Pedro Ximénez: Discover the Joy of PX
Pedro Ximénez (PX) is both a Spanish white grape variety and a particular style of super-sweet dessert wine. PX (the grape) is grown in many Spanish regions and occasionally elsewhere. However, the most outstanding examples of PX (the wine) are arguably from the inland Andalusian wine region of Montilla-Moriles DO. It’s some 45 km south of Cordóba and 100 km north of Málaga. It takes its name from the two main towns of Montilla and Moriles and is often known just as Montilla.
Montilla-Moriles has been somewhat overshadowed by the much better known Sherry from Jerez, some 220 km away by the fastest roads. Indeed, PX is used extensively as the sweetener in many a medium or cream-style Sherry. Many Sherry producers also have their bottlings of PX wine because the PX grape was once more widely grown in the Sherry region. However, the PX grape is thin-skinned and susceptible to fungal diseases, which are more prevalent in a more maritime area like Sherry. Hence Palomino has mostly replaced it in their vineyards. It also means that a great deal of the PX for blending in Jerez these days is sourced from Montilla-Morilles as grape must (i.e. juice before fermentation), which is a traditional and legal arrangement.
Montilla-Moriles has the same kind of chalky albariza soils as Jerez too, which are known for their moisture-retention even in searing heat. Yet the Palomino variety does not do well in Montilla. That’s because inland Montilla-Moriles is far more extreme climatically and is also at higher altitude.
To say it’s hot and dry in Montilla-Morilles is an understatement; the mercury can hit 50°C in summer, the highest in Spain. Yet PX loves it, rewarding growers with massive amounts of sugar, though sometimes at the expense of acidity. No wonder that some 95% of the shrinking vineyard area in the Montilla-Moriles DO is devoted to growing PX*.
PX the grape variety
The PX grape is capable of being made into several wine styles. They range from light and fresh dry white wines (in Joven and Crianza styles) to vinos generosos, i.e. Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Oloroso wines. There are some terrific examples, even though Montilla has a lesser reputation for them than Sherry.
However, the most significant expression of PX is undoubtedly the super-sweet molasses-like wine, also called PX. It’s this style that gives Montilla-Moriles a clear and unique identity and a place in international markets.
Making PX from PX
At harvest, PX bunches are laid on straw mats for 5-10 days to dry in the hot sun. This desiccation concentrates the natural sugars even more. Now raisins, their pressing obtains a thick, sugar-saturated must. During fermentation, (usually in stainless steel or concrete tanks) there is so much sugar that the wines remain sweet even though they can naturally achieve up to 17% natural alcohol. Fortifying with Aguardiente (local clear brandy) up to 18% abv is allowable, but is far less common than in Sherry. The minimum legal strength on the release is 15%.
PX can mature in a solera, using American oak butts, just like in Sherry. Usually, there are 3-5 criadera in a solera and the usual maturation period for a standard wine would be 4-6 years. Hence these are mostly non-vintage blends. If a year appears, it traditionally means the year that the Solera started. However, PX can also mature in traditional jars made of earthenware or concrete; large amphorae called Tinajas. That’s something that reminds you that Andalusia is the cradle of Spanish winegrowing, dating back thousands of years.
A relatively recent innovation is to make vintage-dated (de añada or de cosecha) wines from the harvest of one year. These have the vintage year on the label.
Whichever method of maturation, the transformation of white grape juice to the deepest shades of boot-polish never ceases to amaze.
Producers and wines
At a fabulous tasting devoted solely to Montilla-Moriles PX, I met five producers, each showing three top PX wines. Evaluating those fifteen examples took all afternoon! Patience and great care are necessary; drinking plenty of water, changing the tasting glass after every wine and rinsing hands frequently in iced water are all essential. Otherwise, things can get sticky!
This tasting proved that PX from Montilla-Moriles DO is both exquisite and unique. Unctuous and hugely sweet, the residual sugar minimum of 272 g/l is effortless. Yet the best have a knife-edge balance of sweetness and acidity, so finish cleanly. There’s also colossal flavour complexity and a length measured in many minutes.
