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Pedro Ximénez Ain't So Sweet
Not always, anyway. At least in Montilla-Moriles.
It’s only May, and it’s already reached 100°F (38°C) in Córdoba, Spain. That’s nothing, say the locals. Within recent years, scorching summer temperatures have reached more than 116°F (47°C). Suffice to say, Córdoba is one of the hottest places in Europe. Since the surrounding province is also a place that makes wine — from the Montilla-Moriles D.O. — it may also be the hottest winemaking region in the world.
What sort of grape would thrive in this heat? A strange one, for sure. Which is why Pedro Ximénez is the king of Montilla-Moriles.
For sure, Pedro Ximénez has a curious reputation outside of Spain. Wine drinkers (as well as vinegar lovers) may know the grape’s name, or at least its initials, PX. Whiskey drinkers are certainly familiar with PX cask finishes. But most people likely think of Pedro Ximénez as producing a dark, sugary sweet wine, with the viscous consistency of maple syrup.
“People think we can only obtain sweet wines from PX, but that’s not true,” says Inmaculada Luque at Alvear, which has been producing Pedro Ximénez wines in the town of Montilla since 1729.
I cannot remember being as surprised by a wine as I was tasting dry Pedro Ximénez fino on my recent visit to Alvear. Where has this wine been all my life! (These wines will especially appeal to the drinkers of sherry, Maderia, and spirits — take note brandy aficionados — among our readers).
To be clear, this is not a “discovery.” Alvear’s sweeter PX wines are already darlings of wine critics. Those wines regular earn high scores, including 100 points from Robert Parker a decade ago. But the dry wines, even though they incredibly affordable (under $25), are largely unknown by everyday drinkers in the U.S.
Since Pedro Ximénez wines use similar classifications as sherry — fino, amontillado, palo cortado, oloroso, etc — and since some PX wines are sold by the major sherry houses in Jerez, many are confused that Pedro Ximénez from Montilla is a “sherry.” It’s not.
A key difference is that dry PX from Montilla-Moriles (finos and amontillados) are not fortified, as they are in Jerez. “We get all alcohol we need from ripe sugar levels,” says Luque. The scorching heat in the region regularly delivers wines north of 15% alcohol (and since the region is super dry there is almost no botrytis, either). The wines undergo biological aging, under a blanket of flor, similar to fino or manzanilla sherries, and so you get all those complex, yeasty, nutty aromas and flavors. Another difference is how the sweeter wines are aged, spending time in large concrete tinaja, rather than solely solera barrels like they do in Jerez.
It all adds up to a strange and beautiful experience. Much like a visit to Córdoba itself. We were lucky to visit during the annual Fiesta de los Patios, when local homes open up their courtyards to visitors, showing off gorgeous, blooming flower displays.
Tourists to Andalusia generally head to the more well-known cities of Sevilla or Granada, but Córdoba is well worth checking out. Though with the heat, you will certainly be thirsty.
During our evening tour, we were poured quite a few glasses of fino Montilla, before heading off for tapas at a bar that was a shrine to the bullfighter Manolete (killed in the ring in 1947; portrayed by Adrian Brody in a 2008 film).
The city is home to one of Spain’s most exciting restaurants, Noor. When chef Paco Morales opened Noor, his goal was to reclaim the flavors of Al-Andalus, when the Moors ruled from the 10th to 14th century (he’s been described as a “gastro-archaeologist” and once said he “imagines that he’s the private chef for Abd al-Rahman III, the 10th-century caliph”).
Now, Morales is working in a different historic time period, exploring the ingredients and flavors that began to appear in Spain from the New World in the 15th century. Nicholas Gill, in his newsletter New Worlder, has a good interview with Morales.
We ate lunch at Noor. To be honest, I couldn’t really follow along with the didactic history lesson, but the food was delicious and super unique: pistachio karim (Arabic cream) with smoked herring caviar, green apple and black bread; sauteed spinach in almond marzipan, with an intense coffee sauce and sheep’s milk bechamel; a pluma cut of Iberian pork in kumquat sauce.
What sort of wine does one pair with a surprising array of flavors like this? Well, two of the half-dozen wine pairings were dry Pedro Ximénez from Montilla-Moriles: a palo cortado from Lagar Blanco and a fino called Atemporal that’s a co-project of Morales and Pérez Barquero. Wines like these have the ability to taste both modern and ancient at the same time, much like Noor itself.
They even paired well with the best dish of lunch, the first dessert course: a slice of limón ceutí, mint sponge cake, corinader “snow,” and black pepper. I really have no idea how the dish worked. But just like dry Pedro Ximénez from this hot climate, it did.
Vote For Pedro (Ximénez)
Here are 4 dry wines from Montilla-Moriles to seek out at home.
Bold, dry PX with average of 12 years, golden in color, earthy, saline, with olive, almond blossom, yellow fruit.
Crisp, clean, subtle, discreet, with bright citrus, yellow apple, leading to a big, salty finish.
Fresh, elegant, balance of bready and fruity notes. Good introduction to dry PX.
A dry wine, though not a true fino, aged in concrete tinaja under a tiny bit of flor. Fresh, fruity, but with the yeasty, nutty, saline notes one expects of a fino. Super cool wine.