History, tradition and innovation rule at family winery Bodegas Alvear, where eight generations have stewarded the unique wines of DO Montilla-Moriles
The Andalusian sun shines down unmercifully on DO Montilla-Moriles in southern Córdoba, the hottest and driest wine region in Spain. Harsh as they seem, these climatic conditions, when combined with local soils and the special characteristics of the white Pedro Ximénez grape variety – which accounts for 95% of all vineyards here – give rise to unique and treasured Spanish wines that are savored in Spain and many other corners of the world. The final ingredient in this recipe for success? The knowledge, culture and winemaking traditions of this centuries-old region, and the dedication of those who preserve its legacy. In this regard, we need look no further than Bodegas Alvear, a local winery that was founded here in 1729. We spoke to the winery’s executive president Fernando Giménez Alvear, the eighth generation of the Alvear family to lead this project.
What are the most important factors that contribute to your unique and high-quality wines, differentiating them from the competition?
Alvear wines represent the fruit of the land, the traditions of the wine and grape trade and the consistency of centuries-old soleras. This is, precisely, what makes us unique.
Pedro Ximénez is the undisputed ruler of grape varieties in Montilla. Other characteristics of Montilla are the albariza (white loam) soils and extreme summers, which are determining factors in the grapes' quality.
Montilla is also a wine city, like Haro, Jumilla, Valdepeñas and Jerez, and its people are intimately familiar with the wine and grape trade, which has been passed down through the generations.
Alvear is the dean of Montilla's wineries (and the oldest winery in Andalusia). It was founded in 1729, and boasts nearly 300 years of tradition. The family members that work in the business (myself included) belong to the eighth consecutive generation that has managed the winery. One of our brands, Fino CB, is more than 200 years old.
How does it feel to be part of the eighth generation of a family dynasty and how do you combine this longstanding tradition with having to sell your products in the modern world?
The first thing that you feel is a great sense of responsibility. It’s normal for the director or owner of a winery to be worried about the next harvest or the wines that are aging; but he will never feel the same determination to safeguard the business as an end unto itself, as I do, and as all my ancestors have before me.
Of course I'm also worried about our brand and the profit and loss statement, and therefore it’s important to take care of your customers, make profitable products that they enjoy, to have a presence in the market and in social networks, and ultimately, to continually listen to consumers and adapt to their needs. The fact that this is a nearly three-hundred-year-old winery doesn't mean that my cousin María Alvear, our 37-year-old Marketing Director, is not completely up to date; I am one of the oldest people on the staff at 56.
When you're dedicated to making centuries-old products, is there pressure to innovate new product lines in order to continue opening new markets or businesses?
Indeed, in my experience it's much more difficult to make quick changes at Alvear than at other places. Years ago, when I began, I saw this as a big problem. But later, during the 2007 crisis, it was a blessing to have this natural inertia and to have preserved the range of products that we've always had, as difficult times always bring about a return to that which is traditional.
Despite this difficulty, it’s not that we've been idle all this time. We just need more time (to enact changes).
What kinds of innovations (or new products) have you launched?
When I took over direction of the winery in 1998, our enologist Bernardo Lucena and I began to make PX wines by vintage, launching an unaged Pedro Ximénez that we referred to as "de añada" (by vintage). We later began to age these "añada" wines on their own, separated by vintage. The 2011 vintage received 100 points from Robert Parker. We were true pioneers in this regard.
Years later, we launched the first "PX reserva", the 1998 vintage aged in old American oak half-barrels. We also began making other styles of wine aged in new oak, with different degrees of toasting.
We've also been applying this idea of vintages to "finos de añada" since 1998, using static aging rather than the traditional criaderas and soleras method – in this case with the additional plus of emphasizing the "terroir" by exclusively using grapes from our "Las Puentes" farm on the Benavente estate in the Sierra de Montilla mountains. Today, 18 years later in 2016, some enologists and fans of Jerez and Montilla wines are trying to reproduce what we have already been doing since then.
