Andalucía is undoubtedly the most enchanting, mysterious and dramatically beautiful of all Spain’s great wine regions. Here, in the south of Spain, is where you will find some of the greatest fortified wines in the world, specifically the wines of Jerez and Manzanilla. However, Andalucia is also home to the lesser known fortified wines of the Málaga y Sierras de Málaga D.O. (appellation), which has decided to reinvent itself in recent years and focus on different styles, including dry white wine production as well as quality dry red wines in beautiful Ronda. But, long-time aficionados will thankfully still encounter delicious fortified wines in this dramatic region, the best of which can easily rival the greatest Sherries in style and elegance.
A brief history
Generations of families have been producing sweet fortified wines in the Málaga province for many, many years and it is only relatively recently that these wonderful wines fell out of fashion and the region suffered a decline. Indeed, historical evidence suggests that vines were planted in the area around 600 BC, the Romans, the Moors and subsequently the British became enthusiastic drinkers of the intensely flavored, sweet wines of Málaga. At the end of the 18th century, the wines of Málaga were better known than the wines of Jerez de la Frontera. Sadly, production dropped considerably after the Phylloxera louse destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards at the end of the 19th century, this combined with the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War ensured that the industry contracted considerably by the 1950s. The final nail in the coffin was consumers waning interest in sweet wines and their overriding preference for aromatic, dry whites. There seemingly was little room for the once-revered sweet nectar of Málaga.
However, in the past 10-15 years, a Renaissance has occurred in this almost forgotten Andalusian wine region. Pioneers like Telmo Rodriguez have helped to revive the moribund Moscatel industry with his stunning Molino Real wines which have found favor across Europe and encouraged a new generation of wine drinkers to enjoy Málaga’s wines. There has also been a surge of interest in red wine production, particularly around the gorgeous city of Ronda, where the German Friedrich Schatz planted his first vines in 1982.
Today, the entire Málaga zone has some 1,200 hectares under vine and about 30 Bodegas (wineries) in operation. The region is vast, stretching from the mountainous hinterland down to Málaga’s Mediterranean coastline. The main areas of production are Antequera, Axarquia, San Pedro Alcantara, Manilva, Ronda, and Velez. Such a wide production area inevitably offers great differences of terroir and climatic zones leading to a very diverse set of growing conditions. According to the current appellation rules, the wines destined to be labeled with the Málaga D.O. quality seal must be aged within the city boundaries itself, although the grapes may be sourced from any part of the province. The westernmost sub-region, Manilva is close to the Atlantic and subsequently benefits from its cooling influences. The humid weather and rich, fertile soils produce large, bountiful harvests, most of which is used in table grape production.
Axarquia sub region
In contrast, the region of Axarquia lies at the opposite end of the province, east of Málaga. Many of the vineyards are at high altitudes, planted on steep terraces over gravelly, limestone soils which necessitate manual grape harvesting. The crop, after harvesting, is usually dried on open-air beds in the hot Andalusian sun to raisin the grapes and concentrate the sugars. The predominant grape variety here is Moscatel, or Muscat de Alexandria, which is grown around the world under various synonyms. The grape has powerful floral and earthy flavors and thrives in hot climates like Andalusia.
The Antequera subzone, which is to be found north of Málaga, is predominately planted with the Pedro Ximenez grape, although many of Málaga’s wines are made from a blend of the two varietals. The soils are predominately iron and clay-based, with a significant amount of limestone as well. Most of Málaga’s wine is produced in this inland sub-region, which is characterized by savage extremes of climate – boiling hot summers and freezing cold winters. This does seem to suit its signature variety – Ximenez. It was named, allegedly, after a 17th-century soldier who is thought to have brought the variety from the Rhine, via the Canary Islands. No such evidence exists but it remains a good story! Pedro Ximenez is a soft, thin-skinned white variety which needs a hot climate to fully ripen. The resulting wine has a very high sugar content, which is made even higher after the raising process employed by the region’s growers. This process accounts for the wine’s traditionally dark color, despite the fact that both Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez are white grapes.
The production process has scarcely changed over the centuries, although it has obviously benefited from modern viticultural techniques and winemaking equipment. After harvesting and raising, the Moscatel and Ximenez grapes are usually fermented on site in the growers’ often small and basic wineries. This rich base wine will then be taken to ancient cellars in the city of Málaga where it is mixed with a spirit or sweet, thickened must (arrope). Then, like sherry, it is matured using the Solera process whereby older vintages are blended with young ones and aged gradually. Over time, the Málaga sweet wine matures in wooden barrels and gains color, texture, flavor, and aroma. The D.O. guidelines stipulate that it must be aged for a minimum of two years, some are aged for much longer. Old wines can display an incredible assortment of flavors and aromas: caramel, coffee, raisins, cocoa, nuts, spice, plums, and violets have all been found. A wonderful accompaniment to rich desserts, our first choice would be to match with a rich chocolate dessert. Some older dry examples do exist do, comparable to the Oloroso sherry in flavor.
In addition to the classic Málaga wine styles described above, a movement has been growing championing lighter, dryer wines which are unfortified and released at a younger age. These wines have become trendy with sommeliers across the Spanish restaurant trade and are an encouraging example of the Málaga wine growers adapting to the current climate of tastes and preferences, rather than stubbornly refusing to modify their output.
Sierras de Ronda
This change is most apparent in the region of the Sierras de Ronda, where exciting developments have been happening in winemaking since the early 1980s. Before the arrival of Friedrich Schatz to the beautiful city of Ronda, the area had languished in obscurity, with few vineyards and no real status as a wine region, although the Romans had planted extensively here. The town is to be found north-west of Málaga and is situated over a spectacular gorge, drawing millions of visitors in the summer. The vineyards are some of the highest in the Málaga zone, often 750 m above sea-level.
Schatz, who had already researched the potential of the region, visited the area in 1982 and soon realized that the diurnal variation in temperature, with warm days and cooler nights, presented ideal growing conditions for certain grape varieties. He founded Bodegas Friedrich Schatz and planted Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Lemberger, and Muskattrollinger – a relative of the Muscat family. His success in crafting high-quality wines encouraged others to invest in the area and today winemakers from Spain, Argentina and even Austria market their wares.
After years of lobbying, the winemakers in Ronda got their wish and have been granted an official sub-appellation D.O. – Serranía de Ronda. The wines produced of course vary in style and quality but the best show a powerful ripeness and intensity of fruit, balanced by good acidity. The wines are a testament to how far the Málaga industry has come in little over 30 years. It has been rescued from a slow death by pioneers like Rodriguez and Schatz, who revitalized the fantastic potential of this historic winemaking region and have invested countless hours into bringing its reputation back into the fold. Purists may claim that the traditional values are being lost with the increasing commonality of dryer wine styles, but at present, there are enough styles and variety to please everyone!