Road traffic between the Coast and Córdoba is quite heavy, but pretty much non-stop, and without the benefit of statistics it is probably accurate to assume that Montilla is not a feature. Quite a shame really, particularly if the
traveller is interested in Andalucian wines, mainly sherry, as Montilla (and Moriles) are often unjustly referred to as being Spain’s secondary sherry area. While wines from the sherry triangle – Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda – often have alcohol added when exported, the Montilla versions are “pure”, possibly because they have a very limited export trade.
While anyone who has visited a sherry bodega may have been surprised to see up to five layers of oak butts ranged one tier above another to the roof, the most visually attractive thing about a Montilla bodega are the fermenting jars: huge amphora-like concrete vats that, after the grape harvest, can be seen bubbling as the must slowly turns into wine.
Another distinctive thing about this region is the lack of variety as far as the grapes are concerned. Or maybe that should be grape. Only the Pedro Ximénez (PX) variety is used, although – when you consider that throughout the entire Jerez zone of production the Palomino grape is king, with a little PX thrown in – there can be nothing wrong with that.
Different categories of wine are not lacking. Fragrant, dry finos, nutty amontillados (named after Montilla they say), and voluptuous palo cortados and olorosos are a sherry drinker’s delight. The local inhabitants are not much interested in seeing their favourite tipple sent anywhere else, and only a tiny percentage of the production ever makes it outside the region.
However, the casual visitor will be sure of a warm welcome inside the massive whitewashed bodega walls that in the summer heat make life just about bearable. You will be almost alone, as, unlike the mass-wine-tourism business of the Jerez area, in Montilla you will usually be the only visitor. Montilla is a hard-working town spilling downhill from its mediaeval centre, not the prettiest, but proud of its bodegas and its 16th-century convent where unseen nuns sell biscuits through a revolving hatch.
Although some of the larger bodegas have joined together or been taken over by outside interests, the Robles family has managed to stay independent since 1927. It is run by the fourth generation, which, back in 1999, took the very unusual decision of going completely organic.
Anyone who understands that sherry is a blend of different vintages that can go back as far as 80 years or more, will understand that this project consisted of throwing all the old wine away and starting afresh with wine using organically-grown grapes. While it is acknowledged that most sherry-type wine is made in the bodega by various blending processes, Robles’s wine is definitely made in the vineyard, where fertilisers and chemical sprays are never used.
But forget those neatly-ploughed ranks of perfectly aligned vines with not a leaf out of place. Here is a mumble-jumble of vegetation that succeeds in attracting birds that will eat the insects that would otherwise eat the vines. In fact the vineyards are not a pretty sight. The theory is so simple that you wonder why not all wine producers let their vineyards return to nature.
Robles’s conversion to organic resulted in a 15 per cent increase in production and a 20 per cent increase in the ambient humidity of the vineyards, an important factor in an area where rainfall is low. The rabbits no longer eat the vines (rather they thrive on the shrubs); and, although there was a plague of snails one year, not one was found on a vine. Soil erosion in heavy rains is a thing of the past as the carpet of “weeds” in the vineyard holds the earth in place.
Be that as it may, the final product is good enough to have been awarded international honours globally. Indeed, it is the only winery whose products are certified as organic and vegan, and the Fino has been awarded the best-in-Spain tag on several occasions. The entire production complex is powered by solar energy and water is recycled, with solid materials being treated on biomass principles.
Giving the lie to the previous statement that all Montilla and Moriles wines are made from Pedro Ximénez grape varieties, Robles has sneaked in a few out-of-area varieties to liven up the excellent selection. It uses the Verdejo grape, the basis of the Rueda wines we drink on a daily basis, for one of its wines, as well as a unique blend of PX and Verdejo for another. Lovers of Vermouth are in for a treat if they try the VRMT, made from eight-year-old Oloroso, to which a smidgen of PX has been added, Indeed, all Robles’ wines are intensely interesting, and most people who try them for the first time will wonder what took them so long.
None of the wine costs more than €9 euros and it can also be bought in five and 15-litre bag-in-box formats: www.bodegasrobles.es