We were also pioneers years ago in the making and aging of semi-sweet Pedro Ximénez vinegars, which are commonly made by other producers today.
And finally, we have recently been expanding our offering with "sacas únicas" (limited editions) that have been rescued from the depths of our cellars, like the PX solera 1910, Palo Cortado Abuelo Diego and the Fino del Capataz de la Solera de la Casa.
How do you showcase your wines in export markets and who are your principal customers?
Currently our wines are mainly for aficionados in the export market, except for isolated cases. Even in Spain the whole category of fortified and sweet wines represents less than 4% of total wine sales, and outside of Spain sales mainly depend on the recommendation of experts.
A few decades ago, the United Kingdom represented twice the Spanish market for Jerez and Montilla. The wine was principally sold in supermarkets, and consumers were typically traditional. This type of consumption has practically disappeared today, but a new type of "trendy" consumer has emerged: young, modern urbanites, associated with the concept of the "tapas bar" that is so popular right now around the world. And while we are well short of the previous numbers, this group is growing rapidly, thereby giving the industry a renewed sense of excitement.
The United Kingdom is a good example of what needs to happen in Spain, where a portion of traditional consumption remains, but is experiencing an unstoppable downward trend year after year. However, a more "urban" brand of consumption is also starting to take hold here, driven by "connoisseurs". This same trend should be encouraged in virgin markets that have no prior experience (with these wines).
Our main markets are currently the United States and Canada, where "traditional" consumption still flourishes – particularly in New England and Ontario –, while "urban" consumption is rising in New York, California, British Columbia and Quebec – with even more intensity than in the UK.
When did you begin to export your wines?
We began exporting to England in the early 19th century, thanks to the English branch of the family. The first export director was our ancestor Sabina de Alvear y Ward, a woman ahead of her time. The winery's archive contains most of the accounts from the first half of the nineteenth century, giving evidence of the already numerous and thriving commercial relationships.
Our most exported PX wine is the PX Solera 1927, the winery's "flagship" wine. There's also a growing market for the Pedro Ximénez de Añada line, which is the purest version of the sweet PX's, and one that is admired by many of the world's most reputable critics. There's also a lot of interest in the oldest PX wines, from centuries-old casks, like PX 1830, and the vintage reserve wines.
Is there any one style or wine that is the most popular?
Alvears's sweet Pedro Ximénez wines enjoy renown outside of Spain, both by experts and consumers, which is why they are probably the most popular. Even so, there's an increasing interest in our driest wines: Finos, Amontillados and Olorosos, which we also make with Pedro Ximénez grapes.
The nineteenth-century French enological bibliography cites the Pedro Ximénez grape variety as the most distinctive of all the white varieties in Spain, and the dry white wines made from this Andalusian variety as being comparable to Gran Crú or Premier Crú wines from French regions. It seems that in the twenty-first century, things are coming back around.
Have your PX wines won any international awards?
Almost all of our wines have received more than 90 points from Robert Parker, who gave a noteworthy 98 points to PX Solera 1927 and 100 points to PX Añada 2011. Magazines like Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator and Decanter, and competitions like the Concours Mondial du Bruxelles and el International Wine Challenge have awarded our wines with gold medals or scores well over 90 points.
Are there any new export markets opening up?
Asian markets are starting to be important, although each one has its own preferences. China and Taiwan prefer the sweetest styles, while Japan goes for dryer wines, and particularly Fino, which pairs perfectly with Japanese food.
What are some of the challenges of selling these wines outside of Spain?
We believe that these wines occupy a sweet spot thanks to the recognition that they are receiving from industry professionals, experts and "connoisseurs" The challenge is to reach all consumers, and make both sweet and dry Pedro Ximénez wines a part of their typical wine consumption.
The Andalusian sun shines down unmercifully on DO Montilla-Moriles in southern Córdoba, the hottest and driest wine region in Spain