February 22nd, 2019/ BY Tod Stewart

The changing path of Spain’s Bodega Montecillo

A soft breeze offers little respite from August’s sultry heat. Thursday night and the streets of Madrid are alive. Dinner at La Cocina de San Antón – a fabulous open-air restaurant on the roof of the San Antón Market – wrapped up (deliciously) some time ago. At close to midnight, the crowd is thinning…slightly. I’m hunkered at the bar with a last glass of silky Montecillo Reserva tinto – the wine that had accompanied my now past repast. I’m waiting for Carlos who I first met in Haro some six years ago. We had hit it off spectacularly then, and had promised to stay in touch upon my leaving.

Unfortunately, Carlos is one of few words. Worse still, he rarely visits Canada, so his presence over the years has been virtually non-existent. The opportunity to meet up again after such a long absence had me nervously checking my watch.

Suddenly, ushered in with a knowing smile and a subtle nod from my bartender, Carlos appears. His bronze hue seems to shimmer, and a subtle but captivatingly familiar scent wafts towards me. Though showing restraint, there’s no denying Carlos is here to offer an intense experience. Carlos touches my lips. My tongue tingles….

Now let’s just stop right here. I know what you are most likely thinking. The San Antón Market is located in the heart of Madrid’s Chueca neighbourhood – the epicentre of the city’s LGTBQ2 community. So naturally I’m here for a “mano a mano” hookup with the elegant and sophisticated Carlos, my Spanish “conquistador,” no? Well as much as I hate to disappoint you, “no” is the answer. I am decidedly straight (as much as this seems to actually be a social disadvantage at times). And Carlos isn’t even a guy! Ha!

Carlos – more properly monikered “Carlos 1” – is a brandy de Jerez – a spirit distilled in the Sherry region and aged in the same famed solera  process used to mellow the region’s liquid claim to fame, namely, sherry. And though I partook of more than a few copitas of Spain’s glorious fortified wine, toured the cellars of a legendary sherry bodega, and was even introduced to a sherry-based vermouth (the hottest libation in Spain right now) while “in country,” a merciless word count, and a directive from an equally merciless editor (just kidding, Aldo…seriously), caused my attention to focus more narrowly on some of the finest red wines found on the Iberian peninsula. Which, as far as I’m concerned, was a very good thing.

At a table in a vast vineyard sprawling over 800 hectares, with the mountains of the Iberian System in front of me and an endless sea of ripening grapes surrounding, I’m in my element. Cool Montecillo Rosado 2017 is poured under a shading canopy as the sun climbs into a cobalt stratosphere. Lunch is served: tender white asparagus, rich, mildly piquant chorizo and potato stew, and flaky, melt-in-your mouth cod steeped in a vibrant tomato sauce. The wine, redolent of fresh strawberry, cranberry, watermelon and dried herbs offers the ideal foil.

I’m fortunate to be seated with Rocío Osborne, Brand Ambassador for her family’s eponymously named company and sixth generation of a family whose winemaking history dates back to 1772. Who better to ask about the current state of Spanish reds than someone who actually makes the stuff?



I asked what, in her opinion, were some of the most exciting developments in the field of her country’s red wines and, specifically, those of her own winery, Bodegas Montecillo.

“In Spain we have seen a great deal of development in small and unknown areas that have been rediscovered and now are focusing on crafting high quality wines. The rise of certain wines that express a very special character due to their terroir and respectful winemaking techniques. Before this, it was all about Rioja, Ribera and Rueda. Now there are a lot of producers from these areas that don’t even belong to a denomination of origin area, and are making amazing wines.

“In Montecillo we have also been identifying and selecting vineyards with special characteristics that will make very limited production wines that show perfectly the terroir were they come from.”

It’s no secret that Spain’s red wines – and, in fact, all of the country’s wines – have been continuously improving. Classic areas like Rioja and Ribiera del Duero continue to produce some of the world’s most coveted wines. Places like Priorat and Toro have for some time now been yielding blockbuster reds, some of which have attained cult status. Bierzo and Ribera Sacra are breathing new life into Mencia – an ancient, but until recently, overlooked red grape variety.

Regions like La Mancha, Yecla, and Jumilla – traditionally known for producing large volumes of largely nondescript bulk wines are now producing large volumes of remarkably good tintos – some of which represent the world’s best bargains.

