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The father of Spanish sweet wines remains in the dark. Was it an Englishman or a Fleming who made Andalusia happy with it?

We left after noon. It took a while to shake off Madrid with its residential silos that eat ever more brazenly towards the south. Then there was nothing, the car floated through an endless, barren expanse. It's hard to believe that such emptiness still exists in western Europe. When the eye can't find anything to hold on to, you automatically hang on to your thoughts. I thought of our destination, Andalusia, and its most famous poet, Federico García Lorca, murdered by the fascists in 1936.

Earlier on the plane I had read his interpretation of the word "duende", that emotion that can send shivers down the spine of the initiated at bullfights or flamenco. García Lorca described it as "Dionysian inspiration with black tones". Maybe it's just a symptom of my profession, but these words immediately made me think of the dark, heavy Andalusian dessert wines to which, especially if they are very old, something like "duende" can certainly be attributed. In any case, they are unique in their monumental nature.

English or Flame?

Now there are Spanish wine intellectuals who claim that these very sweet specialities are not actually Andalusian wines at all, because they were originally invented and produced by Englishmen for the English market. That may be true. The first Osborne, for example, is said to have come to Puerto de Santa María destitute and with patched trousers. There he allegedly sold holy images and rosaries in the streets before rising to become a sherry baron.

The most famous sweet wine grape of Andalusia% the Pedro Ximéne

And there is the legend of how Andalusia's most famous sweet wine grape, the Pedro Ximénez, found its way to Spain's south. It is said to have once been native to the Canary Islands and to have first come to Germany from there. A Flemish soldier from the army of Charles V (1500 to 1558) named Peter Siemens is said to have then brought it from the Rhine to Andalusia. And because the Spaniards could not pronounce the name Peter Siemens, they would have called the new vine Pedro Ximénez.

But even if Andalusian sweet wines were the invention of a few Englishmen and a Fleming, they are above all the work of the Andalusian sun and the brightly shimmering, chalky soils. Incidentally, it was García Lorca who said that the best in Andalusia was brought by foreigners. He was thinking of the Moors and the Gitanos - if he had been a wine lover, he might also have mentioned the English and the Flemings.

Southern elegance

Every plain has an end. Spain's central plateau ends with the adventurous serpentines of the Desfiladero de Despeñaperos. After that, you are almost in Africa. In the Jewish quarter of Córdoba, behind the great mosque (Mezquita in Spanish), the white facades are the same as they were 1000 years ago. In the restaurant "El Churrasco", the evening begins, of course, with a Fino from the in-house Solera. And it ends with a Pedro Ximénez, PX for short, which host Rafael Carrillo buys from a farmer in Montilla and continues to age in his cellar for years. When it is poured at the age of around ten years, it still tastes grapey-sweet, but age has already broken the top of the sweetness. Southern elegance wafts around the drop, but also something oriental. When you smell the glass, you almost think you are in a Moroccan souk, amidst fresh dates, figs and spices.

A sticky fellow
My first encounter with Pedro Ximénez was a total disappointment. Never before had I met such a sticky fellow. The syrupy, thickened wine was highly aromatic, but didn't really want to trickle down the throat. The monster reminded me of pureed sultanas. Fortunately, there was a full glass of water nearby. What can you do with a wine like this? Drizzle it over vanilla ice cream as an essence? Not a bad idea.

There had been a Fino from Jerez in the fridge for a long time, which I didn't really like for the opposite reason, namely its bone-dry nature. And lo and behold: a mix of two thirds of this Fino and one third of the ominous PX resulted in a wonderfully balanced sweet wine. I was proud of this creation. Then in Córdoba, people told me that this is exactly what has been done here for ages, there is even an expression for it: "Fitty Fitty".

But anyone who gets to know the PX better soon realises that it only needs to be made drinkable as a young wine with such tricks. Whereas the youth stage of a PX can easily last 20 or more years. When it reaches adulthood, it achieves the right balance between sweetness and acidity all by itself. Hugh Johnson, the famous book author, once tasted a Malaga wine that came from the Duke of Wellington's estates and was bottled in London in 1830. He remembered it as one of the best sweet wines he had ever tasted.

