July 2, 2008
The new style of Rioja wines—supercharged, superexpensive bottles that are high in fruit and alcohol, like Roda or Allende—scores high with influential critics like Robert Parker. Bodegas Montecillo wines, instead, aim for classic harmony—“they’re good, honest, natural wines that live a long time,” says winemaker Maria Martinez-Sierra (though she’s quick to say that Parker is fond of her Gran Reserva and Especial wines).
Martinez-Sierra has been with the winery since 1975, and is one of the few female Spanish winemakers in what is still a macho profession—and not, as she points out, just in Spain. She started out studying philosophy with the expectation of becoming a teacher or a university professor, respectable careers for a well-brought-up young Spanish woman in the early 1970s. While working for a wine estate in Rioja to earn extra money, she fell in love with a “beauty”—the 1959 Fuenmayor. “I knew immediately that I wanted to make a wine just as beautiful,” she recalls. To her mother’s dismay she moved to Bordeaux and dumped philosophy for enology. “I wanted to make a name for myself, and I couldn’t have done that in Spain. I needed the respect that comes from working for the best.”
Returning a few years later, she linked up with the Osborne family, owners of the largest drinks company in Spain, who were then diversifying from brandy and sherry into top table wines. It’s been a mutually satisfying relationship ever since. “They love me; they trust me to spend huge amounts of money,” she says. And the family gets back enduring, subtle, successful wines—and fierce loyalty. “I will never accept lack of respect, she declares, “not for the owners, not for Rioja, not for my wines, and not for myself.”
Montecillo has no vineyards of its own. Martinez-Sierra buys the grapes herself—all from old vines at higher altitudes. “If you have vineyards, you have to make wine even if the grapes are no good. I don’t do this. We didn’t make wine in 1992 or 1999 and hardly any in 2002.” Montecillo also makes its own barrels. “I buy the logs in France, we age them for two years, then our coopers make the barrels. This way I get what I want.” Her other secret is aging—the wines spend more time in barrel and bottle than most of the competition.
The job of a winemaker, she explains, is to provide the right conditions to show off a wine’s individual personality. “I want them to be as fruity, as intense, as complex, and as long-lived as they can possibly be.” That can be quite a long time. In May, she treated us to the astonishingly vibrant 1981 Montecillo Selección Especial made from nothing but Tempranillo. Only just ready to drink, she pronounces, “but good for another 30 years.”
Bodegas Montecillo winemaker Maria Martinez-Sierra’s tres amigos Montecillo Reserva 2002
The Reserva has spent more time in both the barrel and the bottle than the Crianza (see below), turning the latter’s strawberries into cherries spiced with cloves and cinnamon. It’s an ideal complement to scallops with bacon and fennel, whose flavourings draw out the same notes in the wine. Specialty listing, $23.99
Montecillo Crianza 2003
All Martinez-Sierra’s serious wines are made entirely from Tempranillo, the grape of Rioja. Garnet in colour, the Crianza has spent a year in French oak and another year in the bottle. Its spicy strawberry, coffee, and licorice flavours dominate; it’s a perfect wine for tapas, sausages, or pretty much anything on the grill. Specialty listing, $18.99
Montecillo Gran Reserva 2001
A classic example of Martinez-Sierra’s dedication to making rich, concentrated, but not overly alcoholic wines from very good grapes from very old vineyards. Two years in the barrel and three in the bottle yield powerful, mellow, and subtle flavours. It pairs well with serious meat, as well as salmon and sablefish. Private wine stores, $35.99