Manuel del Pino, his colleague Jose Molina and I step out of del Pino's Land Rover in his vineyards outside of Montalbán in southern Spain at 12:30 in the afternoon on May 23 into a 90℉ heat that will become more intense today and in the months to come, with virtually no rain. The relentless dry heat is the central fact of winemaking in Montilla-Moriles, a region about 30 miles south of Cordoba. It affects the choice of grape variety, how the vines are trained and how the grapes are treated after they're picked.
The legal reality that winemakers here confront in marketing their wares is even harsher. Producers sell the bulk of their wine to counterparts in Jerez who bottle and sell it under their own labels, but wine made and bottled in Montilla-Moriles cannot be labeled Sherry, a term that may only be used for wine bottled in the area around Jerez. Thus the winemakers of Montilla-Moriles can't call their wine by the name that most customers would use for it but instead must use only a style of Sherry - Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado or Pedro Ximenez, a sweet wine and the one for which the region is best known.
Pedro Ximenez, or PX, is also the name of the region's primary grape. Its thin skin makes it difficult to grow in Jerez, which is more humid than Montilla because it's much closer to the Mediterranean, but perfect for the climate here. That thinness means the grape is vulnerable to sunburn, a risk del Pino and other producers often mitigate by pruning the vines so that leaves shield the grapes.
PX grapes can reach 15% alcohol if they are fermented to dryness, so Montilla producers do not have to add alcohol to their wines as their counterparts in Sherry do with Palomino Fino, which can reach only about 11%. But Montilla's heat means less flor, the yeast that grows on top of Fino and helps impart its distinctive salty flavors, and Fino made here tends to have a touch more fruit than Fino Sherry. Alvear's En Rama 2012 is a particularly good example, a lean, delicate wine with notes of lemon and salt.
Alvear and other local producers make the full range of dry Sherry-style wines; Amontillado even means "in the style of Montilla." Perez Barquero's windows face a Montilla street and exude the smell of aging dry sherry. Their 1905 Amontillado (the year is not the vintage but refers to the founding year of the solera or stock of wine from which the wine is drawn) has notes of salt, butterscotch and red pepper. The 1905 Oloroso is fragrant and floral, a reminder that the wine is made from Pedro XImenez rather than Palomino Fino, which is more neutral and less aromatic than the PX.
Palo Cortado is the rarest form of Sherry, and Alvear's Abuelo Diego Palo Cortado is a terrific example, at once subtle and concentrated, its saline character still perceptible. The wines from Lagar Blanco, a small producer outside of Montilla, are more assertive. Their smokiness would appeal to a Scotch drinker, who might especially like the the Amontillado, a peppery, peaty wine whose flavors are reminiscent of a meat smoked for a long time over low heat.
Montilla's sweet wines are made differently from the dry ones. After picking, the grapes are spread on straw mats to dry for a week or more. Now the thin skins become an advantage because they allow for more water loss and thus more concentration of sugar in the grapes, which lose up to 60% of their weight in the process.The dried grapes are pressed twice, the first time in a normal grape press, the second with a steel press that extracts the last 15% of the must, or juice without breaking the grape seeds or stems. (Bodegas del Pino's website has a video on the process that also gives a sense of the region's terrain.)
The must has 300 to 500 grams of sugar per liter, too much for fermentation, and so producers add alcohol almost immediately. Much of the wine is sold to producers in Jerez, who age it there, but the Montilla producers keep some for themselves. The younger, simpler PXs are put in tinajas, the large clay vessels that are common in Montilla, to give the alcohol time to integrate into the wine, whose bright fruit notes pair easily with a range of desserts.
Older PX takes on considerable complexity as it ages, each example a distinctive experience. The coffee notes on Alvear's PXs range from a freshly ground roast to dark espresso and morph into bitter chocolate and tobacco. Toro Albala, a producer in an old electric power plant in the town of Aguilar de la Frontera, fortifies its sweet wines to 17% alcohol and lets them age in American oak barrels. Its 1987 vintage smells like dark, plummy chocolate with ancho chili pepper, while there's no fruit on the 1955 but instead an intense roasted caramel quality. Perez Barquero's 1905 PX smells of fig, plum, chocolate and molasses.
Like his counterparts, Manuel del Pino has PX that ranges in age from less than a year to perhaps a century or more. Most of his wines are at his headquarters in the town of Montalbán, but he keeps some in a facility in Montilla that's empty and locked when we get there around 3:30 in the afternoon. After tasting a few, we sample one of the oldest, which was transferred from wooden barrels to tinajas more than a decade ago. It's mild but coherent, sweet and nutty - and today, an aperitif for a lunch that begins at 4:00 P.M., when it's still too hot to think about going outside for another few hours.