Heavyweight treasures

Since Andalusian sweet wines have been experiencing a renaissance, some wineries have been trying to appeal to a younger audience with lighter, finer-fruited wines whose fermentation has been stopped by cooling rather than adding brandy. Why not? However, these modern trimmed Moscatel and PX ultimately seem interchangeable. Believe me: the true treasures of Andalusia are and remain the baroquely sweet heavyweights, undrinkable in their youth, which slumber in barrels and bottles for decades until they have become coffee-black and magically perfectly digestible.

If you set out on the trail of sweet wonders, you will come across small Andalusian towns like something out of a picture book. The vineyards of Málaga reach close to Ronda, spectacularly situated on a limestone cliff, whose bullring is considered the birthplace of the corrida. In the sherry stronghold of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the fish taverns line the Guadalquivir, and the "Casa Balbino" at the Plaza del Cabildo is the dream come true of a perfect tapas bar, where not only the freshly prepared tortilla with prawns tastes heavenly. And finally, Montilla is the prototype of a lively, self-confident Andalusian city.

In the shadow of Jerez

That's what makes Spain so unique. You come to a city that you expect nothing of. And you come across - as in Montilla - white façades in narrow old-town streets nestled against a hilltop. In the Círculo Artesanas, directly opposite the Casino Montillano, old gentlemen in timeless suits sit in brown leather armchairs while their granddaughters stroll in groups up and down the main street. Down this street, in the restaurant "Las Camachas", the tapas bar is already bustling. Later, the guests will retire to the various dining rooms, passing the robe of the bullfighter Paco Raigon, which he wore at his inaugural fight in 1966 and which now hangs here in a glass case.

Tapas bar

Montilla is the spiritual home of the Pedro Ximénez grape. 75 percent of the approximately 10,000 hectares of the D.O. Montilla-Moriles are planted with it. Who knows, maybe the area will start a similar success story with its sweet wine as other parts of Spain experienced with red wine. Not that viticulture is new here. The Alvear winery, which towers mightily over the town centre, was founded as early as 1729 by Diego de Alvear y Escalera. But for centuries, the pretty little town was overshadowed by Jerez, where most of the Pedro Ximénez wines were sold.

This dependence ended abruptly in 1945 when Montilla-Moriles was declared an independent D.O. region. Now the wine region had to find its own identity and tried to do so for decades with a mild Fino type, but it never achieved a similar reputation as the one from Jerez. The change came only when the bodegas of Montilla remembered the real qualities of the PX grapes, which are clearly in the sweet range.

The training brings it

To produce sweet wines, the grapes are harvested in August and then laid out in the open air on straw mats and carpets. The berries dry in the sun for seven days, during which time they are turned two or three times. This process is also used in Jerez and Málaga, but only in Montilla does it work perfectly. Here, in the heart of Andalusia, at up to 700 metres above sea level, the nights are dry, whereas in Málaga and Jerez, because of the proximity of the sea, the grapes often pick up moisture again after dark.

The berries dry in the open air for seven days

The traditional process produces grapes so concentrated in Montilla that the juice only ferments to five or at most seven degrees alcohol. As soon as fermentation stops naturally, the wine is fortified with grape brandy to around 15 percent. It often has a residual sugar content of 300 to 500 grams per litre. As a young wine, it tastes incredibly thick and sugary. Only after years or decades of ageing training in the solera or as a vintage wine in the barrel does it become a great sweet wine.

Among the top wines from Montilla are the PX Solera 1910 and the PX Solera 1927 from Bodega Alvear. Gran Barquero, the second big bodega in the small town of Montilla itself, is also doing a great job. In recent years, La Cañada, a PX aged for over 20 years, and the PX Solera fundacional 1905 were launched. The third leading winery in the region is the Bodega Toro Albalá in the small town of Aguilar de la Frontera, about 15 kilometres away. Owner Antonio Sánchez Romero appreciates not only old wines but antiques in general, be it old cameras, watches or wine books. But the noblest pieces in the house are his dessert wines such as the Don PX Bacchus 1939, the Don PX Marques de Paley 1945 or the Don PX Convento 1961. And somewhere there is also a cask of a Pedro Ximénez that was pressed in 1844.