Five producers and their wines are below. Most wines had a slight chill, better to balance their sweetness and acidity.
Bodegas Alvear has been family-owned since 1729, which makes it the oldest company in the region, based near Montilla. They introduced the very first Vintage-style PX in 1998.
Pedro Ximénez de Añada vintage. 17%, RS 465 g/l
A light, bright amber colour, being a young vintage wine, aged in tinaja for just 12 months. Bitter orange Grand-Marnier flavours. Huge sweetness balanced with fresh acidity. Honeyed finish, hints of raisins. A great introduction to the style. Vintage 2015 is £16.42 from Buy Great Wine
Pedro Ximénez de Solera 1927. 16%, RS 405 g/l
Light Mahogany colour with an amber rim, much thicker and far older. Citrus on the nose and a full-on rum and raisin palate. It finishes after several minutes, with coffee, caramel and toffee. Luscious and exquisite, excellent acidity to balance the sweetness perfectly. In retrospect, my wine of the show, a genuinely stunning expression. A half-bottle is £15.95 from Master of Malt.
Alvear Pedro Ximénez 1927. 16%, RS 405 g/l
Mahogany again, with a green rim. The nose is all prune and chocolate: liquid Christmas cake. Massive concentration, yet the acidity brings you back for more. Impressive length. Not quite as complex as the Solera wine, more treacle. Still excellent. A half-bottle is £16.25 at Drambusters.
Bodega Cooperativa La Aurora
A massive co-operative formed in 1964 with 778 members that also produces olive oil. One of the largest producers in Montilla-Moriles.
Amanecer Pedro Ximénez. 15%, RS 350 g/l
Deep ruby-mahogany and a yellow rim. Fine figgy aromas. The palate has fig and greengage depth, syrupy with a mocha finish. N/A in the UK, Spain, €7.00.
Finca Hispana PX. 15%. RS 390 g/l
Solera wine. Dark mahogany, figs again on the nose. The palate has figs, Crème Brulee and burnt notes, really silky with a caramelised apricot finish. Rancio notes make it a stand-out wine for me. N/A UK, Spain, €8.00.
PX Solera, 1981. 15%, RS 390 g/l
Squat distinctive bottle. Muscovado sugar, sultanas and raisins. Thick and gloopy with a cough-medicine texture. Syrup of Figs? Caramel and chocolate. N/A UK, Spain €9.70
Moreno bought their first cellar from Gonzáles-Byass in Jerez in 1957. They moved it to Cordóba, but it closed down in 2015. It means their wines are now becoming rare and expensive, even in Spain.
Musa. 15%, RS 350 g/l
Ruby-amber. Lifted aromatics, reminds me of angostura bitters, with citrus and pears. Banoffee pie flavours: banana, cream and condensed milk. Lighter drinking with more rancio but less richness. Quite different from many of its peers. N/A UK, Spain €30.00.
Una Vida. 17%, RS 450g/l
Mid brown tones, green rim. Ancient wine but age uncertain. Woody notes, huge torrefaction (burnt coffee) and super-sweet. Less complexity than some. N/A UK, Spain €45.00.
Virgilio, 1925 Solera. 15%, RS 550 g/l
Average wine age of more than 30 years. A blockbuster! Almost black core with a tawny rim flecked green/ Massive yellow-green legs stain the glass. Huge density. This wine goes way beyond sweet, with a molasses consistency. Golden syrup with a cocoa powder finish. Über-PX which finishes remarkably cleanly. Impressive power. N/A UK, Spain €60.00
Navisa is a large company in Montilla, incorporating the Cobos winery (founded in 1882) and Cobos brand name. Their sweet PX’s have a lighter and fresher style yet retain considerable complexity.
