A couple of weeks ago, four of us spent a very enjoyable evening at Lomo, a modern-style tapas bar-café in London's Fulham Road. We started the evening with a half-bottle of Valdespino's Innocente Fino (£67.20 for 12 or £74.40 for 24 half-bottles, Lea & Sandeman, 020 7244 0522).
It was so fresh, and went so well with the serrano ham and the assorted olives, that we rapidly ordered another bottle. Most of the other customers in the bar were drinking cocktails. I can't help feeling that they are missing out on one of the world's most fascinating wines (this is far from the case in Jerez, where during the week-long feria in May, some 20,000 cases of fino are consumed).
The generally unfashionable fortified sector offers some highly complex flavours, often at a remarkably low price for the quality. Part of the problem is people's concern at the high alcohol level, but there is little difference between a fino at 15% and a big Australian Shiraz or a powerful Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Now is a difficult time to try to reposition a wine in the fortified sector. Montilla is trying to do just that, however. It has unfortunately become known as a cheap alternative to sherry, especially in the retail own-label sector.
Although it will inevitably continue to be linked with sherry, Montilla does have its own particular history and character and the producers want to establish it as a quality product.
The wines comes from vineyards around the towns of Montilla and Moriles. In contrast to Jerez, Pedro Ximénez is the chief grape variety and the fino does not need to be fortified. Fermentation still takes place in traditional earthenware tinajas. It is a spectacular sight to see wine bubbling away in these containers.
There are a number of Montilla producers, but only Alvear SA (Vinexports, 01584 811333) and Pérez Barquero SA (Ehrmanns, 020 7418 1800) are significant players here. Both have a range of high quality, from delicate fino to intensely sweet Pedro Ximénez. The wines from Pérez Barquero tend to be a little more traditional in style.
At the more full-bodied and sweeter end of the spectrum, fortified wines offer the advantage of an extended shelf life once the bottle is open. Some restaurants are becoming ambitious in the wines they offer by the glass with pudding or for sipping at the end of the meal. Fortified wines are often a better match than sweet wines with rich puddings, especially chocolate.
In the UK there are two contrasting wines from Montilla. The golden-coloured Pedro Ximénez 1998 from Alvear (£60.25) has a modern livery and comes in a clear 50cl bottle. Its raisiny and figgy flavours would match a number of desserts. La Cañada Pedro Ximénez from Barquero (£85.20 for six) is treacly dark in colour and consistency, with intense flavours. It would provide competition for Christmas pudding, although the combination of the two might be just too rich. n
by Jim Budd