There is no question: this emerging area will bring us many a sweet surprise in the near future. As one of the old men in the Círculo Artesanas said, "The families here don't have large fortunes in the bank, but they do have a barrel or two of old PX in the cellar."

Málaga rises to its feet

At some point, not so long ago, Málaga was so run down that it could only go up. The city itself an inglorious prelude to the concrete deserts of the Costa del Sol. And the wine was no longer even considered good enough for cooking. The vineyard area had shrunk from over 11,000 hectares (before phylloxera) to 900 hectares. But with the millennium came the turnaround. The football club rose from the depths of obscurity, suddenly kicked itself back into the First Division and is now in the black. Recently, King Juan Carlos inaugurated the newly built Picasso Museum, the new pride of the city. And in the tapas bars of the narrow streets of the old town, it is once again in vogue to sip wine from local varieties.

A few years ago, the eloquent wine empresario Telmo Rodríguez came to town, campaigned for the restoration of some of the old, neglected terraced vineyards and cleverly named his modernly conceived Moscatel "Mountain Wine", because this was the name under which the sweet Malagas were already fashionable in the USA and Great Britain in the 19th century. At the same time, American wine journalists discovered the long-established Bodega López Hermanos, especially its two traditionally vinified prestige wines, the Moscatel Don Salvador and the Pedro Ximen (that is the usual spelling here) Don Juan. These two wines, vinified for decades, show in the most beautiful way why Malaga once had world fame.

The best Malaga in the world

On to nearby Málaga. This is not a wine town. Gone are the days when bodegas dominated the port. And the grapes also ripen away in the hills north of the city. If you want to visit López Hermanos, you have to dive deep into the jungle of a not exactly noble commercial and industrial area. Between workshops assembling lift trucks and import companies for hairdressing accessories sits the new building where today the best Malagas in the world mature. In the office of company boss Rafael Burgos López, modernly designed sample bottles stand under the picture of his 95-year-old mother, who is still the company's chairman of the board.

López Hermanos has started to launch new, lighter wines from selected steep sites in late harvest style. The inspiration for this came from the success of Telmo Rodríguez's drops. The fermentation of these wines is not to be stopped by means of brandy as before, but by cooling and filtering. "We have to get away from the coffee-black wines that have given us an old-fashioned, dusty image and move towards lighter, lighter, more drinkable growths," says the company boss. The newly created Reserva de Familia line also includes a selection of Pedro Ximénez aged in new barriques.

Hopefully, the "last of the Mohicans" of the once so proud guard of Malaga houses will not forget tradition for all the departure. It would be a shame. The extraordinary thing about López Hermanos is that the whole range of wines is convincing. Even the simple wines like the Cartojal Pale Cream or the Malaga Virgen, which don't cost six euros, are balanced, with well-buffered sweetness. The two top wines, the Pedro Ximen Don Juan and the Moscatel Don Salvador, are simply sensational in their aromatic diversity and complexity, matured for around 50 years. These are immortal wines in the truest sense of the word, worth many times what they cost at the merchant.

Tipsy mice

If I am reborn as an animal in a next life, I would love to be a little mouse in the old cellar La Constancia of González Byass in Jerez. There, the cellar masters place a glass of sweet sherry on the light-coloured floor of Alvero sand every day - the same floor, by the way, that is used in the bullring. And because the mice can't climb up the thin stem, a tiny ladder the size of a doll's house leans against the glass. The rodents nimbly scurry over the rungs, stick their heads far into the narrow goblet, slurp down sweet Oloroso and disappear again between the barrels just as quickly as an arrow. They have to, because somewhere in this dark dungeon a cat is meowing.

