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With a population of less than 3000 inhabitants, the tiny town of Fuenmayor, Spain, has an outsize personality. Located in the autonomous region of La Rioja in the district of Logroño, the village maintains its Gothic churches and Medieval mansions as a testament to the past, while denizens continue to devote themselves to the farming of wine. It was here, in the high-elevation hills of Rioja Alta, that one of the region’s key heritage wine brands was founded in 1870. Today, Bodegas Montecillo’s 150-year legacy has spread beyond the borders of its rural homeland to the finest retailers and wine lists in the United States.
Montecillo means “little mountain” in Spanish. The name references the first vineyards planted in 1874 by Celestino Navajas. The Navajas family farmed the sunny hillside for over a century to create Tempranillo-based wines before passing the torch to its current stewards, the prestigious family-owned wine company Osborne. Now Montecillo is helmed by an all-woman leadership team led by Mercedes García Rupérez, one of the first female winemakers in Rioja, who guides the winery’s ethos, navigating tradition and innovation with a focus on heritage, and a sense of place.
This is part of the reason that Montecillo has landed on notable Spanish wine lists across the U.S., including Daniel and Mercado Little Spain in New York, all locations of The Bazaar and Jaleo by José Andrés, and COTE and Leku in Miami.
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“Montecillo is easy for us to sell due to its silky Rioja style which pairs better with food than the full body character of Ribera del Duero,” says Miguel Martinez, Leku’s head sommelier. Many of his guests know Tempranillo, so when they’re dining out, they’re looking for food friendliness, rather than novelty or volume. Leku’s top selling wine by the glass is the Montecillo Limited Edition. “Montecillo’s competitive prices allow us the flexibility to serve an aged Reserva by the glass or at big events,” he explains.
Another facet of its allure: Montecillo’s heritage. “We leave room on our list for the historic wineries of Rioja, as they represent the history of wine in Spain,” says Martinez. “Our guests are always impressed when we explain the Rioja classification of crianza, reserva, and gran reserva and the significance of the DOCa Rioja as a guarantee of quality.”
Ideal for BTG Pours and Pairings
At Boulud Sud inside the JW Marriot Marquis in Miami, the wine director Robert O’Maoilriain runs a by-the-glass program that spans 200 selections and a cellar surpassing 1000 bottles. The food draws from the coastal cuisine of the Mediterranean, especially the shores of Spain.
Montecillo pairs readily with the menu’s myriad dishes, including the selection of tapas, but Boulud Sud staff steer guests to a glass of Montecillo paired with Cinco Jotas Jamon, a match that sings as the polished tannins cut through the salty, sweet fat of the jamon. Montecillo shares a special connection to this Ibérico ham; both are part of the family-owned company, Osborne.
Montecillo checks several boxes for O’Maoilriain. “Montecillo gets a lot of reorders by the glass; it’s one of my top five pours. The brand delivers on quality and predictability, so I always know what to expect,” he says.
With Miami’s population drawing heavily from Latin and Spanish countries, he adds that “so many people, especially winemakers from Chile, Argentina, and Spain, own property here. They’re all drinking at my restaurant.” He refers to Miami as “Tempranillo-land.”
Given Boulud Sud’s engaged audience of Tempranillo-consumers, O’Maoilriain can list several brands and vintages to showcase the grape’s range of styles and geography within Spain. On a menu, Montecillo complements the other selections with its unique profile and sense of place. “Montecillo is very elegant and terroir-driven,” he says, describing the wine as “medium-bodied, soft and silky with wonderful dark fruits and amazing restraint on the finish.”
When the opportunity arises, O’Maoilriain and his team educate guests on Montecillo’s history. As the third oldest brand in the region and the second oldest in Rioja Alta, Montecillo’s contribution to Rioja’s legacy remains significant. The brand celebrated its 150-year anniversary in 2020.
Aged to Perfection
As chief executive winemaker, Rupérez enjoys unfettered creative control and has adopted a more modern style, which O’Maoilriain says is evident in the wine’s taste and texture.
While Rupérez employs modern technology, she believes in the traditional values of long-term aging. She pushes the wines well beyond the aging requirements of the DOCa, an effort worth the wait. The DOCa only requires 12 months in barrel and six months in bottle, whereas the Montecillo Reserva 2014 is aged in French and American oak barrels for 26 months, followed by two years cellar rest in the bottle.
While for the gran reserva, DOCa only requires 24 months in barrel and 24 months in bottle; the Montecillo Gran Reserva 2010, however, was aged for 28 months in the barrel, followed by over six years in bottle. Montecillo wines are only released when Rupérez deems them ready to drink.
At Boulud Sud, O’Maoilriain pours the Reserva and Gran Reserva 2013 by glass and bottle and sells the 2014 Limited Edition by bottle only.
On the West Coast, retailers and restaurateurs must contend with the local consumer’s predilection for California wine, namely Cabernet Sauvignon. Paul Henry, the director of sales and marketing for Zanotto’s Family Markets wine department, says he buys Montecillo because the brand offers great value, quality, and “frankly, a different flavor profile from Cabernet Sauvignon,” he says. “People love to find a ‘hidden gem’ in the world of red wines,” says Henry, adding that more consumers than ever are “exploring wines beyond Napa and Sonoma.”
Henry has spent six years at Zanotto’s in San Jose servicing a broad clientele of California consumers. He thinks the 2014 Montecillo Rioja Reserva showcases the brand’s unique value proposition combining “historical pedigree, fantastic price point, and great quality.”
At Boulud Sud, O’Maoilriain plans to expand the wine list in hopes of winning a Grand Spectator award. Montecillo will go along for the ride. “I’m obsessed with the dollar to quality ratio,” he says. “I don’t care about the price. I just want it to be the best for the price.” In the case of Montecillo Rioja, wine buyers and sommeliers can have their wine and drink it, too.
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