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  • Montilla-Moriles whites: a renewed vision of terroir
  • Montilla-Moriles whites: a renewed vision of terroir
  • Montilla-Moriles whites: a renewed vision of terroir
  • Montilla-Moriles whites: a renewed vision of terroir
  • Montilla-Moriles whites: a renewed vision of terroir
  • Montilla-Moriles whites: a renewed vision of terroir
1. Vineyards in Sierra de Montilla 2. Pedro Ximénez grapes 3. Juan Márquez, technical director at Pérez Barquero 4. Old butts in Alvear 5. Fátima Ceballos and Miguel Puig, of Lagar de la Salud 6. Miguel Castro Maíllo Photos: Y.O.A.

Spanish terroirs

Montilla-Moriles whites: a renewed vision of terroir

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | March 16th, 2022

In the dozen lagares (wine presses) that remain in the Sierra de Montilla and Moriles Altos —there were as many as 70 in the past— the tradition of making young wine or mosto for consumption in local taverns and at popular festivals celebrating the new harvest still persists.

Pale in colour, fruity and unctuous on the palate, this straightforward white is known locally as vino de tinaja and is the base wine for biologically aged wines in Montilla-Moriles. Made from Pedro Ximénez grapes, it is fermented in the tinajas or cement cones common in the area. It is generally considered an unfinished wine, lacking the wisdom of ageing under a veil of yeasts in the criaderas y solera system, but a handful of winemakers are seeing its great potential to showcase the great albariza terroirs of the region.

The influence of Equipo Navazos

At present, it is a fledgling movement inspired in no small part by the Marco de Jerez. It was here that Equipo Navazos revived in 2008 the Palomino whites under a veil of flor that were made in Sanlúcar in the 18th century. Their Navazos Niepoort paved the way for this new and dynamic category. 
Montilla shares the same soils and styles of wine as Jerez, and relies on a variety, Pedro Ximénez, which, like Palomino, is a good conveyor of the terroir. Nonetheless, the way it is handled in Montilla is still being defined. "They are method-based wines, requiring more maceration and work in the winery; they are not yet strongly anchored to the terroir," explains Sanlúcar winemaker Ramiro Ibáñez, who advises Bodegas Alvear on the Tres Miradas range of whites. "We still need a few years to raise awareness and deepen our understanding of the area, but Montilla is in a very good situation because the number of new projects is increasing and wines with a stronger identity are being made.”

Until recently, commercially-driven dry whites in Montilla-Moriles were young, fruity wines, a trend launched in 1983 by Bodegas Gracia Hermanos, part of the Pérez Barquero group, with its Viñaverde white. The first attempt to highlight the albariza soils in line with the new trends in Jerez also came from Equipo Navazos. In 2011 Eduardo Ojeda and Jesús Barquín selected Pérez Barquero grapes ripened at around 11.5-12.5 % vol, which they fermented with indigenous yeasts in stainless steel tanks and cement cones under a thin veil of flor to make their Ovni Pedro Ximénez. "This is the optimal ripening of Pedro Ximénez grapes, when primary aromas, acidity, alcohol and mineral structure are balanced," they say.
This level ripeness is in contrast to what is usual in Montilla-Moriles. While young wines are harvested early, at around 10.5% vol., the grapes for finos aged under flor are picked at 15%.

Alvear Las Miradas

It was precisely the notable differences in elevation and orientation of the plots in the Sierra de Montilla that encouraged Envínate to begin its partnership with Alvear in the Tres Miradas project in 2016. Together with Bernardo Lucena, technical director of the historic Montilla winery, they selected three vineyards with old Pedro Ximénez vines and different personalities (La Viña de Antoñín, El Garrotal and Cerro Macho) and subjected them to two types of winemaking -destemming and fermentation with skins- before ageing the wines in cement vats with some flor.

The partnership with the quartet, which also resulted in a village wine, concluded after the 2018 vintage. The following year Ramiro Ibáñez joined Alvear, bringing with him his vast knowledge of the history and the making of traditional Andalusian wines and his previous experience in soil study projects in Montilla.

With Ibáñez, Alvear continues to gain in-depth knowledge of its plots in the Sierra de Montilla. "The idea is that each type of wine is nourished by different vineyards according to their characteristics," explains the Sanlúcar winemaker. With a village wine fermented in tinaja, Ibáñez is focused on a new line of work involving fermentation and ageing in oak barrels under a veil of flor. Renamed Tres Miradas Clásicos and with a sleek redesign of bottles and labels, it includes three interesting single vineyard wines: Viña de Antoñín, Cerro Franco and Cerro Macho. And there is a novelty: in 2019 a Fino solera of the best vineyards was created with a view to eventually making an Amontillado.

