Bodegas Montebaco

By Sunny Brown on March 1, 2009

Category: Winery of the Month

Let face it, to sell wine we have to bring the new. Cork Dorks get excited about famous vineyards and dusty old bottles and centuries of tradition, but customers get excited about what is new, hot and on the cutting edge. Put a wine on a stack out front with a big sign that says "Just Released" and you are bound to attract more attention than the same stack with a sign that reads "Still Really Good."

But new does not always translate to tasty, and the trick is to know the difference. Wine, just like life, is about balance. Fruit, tannin and acidity in the correct amounts will create a wine that has the quality for a great first impression and the depth to keep them coming back for more. Wine sales are the exact same way. While the customer may seek out a new label, it is the duty of restaurants and retailers to remind them of all the beautiful wines and fantastic values that are already offered. It is important to mix the traditional treasure with the flavor of the week.

But what about a wine that offers both? Who would not enjoy a wine that seamlessly molds tradition and innovation into the same delicious juice? We can think of no winery that better exemplifies this challenging philosophy than Bodegas Montebaco.

Located on the banks of the Duero River in central Spain, Montebaco is the epitome of old world technique and modern day technology. The winery was started in 1982 by Manuel Esteban with the intent of presenting the high quality of the local vineyards on an international stage. Manuel's family had grown grapes on this land for generations, but like many families they had sold their gapes to the local co-op in order to make a living. But as Ribera del Duero became internationally renown for plush and velvety versions of Tempranillo, the opportunity to showcase their unique terroir overcame any fears of limited success. Manuel's son, also a Manuel, decided to leave school early to direct the family estate after the elder Manuel tragically passed and he continues to run the estate to this day.

The vines at Montebaco sit at about 3,000 feet above sea level, high on the dusty plains above the river. The high altitude provides a natural buffer against the heat of the long and hot continental summer, allowing the grapes to hang on the vine well into October and yet retain a bright acid structure and a fresh feel. The gravel base of the alluvial soil provides excellent drainage for the old vines planted there. The local clone of Tempranillo, called Tinto Fino, crafts wines that have more weight, depth and perfume than their cousins from Rioja to the west. Chemicals have never been used on these soils, and all harvesting is done by hand.

It is in the sparkling, state-of-the-art winery where the modern world catches up to the old, dry-farmed vineyards. No expense was spared in the creation of a world-class winemaking facility. The grapes are gently de-stemmed and pressed by pneumatic presses that are more common to Burgundy than to Iberia. The wines are fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks before they are transferred to French and American oak barrels. They are bottled unfined and unfiltered with only a minimal sulphur treatment for stabilization.

The wines are crafted under the watchful eye of César Muñoz, one of Spain's hottest winemakers. In addition to stints at Vega Sicilia and many of the other luminaries of Spanish wine, César has consulted on projects all across the Southern Hemisphere. César's style is like that of a middle-weight prize fighter: his wines are bold, beautiful and balanced, neither too heavy and plodding like a ham-handed heavyweight nor too light and thin like a skin-and-bones flyweight.

The results are wines that reach to all segments of wine lovers. They are agile enough for those that crave soft Euro-styled wines and yet rich and spicy enough to satisfy the American palate.

The 2007 Montebaco Verdejo is crafted from old bush vines of Verdejo grown in the sandy soils of Rueda. It is fermented in stainless steel at cool temperatures and sees no oak in the elevage. Often Rueda is thin and sharp and simple with notes of citrus and perhaps a floral note if you are lucky, but this version is elegant and fresh and yet full through the mid-palate before a wave of cream and apples play out on a very long finish. An interesting mix of floral, tree fruit and cream notes that was seamless and timeless.

What followed was the 2005 Montebaco Ribera del Duero Crianza which spent 15 months in French Oak after being fermented in stainless steel. Rich, seductive and inviting like a cashmere sweater on a cold Winter's day, the 2005 Crianza is plush, fruit forward and full-bodied with a fine earthy edge that is reminiscent of scorched earth and leather. The high elevation of the vines also provides a fresh feel and balancing acidity without sacrificing any weight or fruit along the way. There is much conjecture as to what is "traditional" Tempranillo and what is considered more modern, and while I would not suggest that this falls into the old ways of making dried out and thin styles of the grape by imprisoning the wine in oak for extended sentences, it can not be called a fruit bomb either. Perhaps the best of both worlds?

Last but certainly not least was the 2004 Montebaco Ribera del Duero Vendemmia Seleccionada a wine culled from 60+ year-old vines on the Montebaco estate. It is only made in the very best of vintages when Mother Nature is cooperative and the grapes have reached their peak levels of maturity. After 16 months in new French Oak the wine spends a further 22 months in bottle before being released from the winery. The nose is at once delicate yet powerful, expressive yet demure, floral and fruity and earthy and a whole bunch of other things! But it is not until this wine hits your lips that the true magic happens: layered, intense, rich and rewarding, with hints of chewy dark fruit, cocoa, and floral elements the mid-palate is plush and full. The finish seems to go on forever, all with an element of dark earth, leather and a faint note of ashes from a campfire. A delicious and approachable wine that has nothing but room to grow into it's brawny frame.

Spain is considered a hotbed for great values, and during these tough economic times wine lovers everywhere are searching for the next great $11 bottle of wine. But don't forget that value can be found in all price points if one only know where to look. The wines of Bodegas Montebaco offer a mix of quality and consistency that far outpaces many wines from California in the same price range. And at the end of the day, if we must spend our money somewhere, isn't it always best to get more than what you paid for?