Leaving Madrid on a Southbound train, Europe’s highest capital city scales down to scattered suburbs before disappearing entirely. Olive trees step in and take the place of buildings. Beautiful and then monotonous, the scenery is one continuous stream of thousands of olive trees on thousands of white rolling hills. My recent trip to Spain lasted only nine days, just enough time for me to explore Andalucia’s historical treasures and discover the Montilla-Moriles wine region, located 30 km south of Cordoba.
Cordoba itself is famous for its rich history as a Roman city and then a Moorish capital until its reconquest by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1236. Hundreds of years of Moorish rule produced the architectural jewel, the Mezquita. Recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, the Mezquita is a rare architectural example of two of the worlds greatest religions occupying the same space and time. A single visit allows one to see a 8th century mosque and a 13th century cathedral. Moving to say the least and a bit like meeting a celebrity for history buffs like me.
As usually happens wherever Roman roads lead, vineyards follow. Less famous than it’s popular big brother, Jerez, the Montilla-Moriles region is a collection of small towns connected by the swathes of olive trees and vineyards. The earth here is poor in organic nutrients but high in calcium carbonate, a result of a rich concentration of ancient seashells. In fact, if one looks closely at Cordoba’s many city walls, one see’s hundreds of intact seashells. Calcium carbonate helps retain moisture in this hot, arid region.
First a bit about the word "Sherry." I bring this up because one finds wines from Montilla-Moriles labeled as "Sherries" at restaurants or wine shops. Like "Champagne," true "Sherry" comes only from Jerez region. Jerez employs the Solera process for making its famed wines. Now zip over to Montilla-Morilles which also employs the Solera process. Using similar techniques produces similar wines, these similarities cause them to be lumped together into the "Sherry" category. There are many types of "sherries" but the one explained here is the Fino. Difficult to find and underappreciated, the Fino has escaped the notice of the American market. However, these wonderful wines can forever change one’s notion of what wine tastes like. These are delicate, dry wines, lacking fruity aromas. Instead they display salty and nutty aromas. Fino’s are incredibly popular in Spain and enjoyed with or without food. Given their rarity, I was extremely pleased to find a little time to explore at least one Bodega and see the Fino winemaking process in-person.
We arrived in the white-walled town of Montilla without any plan, map or reservation, risky in a region that enjoys very long siestas. Thankfully, the city provided signs pointing the way to its many Bodegas. We attempted to find the tourist station but gave up after seeing so many signs pointing the way. Getting a bit lost landed us at the door steps of Bodegas Cruz-Conde.
Our guide explained that, unlike Jerez, where the primary grape is the Palomino grape, here the primary grape, Pedro Ximenez, serves as the base for all for all of its wines. While Jerez is situated near the Atlantic, Montilla is about 5 hours inland and experiences very hot and dry conditions. This desert climate relies on a high concentration of calcium carbonate to maintain soil moisture. The vines here are not trellised and grow small and gnarled. With pride, our guide told us that grapes grown here ripen fully in the intense heat and consequently achieve higher sugar levels. This is critical because higher sugar levels allow for higher alcohol levels. So high, in fact, that these wines are not fortified at all at reach and reach fifteen-percent alcohol! This is huge difference from Jerez wines because, in Jerez, the grapes are unable to reach high sugar levels and must be fortified with brandy to increase the alcohol content to roughly fifteen-percent. Consequently, wines from Montilla-Moriles exhibit much lighter bodies and more delicate and subtle aromas.
We were guided into the wine cellar where the wine is barrel aged after fermentation. The barrels were stacked in layers up to 4 barrels high (and go higher where space permits). The ground level layer of barrels is called the "Solera" and derives from the the word "suelo" meaning "floor". The layers stacked on top are the crianzas. The Solera level barrels contain the oldest wine, the next layer up contains slightly younger wine, and so on with each layer. Logically, the youngest wine is found in the barrels stacked at the very top. Wine for bottling is taken from the solera level barrels (the oldest wine) and replenished with wine from the barrels immediately above them (slightly younger wine). Those barrels in turn are replenished with yet younger wine from the barrels stacked on top of them. Thus, younger wine is constantly filtering down to the solera level barrels. Complicated and labor intensive? You bet, but this process allows for uniformity and constant vintage blending. As a visual learner, I really needed to see it in person to appreciate the process. While traditionally unique to Spain (and a handful of other places in Europe), the use of a Solera to blend wine is now appearing in the New World.
But the real magic happens inside the barrel during the blending process. The barrels are only partially filled, creating a large air space. Within that airspace yeast thrives and creates a yellowish veil of "flor" over the surface of the wine. The flor simultaneously shields the wine from the air and imparts the major nutty and salty aromas present in these wines.
So what the heck does a "veil" of yeast on wine look like? Well, thankfully, our guide was ready with a glass-walled barrel so that we could see inside a barrel. Yup, it looks like a layer of yellow muck floating on the wine. Delicious.
So how about a barrel tasting? Because the flor layer protects the wine from the surrounding air, our guide explained, it is critical that the flor be disturbed as little as possible so that once the layer is broken and wine collected, the flor can immediately close over the hole and prevent bacteria from contaminating the wine. To do this our guide showed us a "venencia." The long flexible handle is made of baleen and at the end is a narrow cup (narrow to make a only a tiny hole in the flor). Our guide lined the venenzia up as straight as possible and dipped in and out quickly, then swung the venencia up high and poured its contents into the glass. I took a photo of myself pretending to do the same.
I took a sip and was so pleased to find the characteristic bone-dry, nutty, salty air qualities that make Fino’s so special and unique. These wines may not sound like a wine you might enjoy, but they have a mouthwatering quality about them and unexpected food friendliness that keeps Fino lover’s scouring wine lists to find them.