Photo: Alvear president Fernando Gimenez Alvear
Pedro Ximénez is the major grape variety in the southern Spanish province of Andalusía (where Alvear’s vineyards are). Jancis Robinson writes that the variety is used “mainly for some of darkest, stickiest wines made anywhere.”
Quite remarkably, Bernardo Lucena, the technical director of Alvear S.A., makes a complete line of wines with this grape, from a dry white, a dry rosé, fino sherries and rich, tawny amontillado sherries.
Several of those wines will be available for tasting (and purchase) at the Vancouver International Wine Festival in late February. Alvear is among the 39 Spanish wineries at the festival, where Spain and Portugal are the 2018 theme regions.
Alvear is one of the oldest family-owned wineries in Spain. Fernando Gimenez Alvear, the current president and a winery principal at the festival, traces his predecessors back to Diego de Alvear y Escalera, once a tax collector in Cordobá.
He established his winery in 1729 in Montilla, a community half an hour south of Cordobá. From small beginnings Alvear grew to be a dominant producer in Andalusía, especially after it began shipping its wines to Britain late in the 1700s.
The family also produced several colourful descendants, notably Don Diego de Alvear y Ponce de León (1749-1830), who followed a military career before joining the family business. Initially, he spent 25 years as a military officer in Argentina, then a Spanish possession.
When he returned to Spain to take up a new military posting, his wife and children followed on a different ship. They were lost when the ship was sunk by the British Navy. Don Diego remarried and fathered a second family. Clearly, he was not a man to hold grudges because his second wife was English.
Don Diego is said to have left an illegitimate son, Carlos Maria de Alvear, in Argentina who took part in the successful uprising against Spain in 1815.
The winery prospered under Don Diego and his heirs. They developed vineyards in the gently mountainous terroir around Montilla. In the town, the bodega’s burgeoning structures came to dominate the centre. Alvear money also built schools and other public buildings there.
Today, Alvear has moved its winemaking facilities outside the city, closer to the vineyards, with modern stainless steel fermenters replacing the cement and earthenware vessels known as tinajas (below). The latter stand in bulbous ranks in one building of the historic bodega in the centre of Montilla.
Still used for wine storage, the tinaja building is a leading attraction for the wine tour here.
The wines, however, are the real attraction, whether one arranges a visit to the bodega or to the Alvear table at the wine festival.
I visited the winery last October, at the end of vacation and tour of the great Moorish capitals of Andalusía – Granada, Cordobá and Seville. According to my hosts at Alvear, Cordobá “once was more sophisticated than London or Paris.” It retains a good deal of its historic charm, along with the mosque/cathedral which is one of the finest examples of Moorish architecture in Spain.
It was a bonus to find the Montilla-Moriles wine region south of Cordobá and to be able to arrange a visit to Alvear. Travellers with more time can arrange a tour of several wineries through www.bacustravel.com, an agency recommended on the Alvear web site.
The tasting room at the Alvear bodega is in another set of rooms redolent with history. A portrait of Don Diego, splendid in his military uniform, hangs on one wall.
Here are notes on Alvear wines. Some will be available at the wine festival; others are listed at various wine stores. Prices shown for those listed in the BC Liquor Stores. Given how long these wines are aged, the prices are astonishingly low.
Wine festival wines are marked **.
**Marqués De La Sierra 2016. A wine like this was totally unexpected in Pedro Ximénez country. It is a crisp and fresh dry white, with notes of apple and spice in the aromas and flavours. Night harvest of the grapes and fermentation at low temperatures preserves the freshness of the fruit. This wine is offered just at trade tastings at the festival. 88.
Vino De Pueblo 2016. This is a rosé from Pedro Ximénez grapes fermented and aged in tinajas. A dry wine with good weight on the palate, it mingles flavours of apples and almonds. 88.
**Alvear Fino ($19.99). This is an excellent dry sherry-style wine. It is unfortified because the Pedro Ximénez grapes are ripe enough to produce 15% alcohol. The wine spends four years under flor yeast in American oak barrels and is blended in the solera method. The flavours and aromas mingle notes of rancio with almonds. 90.
Alvear Fino Capataz. This wine has been aged for 10 years under flor yeast in oak butts and verges on the style of Amontillado. Tawny in hue, it has richly concentrated flavours, with a long finish that is still dry. 90.
Alvear Amontillado Criadera A ($26.99 for 375 ml). This is also a fino aged 12 years under flor. Tawny in hue, the wine has notes of almond on the nose and the palate. The minerality of the terroir comes through on the finish. This is a cerebral after-dinner wine. 91.
Amontillado Carlos VII. This wine has been aged 15 years in oak, partly under flor yeast. Amber in colour, it has fruity aromas and flavours. Full-bodied, it is a very complex wine. 92.
Alvear Solera Fundación Amontillado. One of the rarest wines made by Alvear (current release was 318 bottles), the wine is said to include some solera wines from the foundation of the winery. Perhaps that is just an eye dropper of 300-year-old wine. This is a rich, even unctuous, wine with 20% alcohol, achieved naturally. It reminded me of a fine single malt scotch. 94.
**Alvear Medium Dry ($19.99). This is a blend of fino and oloroso style wines, slightly sweetened and aged six years in a solera system of white American oak. A tawny wines, it has fruity flavours and an off-dry finish. The texture is silky. 91.
Alvear Oloroso Asunción. This is a fortified wine from Pedro Ximénez grapes. The wine was aged for more than 10 years in oak barrels, without flor. Dark tawny in hue, the wine has rich notes of figs and raisins, with a lingering but moderate sweetness. 92.
Alvear Pedro Ximénez Añada ($29.49 for 375 ml). This is a young Pedro Ximénez wine from a single vintage. The grapes are air dried on mats in the sun to concentrate the sugar and flavours. After fermentation, the wine is aged about a year in earthenware tinajas. This is a tour de force: golden tawny in colour, with flavours of raisins and marmalade and an exceptionally long sweet finish. Robert Parker scored this wine 100 points and I would not argue. 100.
**Alvear Pedro Ximenez Solera 1927 ($29.49 for 375 ml). Once again, the grapes are dried on matts in the sun. The grapes are then pressed and alcohol is added immediately to the sweet juice. The blend is assembled from a solera, presumably with a thimble full of 1927. Dark in color and unctuous on the palate, the wine is dense, with flavours of figs, licorice, toffee, molasses and chocolate. 95.
Alvear Pedro Ximenez Solera 1910. Incredibly intense and concentrated, this dark, silky, sweet wine incorporates wine from the oldest Pedro Ximénez solera in the winery. Think of drinking licorice and raisin pie, if such a thing exists. 96.