Sierra de Montilla. The result so far is a village wine (around €11.5, 25,000 bottles) and a limited edition case containing six different wines (around 1,000 cases sold at €80) sourced from three different plots (La Viña de Antoñín, El Garrotal and Cerro Macho), each of which was made with grapes both destemmed and kept in contact with their skins.