When Sherry began to suffer an image problem, Montilla-Moriles was doubly hit: if sherry was the tipple of vicars and maiden aunts only, then Montilla was the tipple of vicars and maiden aunts on an economy drive. This was because Montilla had come to be regarded merely as a cheap alternative to its more famous neighbour. It is certainly true that a lot of Montilla grapes used to bulk up sherry blends, and that after this practice was stopped, many Montillas bearing similar labels to Sherrys (Fino, Amontillado etc) were sold cheap in export markets. But this obscured fundamental differences between the two regions, and very valid reasons to take Montilla seriously as a source of potentially high quality, original and unique wines. First difference is the climate, which is distinctly warmer in Montilla than down on the coast (it is in fact the hottest region in all Spain). This explains why the producers of Montilla could produce the superripe grapes the Sherry houses wanted, at such competitive prices. The second difference follows from this: with such high sugar levels, there is no need to fortify the wines at all – they naturally attain alcohol levels of over 15%.
Fortunately, a few enlightened estates in Montilla-Moriles have played to these strengths, and are concentrating on producing exciting, unfortified wines of great richness and complexity, usually from the hedonistic Pedro Ximinez grape, confident that fine wine connoisseurs will discover them sooner or later. One of the most remarkable of these is Bodegas Toro Albala.
The estate had a rather sedate beginning, back in 1844, on the slopes of Aguilar Castle. But in 1992 José Maria Toro Albala arrived, and the fun began. One of the wine world’s less conventional characters, he immediately made his mark by moving the whole bodega into a disused electrical plant. Other developments include wooden labels and his own patented invention “Trapped Air” – a novel approach to the problem of conserving wine in perfect condition.
Above all, Senor Toro Albala is a fanatic about wine in general, and top-quality sweet wine in particular. He says “Wine is as old as the bible, and is best savoured knowing it’s culture”, and visitors have a chance to tour his museum of vineyard tools, machinery, reference material and objects from history. Some of his wines merit a place in the museum, including the Gran Reserva which has aged 25 years in barrel, and the occassional release of outstanding pre-war vintages.
Despite all this history, the bodega has invested considerably in all the latest technology equipment, thus ensuring maximum control at every stage of the winemaking and ageing process. Here is a unique combination of excellent raw materials, modern technology, and respect for the traditional Montilla methods and styles, and above all a serious commitment to making the best dessert wine possible.