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  • Pérez Barquero: standard-bearer for quality wines in Montilla
  • Pérez Barquero: standard-bearer for quality wines in Montilla
  • Pérez Barquero: standard-bearer for quality wines in Montilla
  • Pérez Barquero: standard-bearer for quality wines in Montilla
  • Pérez Barquero: standard-bearer for quality wines in Montilla
  • Pérez Barquero: standard-bearer for quality wines in Montilla
  • Pérez Barquero: standard-bearer for quality wines in Montilla
1. Vineyards surround Lagar de La Cañada in Sierra de Montilla 2. Rafael Córdoba 3. Traditional tinajas 4. Adela Córdoba 5. Butts in Pérez Barquero 6. Juan Márquez 7. Part of the range Photos: Yolanda O. de Arri, Pérez Barquero and Abel Valdenebro

Wineries to watch

Pérez Barquero: standard-bearer for quality wines in Montilla

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | April 8th, 2020

Aged 79, Rafael Cordoba seems like he has not lost one bit of the energy he has displayed ever since he became director of Perez Barquero in 1985. Be it from his office in Montilla, or from Lagar de la Cañada in the summer and during the grape harvest, this lawyer by training, but winegrower at heart, is at the helm of the day-to-day business. In addition to Pérez Barquero, the flagship bodega founded in 1905, the group he heads includes Bodegas Gracia, Compañía Vinícola del Sur and Tomás García.

Córdoba, who has walked on the region's albariza soils since childhood, owns most of the group's 150 hectares of vineyards in the appellation's two major quality areas, Sierra de Montilla and Moriles Alto, but the Pérez Barquero company, whose other shareholders are the Ruz and Gracia families, also owns a further 70 hectares recently acquired in Santaella and Aguilar de la Frontera. Their own grapes source the group's flagship brands; trusted growers supply the rest.

"My father is a perfectionist and loves all the new developments that help him improve," says Adela Córdoba, marketing director and one of Rafael's three children working in the company. "Within the Sierra de Montilla, quality varies from area to area and he, who grew up there and has been managing the harvest since he was 16, has been picking the best vineyards over the course of his life.”

Rafael Córdoba

With his high-tech phone, Rafael shows Spanish Wine Lover videos of the state-of-the-art harvesters with sorting tables which pick 70% of the grapes at Pérez Barquero. "It seems that hand harvesting is the best but the truth is that it lets in shoots, stems and stalks, which are impurities,” says Rafael Córdoba, who only harvests his old vines by hand. "Machines leave the grapes clean, as if they were olives. Here during the day temperatures may reach 40ºC so we harvest between 5 and 8 in the morning, when it is cooler and the sun is not shining. This way you get musts of exceptional quality, with 13º baumé which then reach natural potential levels of 15% and without the need to fortify.”

Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks, part in La Cañada estate, right by the vineyards in Sierra de Montilla, and partly in Bodegas Gracia and Pérez Barquero in town. The facilities here are more sophisticated and have large tanks with cooling systems to make young wines such as the popular Viñaverde, a blend of Pedro Ximénez with minor local varieties such as Baladí-Verdejo and Moscatel, and Verdejo Finca La Cañada. Traditional wines are aged in large earthenware vessels called tinajas and old barrels that the winery's cooper repairs when they get damaged.

Although the Pérez Barquero group was not established until 1985, Rafael Córdoba has lived around wine all his life. He was assistant director at Bodegas Montulia, one of the largest wine producers in the region that is now part of Navisa, and later CEO of Gracia Hermanos. When Rumasa, which owned Pérez Barquero and Compañía Vinícola del Sur, went bankrupt, Córdoba agreed to purchase both bodegas in conjunction with José Ruz, a cousin of his wife who worked as sales manager at Rumasa's wine division. Ruz took over the commercial side and Córdoba the management. Thinking that he should not manage one winery while being the owner of another, Córdoba decided to leave Gracia, but he was offered a partnership and this old bodega was incorporated into the new group. Later, in 1990, the group purchased the Tomás García winery.

"My father is very experienced and has a broad vision of the business. While he was mayor of Montilla in the 70s, he managed to promote the grape harvest festival to the point that it was on the national newsreels of the time. He was also manager of Tonelería Montillana at a time when there were 20,000 hectares of vineyards in the region (today there are only 5,000), and he travelled to the US to negotiate the purchase of oak. He is a very good manager and has built up a solid company", acknowledges Adela. She also mentions Pérez Barquero's partnership with Equipo Navazos, one of the group's first, and the release of Bota nº3 in 2006. More recently, Equipo Navazos launched OVNI, a young fresh wine made with Pérez Barquero wines.

One of the first actions taken by Rafael Córdoba when he took over Bodegas Gracia in 1974 was to relaunch the solera of fino María del Valle, which is now bottled en rama (unfiltered) after ageing under flor for eight years. "The cellar master at that time and my father combed through all the almacenista cellars in Moriles, now disappeared, selecting individual butts until they created the solera", Adela explains.

The 'small' wines of Moriles

The work of the Pérez Barquero group has made it possible to establish differences between the two superior quality vineyard areas, with differences in clones and soils between the Sierra de Montilla and Moriles Alto.

For Juan Márquez, cellar master and winemaker of the group since 1996, but working in Bodegas Gracia since 1986, María del Valle, a fino with six criaderas and one solera, retains a clear Moriles profile. Márquez says that in this area "the flor persists longer, the colour is greener and the wines tend to be more buttery than those from the Sierra". Locals refer to Moriles wines as 'smaller', but Márquez says they show their true character as they age and are potentially better suited to prolonged ageing. Meanwhile, the wine from the Sierra comes from more fragile grapes and matures earlier. "But the combination of the two produces very good results”.

