The PX tasting was, together with that of manzanilla, one of the most interesting events at the latest edition of Enofusión held in Madrid. Pedro Ximénez is the name of a grape variety widely grown in the Montilla-Moriles appellation, in the Andalusian region of Córdoba. It is the source for local finos, fortified wines like amontillados and olorosos and also the famous PX. The latter is a dense and extremely sweet wine made out of dried grapes that can be found both young or after being aged for a long time in botas (the local name for 500 to 600-litre barrels).
In fact, the tasting held at Enofusión showed various stages of the wine from the youngest versions to old PX that had been aged either statically or by the solera system widely used in Andalucía.
The most widespread techniques to concentrate sugar in order to produce sweet wines include freezing grapes on the vine as is the case with Eiswein, noble rot or botrytis cinerea used in Sauternes and Tokaji and drying grapes. The first two are typical of cooler climates, while the latter is more common in hot and sunny Mediterranean countries.
Marked by an extreme continental climate, Montilla-Moriles is particularly suited to the production of raisins. Bush vines are short pruned which favours sugar concentration and Pedro Ximenez’s fine skin encourages dehydration. Moreover, the best vineyards are planted on chalky-limestone soils that reflect the light and bring about significantly early harvests that usually start at the end of July and continue throughout August.
According to local winemaker Miguel Cruz Marqués who led the tasting, early picking is crucial so that the open-air drying process can be completed as soon as possible (ideally in just four to five days) skipping night-time humidity that could make for a slower drying and, of course, avoiding the rains in September.
Cruz Marqués provided striking data about the large amount of grapes needed to make PX. A kilo of grapes would hardly turn into half a kilo of raisins and you will need between 50 and 60 kilos of grapes to obtain just 18 liters of wine.
You will therefore understand that PX is a fortified wine to which alcohol must be added. In fact, fermentation never happens or occurs at very low levels, such is the massive amount of sugar that make impossible for yeasts to turn it into alcohol. The minimum sugar content required for PX is 272 grams per liter, although the longest-aged and concentrated examples can reach half-kilo! Due to the loss of water, concentration increases during aging; colour darkens and gets deeper, but the wines will also feel less sweet and cloying.
Indeed, the tasting showed how much PX could change according to wood aging. Just have a look at the photograph above to check it out. We started tasting Piedra Luenga PX Ecológico 2014 from Bodegas Robles (€8.90 at Lavinia): an amber color PX, with classic raisin and caramel aromas and a sweet and honeyed character. Then we moved to Alvear PX Añada 2013 (€8.20 the 37.5 cl. bottle at Enterwine), the entry level PX from 1729-founded Alvear. It showed great aromatic complexity (dried peaches, stewed fruit, raisins). This is a smooth and dense wine with notes of orange peel that bring some freshness and lots of dark chocolate on the finish; an incredible bargain considering the way a small sip can linger on your palate.
Aging can be quickly noticed just by paying attention to the colour. Gran Barquero from Bodegas Pérez Barquero (€15.90 the 0.75 cl. bottle at Vinissimus) showed a dark mahogany colour after having aged for four to six years in the solera blending system. Higher concentration was obvious, with toffee, raisins and caramel aromas. On the palate it felt thicker and more concentrated. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this heady mix of flavours and aromas is memorable even an hour after having enjoyed a small glass. Once again, the price is ridiculous given the amount of grapes needed to produce it and the painstaking winemaking process.
We still tasted two PX that had undergone a longer aging period. The Solera PX 1981 from Coop. de la Aurora showed a toasty and salty character together with burnt sugar and a hint of acidity wrapped-up by a cloying texture. Toro Albalá’s Don PX 1986 (€21.40 the 0.75 cl. bottle at Vinissimus) was the weirdest wine at the tasting. Coming from a producer that releases limited bottlings of extremely old PX, it felt really exotic on the nose with lots of spicy and balsamic notes (cinnamon, nutmeg, balsamic, bay leaves, pistachio, licorice, preserved citrus fruit, custard). It proved somewhat less thick on the palate but the rich texture nicely balanced the flavours and it finished with some lovely long caramel notes. Another bargain.
Apart from this tasting I had a chance to try other jewels from Toro Albalá. All of them were highly-concentrated PXs which had been aged statically and commanding high prices ranging from €120 to €150. Production of Don PX 1965 Selección Doble Etiqueta barely reaches 4,200 bottles and offers a very seductive cinnamon, toffee and even sweet dairy character (a dessert in itself!). From the even rarer Don PX Etiqueta Convento Selección range, the 1955 brought me back to the wilderness of 1986, but with much more concentration, smoothness and freshness (the concentration of acidity is the wonderful result of aging), while the 1929 offered more traditional dark flavours (raisin, dark chocolate, coffee). Although it lacked the freshness of the 1955 it showed huge concentration and richness, and a knock-out finish.
Apart from some old PX produced in Jerez (mostly with wines and grapes coming from Montilla-Moriles), this level of concentration can only be found in the gorgeous and beautifully balanced Alvear PX 1830 (€86,65 the 0.50 cl. bottle at Decántalo), a solera-aged wine bottled on tiny quantities every two years; and in Pérez Barquero’s top-of-the-range 1905 PX Solera Fundacional (€320 the 0.75 cl. bottle at Vinissimus) coming from the oldest soleras in the winery.
Clearly, aging reduces the alcohol content and increases concentration levels, flavor intensity and acidity. It also explains the sublime experience of combining density, complexity and infinite length with a velvety texture.