The most meaningful wine experiences for me are those which dramatize a tension between innovation and appropriateness. Another way to put this is that I like exploring the point at which respect for tradition meets the creative fire of progress. Something doesn’t get done over and over for centuries unless guided by wisdom. But ignoring life’s developments – social, ecological, technological, economic, intellectual – for the sake of a concept like tradition is an abdication of responsibility.

This tension occurs continually in wine. Most of California’s winemaking pioneers were at first determined to plant Bordeaux varietals, since Bordeaux was widely considered the greatest of wines, and they wanted to make world-class wine.

Most of California’s greatest sites are still dominated by cabernet sauvignon. But successive waves of innovators, unafraid to recalibrate based on the facts of climate and geology, have broadened the notion of California’s possible and successful by introducing Burgundy, the Rhône, northern Italy, southern Italy, Spain and more as analogues.

Or look at Germany and Hungary, where a combination of climate crisis, changing consumer tastes, globalization and the commodification of sweetness (it used to be rare, now it’s a threat) have shifted the wines’ center of gravity from noticeably sweet to bracingly dry.

And no technological advance has changed wine style as dramatically as the effect of temperature-controlled fermentation on white wines. We now mostly think of white wine as crisp, fruity and refreshing, led by acidity. That’s all because of cool fermentation in stainless steel, a process that wasn’t possible a scant 70 years ago.

I enjoy such crisp, refreshing whites, especially those with their mineral accents emphasized. But I phrased the first sentence of this article consciously. That style of wine is an innovation, one responsible for exciting developments, but it’s not always what’s most appropriate.

It takes a willingness to stand outside contemporary convention to ask, What about white wines that are not crisp and refreshing? Is that something we have advanced beyond, or do such wines still have meaningful contributions to make?

A particular wine area steeped in tradition is offering me more and more interesting responses, by gradually venturing into new enological territory. This is the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry region of Spain, and its geographic and philosophical neighbor, Montilla. An increasing number of wines from there shine bright lights on these questions, as well as larger ones asked both by wine and by anyone seeking to live a good, interesting life: How should I be? What is my role?

Good wines provide valuable answers. In Andalucía, Spain’s sherry region, the vast majority of wines use the palomino fino grape, to produce finos, manzanillas, amontillados, palos cortados and olorosos. For more than 2,000 years, it has more or less been thus. The same could be said for Montilla-Moriles, east and slightly north of Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, where a different grape, the pedro ximénez, is employed to make dessert-level sweet wines. But no longer only sweet wines, which brings us to the kernel of this modern story.

Most Montilla wines of pedro ximénez, often abbreviated to PX, fall under the informal designation of “stickies.” Syrupy texture and extremely high sugar levels characterize these hedonistic wines, whose notes of caramel, toffee, tamarind and dried fruit make for heavenly matches with blue cheeses and spiced nuts. Or drink them as (rather than with) dessert.

Good pedro ximénez wines are available for doable prices, and there can’t be a better time of year than the next 12 or so cold weeks to enjoy their pleasures, as primal and comforting as a fireplace on a cold night. (And let’s hope that cold nights still exist a couple of decades from now, when the pedro ximénez you buy today will be at its finest.)

But as much as I love these wines, I never really had a strong sense of the place or grape that produced them. I say this as a sweet-wine lover: Many sweet wines come to a point where the sugars, no matter how well balanced with the savory and citric components of the wine, overwhelm any attempt to determine provenance. What they offer in indulgence, they lose in distinctiveness.

It took tasting Andalucían pedro ximénez wines that are not sweet to start to understand this place and grape more deeply – and to get how relatively narrow sets of experiences form our pictures of reality.

For “tradition” usually claims to own “the way it’s meant to be” while later iterations are considered a twist. But if you were to taste a wine made from pedro ximénez in a classic dry sherry style – “flor” yeast colonies invited to invade the wines as they ferment in 5/6-full barrels and age in casks “fractionally” with multiple vintages – and that wine provided a clear sense of the region’s chalky soils acting on indigenous grapes, wouldn’t that be a true wine?

Yes. The white, chalky “albariza” soils of Jerez and Montilla are unique in the world and are glimpsed most directly through the finos and manzanillas. Fresh whiffs of the ocean, their saline tang offset by the soft embrace of a meadow, pervade these wines. For the depth of simultaneous richness and dryness, no other wines in the world come close.

I’ve written before on dry sherries, and will again, and encourage you to try a basic palomino-based fino to get your bearings before setting off on lengthier sherry journeys. But today I will focus on a fino made instead from pedro ximénez, so that after trying it you might follow up with a specific different expression of that grape made in an entirely different style. Such triangulation is how I, at least, learn best.

Where palomino fino is, as its name suggests, a grape that leads to exceptionally fine, delineated, precise wines, my limited experience with pedro ximénez suggests it possesses a broader character, more ample, luscious.

So it is with the Toro Albalá Fino del Lagar Eléctrico ($17), from Montilla-Moriles. This is an exceptionally classy fino, its average age of 10 years (remember, traditional Andalucían wines blend multiple vintages) lending a length and grace rarely as noticeable in more vigorously youthful finos. It has that sharp, tangy bite so distinct to the style, yet underneath is a soft, floral character of pure, lithe loveliness.

Now, move on to the Marenas Mediacapa 2014 ($21). This is a dry “orange” wine from late-harvested pedro ximénez, fermented oxidatively in open-top containers with the ripe skins, which lend the finished wine a vivid dark amber hue. Though unfortified, it clocks in at 15 percent alcohol, with a tremendous viscosity and power; yet it has no off-balance boozy kick whatsoever.

It is a category- and expectation-busting wine, and like so many of the best orange wines seems to express everything at once: the sweetness of slow-braised meat, the mineral cut of a structured white, the voluptuous breadth of a savory red, the tanginess of a botrytized dessert wine, the dryness of a Provençal rosé. It is shocking that this, too, is that grape we thought we knew, and that it was grown (organically and with no additives of any sort) in that chalky albariza soil and blazingly dry heat outside Córdoba.

After these, you might turn to a classic sweet expression of PX (Toro Albalá makes a terrifically refreshing, balanced one, aged exclusively in stainless steel rather than oak, the Don PX 2008 for $24). Enjoy the notes of sultanas and caramel and tangerine, bathe in the end-of-evening luxury. But keep in mind the drier wines you met previously. Together, these disparate expressions help keep a single, unifying tradition alive.

Joe Appel is the Wine Buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

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