Montilla's climate, dry and very hot in summer, has a strong impact not only on the vineyards but also on the wines, and the group's two ageing cellars (Gracia and Pérez Barquero) are no exception. In spite of the high ceilings, the windows that provide ventilation and the irrigation of the floors to retain humidity, the veil of flor is present in the barrels for six months compared to the nine months or longer in the Sherry Triangle.

Climate change and the increasingly common fluctuations in temperature are also reducing flor development and impacting grape growing and fermentation in Montilla-Moriles, explained Márquez during our visit in September 2019. "Except for the young wines, harvest traditionally started at the beginning of September and finished in October. This year we finished harvesting almost when we started last year,” he adds. "Wine needs movement and what is happening in Montilla is that the wines are fading. We are having to draw out wines and blend them with simpler ones in order to oxygenate them. Yeast must always have nutrients because redirecting a butt of fine wine is complicated.”

Historic soleras

Besides María del Valle and other brands such as Tauromaquia, the commercial Fino Corredera (1m bottles) or the young Viñaverde, Bodegas Gracia preserves several historic soleras. Among them is Montearruit, a very old, concentrated and surprisingly elegant amontillado, which is only replenished with selected María del Valle casks.

It was unveiled during a tasting at the last edition of Vinoble, and although it is not sold at the moment, Adela Córdoba explains that they are looking at releasing 50cl bottles. "The good thing about these historic soleras is that the wines are gradually gaining in concentration thus creating a very rich legacy. In this bodega and in Pérez Barquero there are lots of special butts like these". 

One example is what the house calls "oloroso cream". Although creams have never been made in Gracia Hermanos or in Pérez Barquero, the name comes from the custom of adding a little old PX in dry oloroso wines at the time of bottling. These butts, which are not sold, have been idle for years because, according to Adela Córdoba, they are not in demand. "A few batches have been sold and they are used to refresh or improve other wines. There's a significant amount of fixed assets, but that's all right because these are not fragile wines”.

For Pérez Barquero, these oxidative wines are an investment but if they would face legal hurdles if they were to bottle them as wine. The law only allows a maximum of 22% abv although very old wines can reach 24% abv by natural concentration. With very old sweet wines the opposite happens: they lose alcohol. In this case, in order to sell a foundational PX with 11.5% abv, the law requires the wine to be fortified up to 15% abv, which, as Márquez says, "would be tantamount to sacrilege". The Montilla-Moriles Regulatory Council is contemplating an appeal to the authorities in order to have a special regime for these wines, but for the time being Pérez Barquero and other wineries prefer to pay a fine rather than to spoil the wine.

Beyond the old wines of Bodegas Gracia, the group boasts the impressive Pérez Barquero 1905 wine range. They are soleras of amontillado, oloroso and PX with an average age between 80 and 90 years old that go back to the foundation of the bodega. Only two sacas have been drawn in its history: the first one to mark the centenary and the second one in 2016. Until the third arrives, limited sacas of other old wines that feed the foundational soleras have been released. It is the 1955 series, with wines that are pure balance, finesse and enjoyment. The date does not correspond to the vintage, but refers to the winery's 50th anniversary, so they are between 40 and 50 years old on average. Each bottle costs 195 euros but they are, without a doubt, world class wines.

Redesign and new wines

Moving onto a more mundane range of wines, yet offering excellent value for money, the recently redesigned Gran Barquero labels are an excellent choice to delve into the quality styles of the region. There's the Fino, aged between eight and ten years, and the en rama version, which is sold in 50cl bottles, plus the Amontillado, which is the natural evolution of the Fino after a dozen years of oxidative ageing. The oloroso, aged around 25 years, is composed of 1,600 butts in the solera and its three criaderas. The house's sweet PX wines range from the average six years of age of Gran Barquero, with 400 g of sugar, to the 25 years of La Cañada.

At Gracia Hermanos, their sweet wines vary slightly, as a touch of oloroso is added to the eight-year-old Pedro Ximenez Dulce Viejo. This tweak is intended to make the wine lighter and lend some structure to balance out the sweetness. This wine is sold in very limited quantities.

Two recent additions in Pérez Barquero are Fresquito and Gran Barquero Palo Cortado. The latter, averaging 25 years, is an unusual style in Montilla and comes from a group of butts selected for their oxidative character but also featuring biological notes.

Created for export, but now also available in Spain for around €8, Fresquito is regarded as a starting point to Montilla's finos, very much in need of consumers to drink and appreciate them. Made from Pedro Ximénez grapes, it is fermented in the traditional way, in 6,000 litre tinajas, with a veil of flor for about eight months, without ever reaching 15% abv. Juan Márquez likes to wait until the spring to bottle it because that is when the veil of yeasts is more abundant. He only selects the wine that is near the surface, and blends it with other tinajas, seeking the resemblance of a future fino. The rest of the wine is used for biological ageing.

Despite its unquestionable prestige as producer of traditional Andalusian wines, Pérez Barquero must contend with the high costs of its enormous ageing infrastructure, with 15,000 butts, 5% wine evaporation and numerous tasks that must be done manually. That is why the company rents some of its bodegas and spaces for events and conferences, and produces fruity wines, perhaps unappealing to wine lovers, but profitable and adapted to the tastes of the mainstream consumer. 

"The sector needs to change, one way or another," says Juan Márquez. Luckily for Montilla and for lovers of generoso wines, Rafael Córdoba prefers to continue investing in the area rather than retiring to Marbella. "His only regret is that he grew up seeing how the olive groves of the Sierra and Moriles were transformed into vineyards and now it's the other way round," Adela concludes.

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