What the mice at González Byass sip is certainly not one of the legendary sweet wines from the "Soleras exklusivas", in which, for example, the Matusalém (a great Oloroso dulce) or even the Noé, a Pedro Ximénez muy viejo like from a picture book, slumber for decades. Jerez is a world of its own, with its own laws that outsiders will probably never fully understand. The Noé, for example, matures in a complex solera system consisting of no fewer than 19 criaderas.

A criadera can be understood as a group or series of barrels. In schematic drawings of sherry making, we often see barrels stacked like a pyramid. Wine is regularly taken from the bottom row and bottled. The wine that is missing in this way is refilled from the second lowest row of barrels, and this game continues until the top barrel (or the top row of barrels) is finally filled with the young wine. In the case of the Noé, we would have to deal with a barrel pyramid of 19 rows, but because this is not possible for purely architectural and work-related reasons, the solera in question consists of different groups.

True marvels

Soleras are like children. Each one has its own character, its genius, its quirks. The best ones live to be 100 or more years old. From them come the noblest PX sweet wines. Pedro Domecq's Venerable comes from a solera that was put into operation in 1790. It takes an average of 480 months for a wine to pass through this ingenious system of maturation and decanting. By then, an initially sticky-sweet juice has become a sensual firework of aromas. A similar marvel is the PX Viejisimo from Sánchez Romate.

In many sherry houses, small soleras made of a few barrels stand in quiet corners where visitors rarely come. They are called "sacristías". In the past, they were only touched to fill a few bottles during special family celebrations of the owners, such as a wedding. Today, such specialities also appear on the market in small quantities. In this way, the sweet specialities have developed from wallflowers to visiting cards of the wineries in the sherry region as well in recent years. More and more wine lovers are noticing that these are completely unique wines because they spring directly from an uncopyable tradition. PX 1827 is written on the bottle from Osborne. Six characters can tell more than an entire novel

Sweet days in Jerez

The best sweet wines in the world, gathered in a picture-book Andalusian palace - what sounds like a fairy tale comes true from 26 to 29 May 2004. In Jerez de la Frontera, VINUM invites you to the Vinoble for the fourth time.

The wines are noble, and so is the environment in which they are presented. Around 1000 sweet wines from 20 countries are available for tasting at Vinoble. The spectrum ranges from vintage port and Madeira to Sauternes and Tokay to Trockenbeerenauslese from the Moselle and nectar from the island of Samos. The Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez wines from Andalusia presented here are also represented almost without a gap.

In addition to these classics, the fair also takes up new developments: Who knows dessert wines from Japan, Argentina or Uruguay? The supporting programme offers the opportunity to study different forms of sweet winemaking as well as the development potential of individual wine types in vertical tastings. Because the Vinoble public is considered to be exceptionally knowledgeable, the fair is also increasingly visited by winemakers and oenologists. The resulting contacts and the intensive exchange of opinions between winemakers and consumers provide valuable impulses for this special wine segment and give the fair a very special touch.

The capital of sherry offers a perfect setting for the event in every respect. Vinoble takes place in the magnificent buildings of the Arabic castle complex Alcázar on the edge of the old town. On the grounds of the reconstructed palaces, the oldest parts of which date back to the eleventh century, are well-tended gardens and a well-preserved mosque. For the duration of the exhibition, visitors can enjoy various bars and restaurants in the Alcázar.

Many visitors combine a visit to the Sweet Wine Fair with a holiday in this culturally and scenically interesting corner of Andalusia. In Jerez itself, the imposing sherry cathedrals of González Byass or Pedro Domecq are well worth a visit. Equally famous is the Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Ecuestre. In this riding school, you can attend dressage demonstrations every Thursday. In the surrounding area, coastal towns such as El Puerto de Santa María, the beach of Chipiona, the small town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda with the adjacent Doñana National Park (sand dunes and marshes with flamingos) as well as the famous white villages such as Arcos de la Frontera attract visitors.

More information about Vinoble:

Klosbachstrasse 85CH-8030
+41-(0)1-268 52 40Fax
+41-(0)1-268 52 05


The above article was kindly made available to us by the Vinum editorial team. Many thanks for this. Please use the following link to order a free sample issue of Vinum:

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