A crucial category for the future

Ibáñez believes that whites will be essential for the growth, image and economic livelihood of the bodegas in Montilla-Moriles, which have large stocks of fortified wines in their facilities and need to contend with the loss of popularity of these traditional styles.

Although relatively inexpensive, this new white wine category is often more expensive than biologically aged finos of up to ten years of average age. This is a plus considering the region's worrying situation: Of the 770,000 litres of wine exported from Montilla-Moriles in 2021 worth €2.5 million, more than half was sold in bulk; the vineyard area is less than 5,000 ha compared to 18,000 in 1970; and the number of winegrowers continues to drop (490 in the top quality area in 2021 compared to 595 in 2012).

Unlike in Jerez, where white wines are not recognized by the DO, Montilla-Moriles does include this category in its official specifications. For Ibáñez, this is a great advantage. "Although they started later, the big difference is that the driving forces behind these wines in Montilla-Moriles are the large bodegas, so change is always faster".

Tinaja wines

In addition to making Ovni Pedro Ximénez for Equipo Navazos, Pérez Barquero, one of the most important houses in Montilla-Moriles, produces its very own tinaja wine since 2016. Fresquito blends tradition and modernity because it is fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and is later aged for eight months in 6,000-litre vats under a veil of flor.

Lagar Blanco is another veteran producer of tinaja wines. Located in the heart of the Sierra de Montilla mountains, this bodega was a former cooperative that its owner, agronomist Miguel Cruz, acquired in 1985 to make artisanal wines. Sourced from north-facing plots in the Sierra, its Lagar Blanco Vino de Tinaja is arguably one of the most faithful expressions of this category, which, unfortunately, has been gradually diluted in the various updates of the specifications.

"The wine that was 'cooking' in the tinaja was refreshed with fresh must to prevent the fermentation temperature from rising. Some vidueño (other grapes beyond Pedro Ximénez) was added to the Pedro Ximénez must at the end to lower the alcohol content, and the result was a fresh, light wine, with plenty of glycerine," explains local winemaker and educator José Ignacio Santiago, who also warns of a certain loss of the traditional character of these wines. From his point of view, the main factors are: an increase in the number of trellised vineyards, the drop in the minimum alcoholic content of tinaja wines to 13.5%, the possibility of fermenting grapes in stainless steel tanks to maintain primary aromas, and the acceptance of all grape varieties allowed in the DO.

Juancho Asenjo, an expert in traditional Andalusian wines, agrees that the category needs a better definition, but trusts that the Regulatory Board, "less rigid than Jerez,” will find a way to accommodate a style of wines that "is important now and will be more so in the future.” Together with Ramiro Ibáñez, he warns that more young people are needed to start making wine on a small scale and take over when the current winemakers retire.

"The way bodegas are organized can sometimes be a problem," says Ibáñez. "As some of them don't have a winemaker or a person with the necessary vision, many wineries are managed by the old foremen, so everything tends to be more endogamous. The big bodegas in Montilla have excellent technical teams, but there is a need for independent and sensitive people to join in, who can set up a profitable project in which they can make a living with a small piece of land and a few thousand bottles and set an example to other young people. Alvear or Perez Barquero, for a young person starting out, are very difficult to emulate.”

Young talent

Miguel Castro Maíllo, descendant of a wine family but with his small project Ojo y Coíllo in the Riofrío area (Sierra de Montilla), is one of them. Fátima Ceballos is another young woman with a promising future who has settled in Montilla after working in various wineries in France. She makes her own wines in Montilla with her partner, Miguel Puig, fourth generation of the family that owns Lagar de la Salud, and also advises Los Insensatos de la Antehojuela, Lagar de Santa Magdalena and Toro Albalá's MIUT range of whites.

Although these new projects differ in size and style, they share a search for identity and an implicit understanding of the importance of human terroir. "In Envínate's Tres Miradas, the emphasis was on winemaking, while with Ramiro Ibáñez the identity of the soil and the plot is more prominent," says Juancho Asenjo. "Ramiro has a more local, Andalusian point of view, while Fátima interprets the different terroirs and introduces a French style; she brings an international vision to the local.”

It would be desirable, in any case, that, as in Champagne, the larger bodegas coexist with smaller businesses run by young people who take care of viticulture and make their own quality wines in small amounts, Ramiro Ibáñez points out. "In 1980, in Sanlúcar, there were 117 bodegas and today there are just 20. Despite this decline, small producers are still working in the Sherry region, but Montilla has a shortage of people making wine. And then there is the knock-on effect; Sisseck and Léclapart are making wine in the region, but this is not the case in Montilla. International exposure is important to boost a region's visibility".