All of this is largely the result of an influx of know-how and technology, as well as constant improvements in vineyard management and a willingness to try new things – even if that means, in some cases, looking to the past. Osborne notes that even established Rioja producers like Montecillo are always experimenting.

“For us, there have been many changes,” she explains. “In the past we used to craft wines only from Tempranillo. Now we are using all four of the varietals allowed by the Rioja region – Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. Our vineyard manager has worked very hard to get the best of these varietals, including the development of a new software program that can track and help control the development of grapes of the different vineyards we source from, which helps to enhance the quality of the fruit.”

Though the regulations governing which red grape varieties can be planted in the vineyards of Rioja restrict them to the four mentioned by Osborne (Sauvignon Blanc has recently been permitted for the region’s white wines), those four seem to offer almost limitless possibilities to those producing regional red wines.

“In Montecillo, we have also been identifying and selecting vineyards with special characteristics that will make very limited production wines that show perfectly the terroir where they come from.” ~ Rocio Osborne

Bodegas Montecillo lounge


Tasting the 2012 Montecillo Edición, with it’s ripe, spice aromas of rich black fruit, menthol, graphite and subtle white pepper that give way to a ripe, dense, complex flavour tapestry, and the powerful, complex, concentrated tobacco and dark plum nuanced 2010 22 Barricas clearly show the new faces of Rioja’s red wines. The emphasis is decidedly on fruit and terroir, and much less on what the region’s wines are often famous for, namely, oak.

Introduced by Bordalaise winemakers in the 18th century who fled their own phylloxera-ravaged vineyards in search of new possibilities, the unmistakeable and pronounced vanilla footprint imparted by oak barrels has long been the most recognizable feature of Rioja’s red wines – for better or worse.

Today, the region’s more forward-looking producers are more judicious with the application of oak, seeking to better integrate into the wine’s overall profile.

Thirteen meters beneath the crust of the Rioja Alta region, I gaze over a vast expanse of oak barrels – 19,000 of them to be precise. I’d seen similar vistas a few years ago while visiting Bodegas Roda and Lopez de Heredia in Haro. Seeing so much oak, it’s hard not to think that wood might still be a dominant factor in the flavour of the red wines produced here.

My comment to Osborne about this elicited this response:

“Oak is important, but a key point for us is that the oak backs up the wine and doesn’t overwhelm the fruit. Our aim is to craft balanced wines, where the oak nuances are clean and fresh, and the fruit displays its varietal character.”

She notes that the barrels in the cellars of Montecillo average two to three years in age, and that racking (transferring of wine to different barrels) and regularly cleaning the barrels helps the winery achieve the oak/fruit balance it desires.

Of course balance is what all winemakers seek. However, it’s not just a heavy hand with oak that can turn a would-be elegant Rioja reserva into a gloopy mess. Mother Nature herself often throws a curveball, especially when it comes to heat.

Deniers of global warming might want to chat with a grape grower or two working in regions where the harvest is now happening routinely in August as opposed to September. Sure, if you’re producing in a cool climate like, say, Niagara, the extra heat may equate to richer reds, but in most regions, more heat equals more ripeness equals more sugar in the grapes equals more alcohol in the wine.

“And more alcohol is bad?” you ask, eyebrows raised. Well, yes, if balance is the key to a stellar wine. (If it’s just alcohol you’re after, there’s this thing called vodka….)

“We don’t want to have overripe grapes and 15 percent alcohol wines,” Osborne confirms. “For us balance is key, and for this reason we strive to keep alcohol, ripeness and acidity under control, with a very careful and strict control of the vineyards right before harvest.”

Luckily for Rioja winemakers like Osborne, geography works in their favour when it comes to tempering heat and, as an outcome, alcohol. Most Montecillo wines come in at around 13.5 percent ABV, a decidedly low proof in an oenological world where 14.5 percent is the new 12.

With a final swirl, sniff, and swig, Carlos disappears. leaving but a warm memory in my veins. At some point tomorrow (actually, later today), Spain will be but a warm memory as well; a memory of Madrid, Jerez, Cadiz, Seville, Bilbao, and Logroño; of fantastic food, incredible vistas and the sensational red wines of Rioja.



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