Cobos Dos Pasas. 15%, RS 290 g/l
Much lighter colour than many, average age of seven years in Solera. Pale brown, prominent acidity and well balanced. Dark fruits and attractive bitter orange flavour tinged with roasting coffee. Seville marmalade? More-ish. N/A UK, Spain, €5.00
Cobos Tres Pasas. 18%, RS 390 g/l
The average age of the solera wine is 20 years. Fiery spirit nose, rum and raisin aromas. Exquisite balance, layered dried fruits; apricots, sultanas, Clementine. Moreish bitter finish amidst the sweetness. Delicious in every way. N/A UK. Spain, €7.00
Cobos Tres Pasas Gran Reserva. 18%, RS 390 g/l
Average age 25 years in a solera. Boot-polish colour, wide greenish rim. Coffee and burnt sugar aromatics. Prunes and chocolate. Could do with a little more acidity when compared to the “regular” Tres Pasas. N/A UK, Spain €8.50
Bodegas Pérez Barquero
Founded in 1905 in Montilla, Pérez Barquero is perhaps the most well-known Montilla-Moriles PX producer here in the UK.
PX de Cosecha vintage. 15%, 400 g/l
Single vintage wine, maturation is in Tinaja. Young light amber colour. Mixed dried fruit aromatics. Lighter character, simpler honeyed prunes on the palate. Half-bottle of 2016 is £15.50 at AdVinture.
Gran Barquero. 15%, RS 400 g/l
Six years in solera. Black with a mahogany rim. Figs and dates before the chocolate kicks in. Treacly benchmark PX. Newbies start here: £9.99 for a 50ml bottle in Waitrose.
La Cañada. 15%, RS 420 g/l
This wine matured in solera for over 25 years. Blackish again, broad yellow-green rim. Dried fruit nose, very well balanced sweetness and acidity. Liquid velvet, layered dried black fruits. Something savoury on the back palate, liquorice and caramel on an unending length. A magnificent and sumptuous finale. N/A UK, Spain €35.00.
PX is a virtual dessert-in-a glass, but here’s some little-effort food pairing ideas.
Ice-Cream. The Andalusian favourite: pour PX over good quality vanilla ice-cream.
Chocolate. Chocolate desserts from Black Forest Gateaux to Chocolate Mousse.
Classic Brit desserts. Treacle Tart is excellent with the lighter añada’s. More massive examples love Sticky Toffee Pudding and Danish pastries. Throw some PX in your trifle or substitute PX for golden syrup with Pancakes. PX goes well with Rice Pudding and Bread and Butter Pudding too.
Fruit and Nuts. PX makes Christmas pudding bearable! Try Pecan Pie and Dundee Cake.
Cheese. Strong, pungent cheeses are brilliant, mostly Blue. Roquefort is brilliant.
Foie Gras. PX is a good foil for the fatty richness here.
Cuisine. Try making a PX reduction to coat a wide range of roast meat dishes, or even black pudding.
Serving and keeping properties
A single glass of these wines is often enough to satisfy. These wines also appreciate a little chilling, which brings out the acidity and helps the wines finish cleanly. Most unusually, a bottle of PX is nearly indestructible. Consequently, it will last for months after opening and may even improve thanks to exposure to air. So there’s no hurry to drink a whole or a half bottle in one go.
While sweet wines are unfashionable, PX deserves a hearty recommendation! Majoring on joy, warmth and sensuality, these PX’s had bags of character and are more versatile with food than I had previously thought. And if you are thinking of visiting Seville, Málaga, Córdoba, or Granada then spend some time in Montilla-Moriles too!
If you haven’t yet tried PX, it’s time for a treat. If you have, you’ll know what I mean!
Avda. José Padillo Delgado, S/N
*4,814 ha in 2019. Consejo Regulador DO Montilla-Moriles
I wrote the original version of this piece for the late John Radford, who gave me great encouragement. John was a writer, broadcaster, raconteur and the most significant authority on Spanish wine I’ve ever met, or am ever likely to. This article is updated and republished here in memory of him.