Five wines to discover the whites of Montilla-Moriles

Los Insensatos de la Antehojuela Los Turistas 2020 Vino de Tinaja (Montilla-Moriles) 
A recently established partnership involving several members -two of them, Manuel and Santiago Jiménez, owners of the Cañada Navarro winery- to make wines from vineyards in the Sierra de Montilla with which the Insensatos team feels a bond. The winemaking process, under the direction of Fátima Ceballos, is the same for the six wines launched in this first vintage: fermentation in tinajas with temperature control and biological ageing under flor for seven months in tinajas . The differences lie on the plots and the age of the pedro ximénez vines, the elevation, the slope and the aspect. In the case of Los Turistas, it is a blend of Pedro Ximénez (90%) and vidueño (10%) from vines over 100 years old planted at 460m elevation with northwest-southeast orientation. With a slight bitterness and a slightly oxidative nose, it has a lot of chalky minerality and persistence and will appeal to lovers of more concentrated wines.
Production 1,364 bottles. Price: €12.50 on the winery's website.

Fresquito de Bota 2019, Bodegas Pérez Barquero (Montilla-Moriles)
Juan Márquez, the veteran technical director of this winery, decided to select a small batch of Fresquito de Tinaja 2019 and place it in eight butts that had previously contained fino and were kept in a humid area of the winery. After 12 months in the butts, the wine was transferred to 1,500 bottles which are still resting in the cellar with the idea of releasing them for sale at the end of spring, together with the 2021 vintage of Fresquito de Tinaja, which will have a brand new look. The sample that Amaya Cervera and I tasted, still without bottle ageing, had almost 14% alcohol which was well integrated and a more serious, saline, enveloping and gastronomic character than the tinaja wine. Márquez says that Fresquito de Bota has benefited from the extra time in bottle.
Production: 4,000 bottles. PVP: € 12.50

Lagar de Santa Magdalena Blanco de Guarda (no DO)
The only producer on this list based in Moriles Altos, Chea Madrid and Antonio Alarcón took the reins of this family winery built in the 18th century on top of a hillside with vineyards transitioning to organic farming. They make fortified wines under the guidance of José Ignacio Santiago and in 2020 they started making still wines with the help of Fátima Ceballos. Part of their harvest is destined for Toro Albalá's MIUT Santa Magdalena. As well as a young white, they have just launched this Blanco de Guarda which is made from Pedro Ximénez grapes and aged for 11 months in French oak barrels. Austere nose, light toasted and saline notes and good volume on the palate, although the oak is still a little present. 
Production: 333 bottles, Price: €12.90 at the winery or at Distribuidora Terruño de Córdoba

Tres Miradas La Viña de Antoñín Fermentado en Bota 2019, Alvear (Montilla-Moriles) 
It comes from a northwest facing vineyard in the Sierra de Montilla located at 525 metres elevation in a site called Riofrío. At 14.5% vol, it has the highest acidity of the three single vineyard Alvear wines but is approachable, ample and direct, with good sapidity and a chalky character. The Pedro Ximénez grapes come from old vines in goblet-trained vines and are fermented and aged in butts which previously contained Fino CB. 
Production 1.200 bottles Price: about €25. 

MIUT El Jabonero 2020, Toro Albalá (Montilla-Moriles) 
MIUT stands for Mimo, Tierra, Uva e Identidad (Care, Land, Grape and Identity), the concepts that lend their name to Toro Albalá's new trilogy of dry white wines, which includes a wine from the Sierra de Montilla, another one from Moriles Altos and a blend of the two. El Jabonero comes from the eponymous plot in Pago de Benavente (Sierra de Montilla) with albariza soils and is fermented in 500-litre French oak barrels (85%) and in terracotta amphorae (15%) before ageing for 10 months on its lees with batonnâge. Despite the dry, hot vintage and its 14% vol, it is the freshest and most persistent of the three, with a pleasant saline touch and volume still to be rounded off from its ageing on the lees.
Production: 4,000 bottles. Price: €36.50 at Vila Viniteca

Other wines from Montilla—Moriles which are worth trying:

Vino de Tinaja Lagar de los Frailes 2021 (€8)
Lagar Blanco Vino de Tinaja (€8.30)
Lagar de la Salud Dulas sobre lías 2020 (€9.5)
Equipo Navazos OVNI 2021 (€13.80)
Ojo y Coíllo 2020 (no DO) (€16)


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Our favourite releases tasted at Innoble Wine Fest (and II)
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Tasting with five Masters of Wine and other spring highlights
100 years of Toro Albalá: changing everything so nothing changes
New white and sweet releases in 2023
Whites to taste in 2024 plus a sparkling and a sweet wine
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