Discussions about tradition versus modernity are turning irrelevant in Spanish wines. Some of the newest, most exciting projects find inspiration in the past. This is particularly true in the Sherry Triangle but things are gradually moving in that direction in Montilla-Moriles, also a treasure trove of traditional wines in southern Spain.
It would have been unthinkable just a decade ago to see the oldest producer in Andalucía joining forces with Envínate, a maverick group of adventurous Spanish winemakers. But it has worked. It all started with Palacio Quemado in Extremadura, a partnership between the Alvear and Losada Serra families. They chose to grow varieties that had adapted well to this area —the same as those grown across the Portuguese border in Alentejo— and winemaking techniques towards fresh, easy to drink wines.
They have now joined forces in Montilla, the heart of the Alvear family business with centuries of wine history behind since its foundation by Don Diego de Alvear y Escalera in 1729.
Alvear is well-known for its wide range of sweet PX including young vintage releases, statically aged wines and extremely old soleras, but they also produce other traditional styles like Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Oloroso, as well as brandy, vinegars and the young, entry-level white Marqués de la Sierra. In the style of Castillo de San Diego from Barbadillo —one of Andalusia’s most popular whites— Marqués de la Sierra was born with the arrival of stainless steel fermentation tanks to the wine industry. The main difference comes from the fact that while Castillo de San Diego is made from Palomino, the most widely planted grape in the Sherry Triangle, Marqués de la Sierra uses Pedro Ximénez, the distinctively thin-skinned variety that is dominant in Montilla-Moriles.
The wines in the 3 Miradas project, about to be released by Alvear and Envínate, go a step further. They aim to bring to light the different terroirs in Montilla. It’s easy to find similarities with the generally unfortified, terroir-driven Palominos made by maverick Sherry producers like Ramiro Ibáñez or Willy Pérez. The style was pioneered by Equipo Navazos: their Navazos Niepoort wine was inspired in the unfortified whites aged under a veil of yeast that were traditionally served in taverns across Cádiz since the end of the 18th century.
“Low alcohol cosechero wines have always been served in the taverns of Montilla,” explained Fernando Giménez de Alvear, eighth generation of the Alvear family, during a press gathering held in Madrid last week. Indeed, the Montilla-Moriles appellation rules accept the vino nuevo de tinaja (young wine aged in earthenware jars) for unoaked bottled whites indicating the vintage on the label.
Many parallels can be established between Jerez and Montilla. Both areas share the same type of wines, chalky soils locally called albariza after their dazzling white colour (albo is synonymous for white in Spanish) and a quality classification of vineyards. In the case of Montilla, the Zonas de Calidad Superior (top quality areas) are the high mountainous areas of Moriles Altos and Sierra de Montilla. Minor geographic indications like Superior, Moriles Altos and Sierra de Montilla are allowed on labels provided that 85% of the grapes are sourced from those areas.
According to Fernando Giménez, “in the 1960s all sites were defined in terms of soil variability, altitude and exposure. However, over the years, wine growers have taken the easy route and have started growing their vines in productive land.” The fact that EU subsidies are only given to trellised vineyards has only reinforced the practice.
Most of the vineyards owned by the Alvear family are bush vines planted in Sierra de Montilla. According to Giménez, the Sierre has a curved shape encircled by two streams and a cattle track called Camino del Término. Surface under vine is over 1,000Ha divided into three main sites: Benavente, Cuesta Blanca and Riofrío. The latter was the vineyard used by the Envínate team to carry out their work.
Beyond the area’s albariza soils, what really moved Alfonso Torrente, José Ángel Martínez, Laura Ramos and Roberto Santana, the four friends behind Envínate, were the marked differences in altitude and exposure and the fascinating tinajas (cement jars) still in use at Lagar de las Puentes, Alvear’s winemaking facilities in the very heart of Sierra de Montilla.
The project Tres Miradas (three gazes) started in 2016 together with Bernardo Lucena, Alvear’s technical director for almost 30 years, who loved the idea since the start. The result so far is a village wine (around €11.5, 25,000 bottles) and a limited edition box containing six different wines (around 1,000 cases expected to be sold at €80) that remind of Ramiro Ibañez’s Pitijopos.
Sourced from three different plots (La Viña de Antoñín, El Garrotal and Cerro Macho), grapes have been both destemmed and kept in contact with their skins. “We wanted to find out whether terroir would prevail over the winemaking.” The wines fermented and spent eight months in large cement jars under a veil of yeast or flor and were aged briefly in botas (the traditional barrels in the area). Grapes for the 3 Miradas range were harvested later than the young Marqués de la Sierra but earlier than those destined to Fino –in contrast with Jerez, grapes in Montilla naturally reach a potential 15% alcohol hence fortification is unnecessary.
With a clever, eye-catching label featuring a tilted number 3 in the shape of two eyes, these wines could easily be sold separately, particularly the finely balanced La Viña de Antoñín (12% vol.). It displays an appealing mix of nutty and briny notes and a soothing and not overwhelming palate. Facing west, the plot (see map above) stands at 525m above sea level. Most of the 50-year-old vines are Pedro Ximénez with a small portion of Vidueño (a word locals use to describe the mix of grapes that are not Pedro Ximénez). Perhaps because of the natural finesse of this wine, the skin-contact version was slightly coarser and less interesting –if you are planning to buy the box, I would advise you lay this wine down for a while.
El Garrotal (12.5% vol.) is the most saline in the trio. A powerful, sapid, persistent wine, it may feel a bit extreme for some consumers but it is likely to appeal to lovers of wines reminiscent of umami flavours like those from albariza soils. Apricot aromas –rather unusual for the area– are present in the skin-contact version, but being so full-bodied and saline, the tannins from the skins seem to have integrated better. El Garrotal is an eastern facing plot located at 570m above sea level.
Cerro Macho (11.5% vol) shows a very different profile compared to the other wines. Facing southwest, the plot stands at 610m of altitude, the highest of the three. As a result acidity is higher and the briny notes are less prevalent. This was undoubtedly the freshest wine in the trio with olive and almond notes and a great candidate to rest in the cellar. Curiously enough, the skin contact adds structure without altering the expression of terroir.
The only wine available on its own will be 3 Miradas Vino de Pueblo 2016, a blend of eight different plots including the previous three and mixing 75% destemmed and 25% skin contact wines. It shows less complexity, but it boasts a full palate –a trademark feature in Sierra de Montilla and a differentiating element from similar wines made in the Sherry Triangle.
The third mirada rests in the winery. Made from grapes harvested with a potential 15% alcohol as is the norm for Fino in Montilla, it will be given extended aging in botas. Some “Envínate-style” wines made from sun-dried Pedro Ximénez grapes are already in the pipeline.