An introduction to the wines of Malaga

xMelvyn Crann is retired university lecturer who has been involved in wine education for 23 years. For three years he wrote a newspaper wine column under the impenetrable nom-de-plume of Mel Crann. Like Grayson Perry, he now enjoys a second career as a best selling ceramic artist. (Well, he has sold two items and, having recently bought a frock, he expects things to pick up.) Married to a romantic novelist, he enjoys the finer things in life. Unfortunately he finds that he can’t afford any of them.


If the word “Málaga” were dropped into a word association test what response would it provoke? Maybe ‘sea’, ‘sun’ or ‘sand’? Those may be more likely to come up than ‘wine’. And yet this is one of the oldest wine regions in Spain, dating from pre-Roman times. Even in the centuries of Moorish rule, wine making still went on, simply discouraged by taxation. In 19th century Britain Málaga wine, or ‘Mountain wine’ as it was known, was popular in many well-to-do households. So what went wrong? In the late 19th century phylloxera devastated the vineyards in the area. This problem was eventually overcome, but the problem of being out of fashion was more intractable. The great majority of the wines of the Málaga Denominación de Origen are sweet and mostly fortified. The decline in consumption was even more drastic than in Jerez. By the mid-20th century wine makers here were an endangered species. I have visited the region several times over the past 10 years and on the first few visits I was content to drink more familiar wines from other parts of Spain, not expecting much joy from the local product. How misguided I was! Not only are Málaga wines unique and fascinating, but the traditional styles are now complemented by those made under the D.O. of Sierras de Málaga, created in 2001. This covers unfortified dry wines and is a response to the activities of innovative young winemakers, many of them originating in other regions and countries. Now the process of contraction has been reversed, with fairly small-scale but continuing re-planting of vines. The two denominacións cover the same geographical areas, so a single producer can produce wines under both D.Os. The region is divided into several sub-zones: map

map, courtesy of Consejo Regulador D.O. Málaga

  • Montes de Málaga: surrounding the city of Málaga
  • Manilva: West Coastal Area
  • Axarquia: high altitude; best known “white villages” of Andalucia
  • Norte: the northernmost region, a large, high plateau
  • Serrania de Ronda.

The Ronda area (right) is particularly important for new bodegas specialising in Sierras de Málaga wines. But before looking at those, there’s a lot to learn about the historic Málaga wines.

Málaga D.O.

Pedro Ximénez There are two dominant grapes. The first (pictured right) must have a police record as it has so many aliases. Pero Ximén, Pedro Ximén, or Pedro Jiménez is perhaps better known as Pedro Ximénez. Any of these names might appear on the label. The other major variety is Moscatel de Alejandria. Both make a wide range of styles, based on the winemakers’ choice of treatments. There are a number of minor grapes permitted: Lairén, Doradilla and Romé Tinto. Lairén is a synonym for Spain’s most planted white grape, Airén. The other two are interesting because of their utter obscurity. Neither of them appears in any of my reference books (although no doubt Jancis Robinson’s new £120 tome will fill the gap). Doradilla (not to be confused with the almost equally obscure Doradillo of Australia) is a white grape tending to high levels of sugar and low acidity. Romé is red native of Andalucia. The following information is from a Spanish text (I give no guarantee of the accuracy of translation): It needs a climate with no threat of frost after growth begins and tends to be late ripening. Care is needed to ensure that the acidity doesn’t drop too low and result in the grape losing its fruity character. A well made wine will reveal red fruit characteristics, but it can have a vegetal or oily nose. It will tolerate a certain amount of ageing. So basically it tends to be light and fruity. Sweetness is a recurring theme in Málaga. Rather confusingly there is a category of naturally sweet wines (Dulce Natural) made from very ripe grapes, but fortified when the appropriate alcohol/sugar balance is reached. Naturalmente Dulce, on the other hand, is naturally sweet wine which has not been fortified. In order to reach high sugar levels the asoleo process may be used. This is similar to the passito process used in making Recioto della Valpolicella. The ripe grapes are picked and then partially raisined to concentrate the sugars. In the Artaxia sub-region this is typically done by spreading them out in paseros. These are an obvious feature in the hills around the white villages. They look like large, uncovered garden frames, but angled down on steep hillsides. Whereas in Valpolicella the drying process goes on for several weeks, in Málaga the process can be quite delicate, lasting only days and producing only slight reduction in the grape volume. Fortified Málaga wines come in a bewildering array of styles. Alcohol may be added before fermentation, resulting in a very slow process that produces maestro wines. Or it may be added, as in Port, part way through fermentation to retain the desired sugar level. This is called tierno. Most of the wines are sweet, but a dry fortified wine is also made. Fortified wines can also be modified by adding different amounts of arrope. The colour of the famous “black wine” of Cahors was obtained by using grape must which was boiled before fermentation. This is a piece of interesting historical wine lore, but in Málaga it is still living practice: arrope is boiled must. It can be added in different quantities to produce different colours of wine:

  • Dorado (golden),
  • Rojo Dorado (red gold),
  • Oscuro (brown)
  • Negro (black).

If no arrope is added the wine is categorised as Palido and the wine is not aged in cask. The ageing process adds another range of variations:

  • Málaga indicates at least six months in oak casks
  • Málaga Noble is aged for at least two years
  • Málaga Añejo at least three years
  • Trasañejo at least five years.

The various wines may be blended to produce results which are labelled with names that sometimes reflect the past importance of the UK as a market: Cream, Pale Cream, Pale Dry, for example, as well as Seco and Abocados. Other terms which may be found are Pajarete (an aged liqueur or naturally sweet wine with no arrope) and Lágrima, (a very sweet wine made from only free-run juice). Examples of resulting wines can be seen by looking at a specific producer.

Bodega Casa Antigua de Guardia

Antigua de Guardia barrels Casa Antigua de Guardia is the oldest surviving Málaga bodega, established in 1820. The estate is located at 600 metres altitude in the hills inland from the city of Málaga, near the village of Olías, in the sub-region of Montes de Málaga. Here the stony slopes drop away in steep diagonals forming a semi-amphitheatre which shelters the four-and-a-half hectares of vineyard from strong winds. Predominantly the hills are clothed in scrub and olives where once there would have been vines. In this well-drained soil and dry climate the grape yield tends to be around only 10 hectolitres per hectare. The vines are Pedro Jiménez (the name used on bottle labels), Moscatel and Romé. All vineyard work is done by hand and grapes are transported to the bodega by mule. Fermentation is carried out in 6000 hectolitre tanks and ageing for most of the wines takes place in 520 or 600 litre old oak barrels of American oak in a small-scale solera system. A small amount of wine is aged in used French oak barriques. In all ten different wines are made, demonstrating how many changes may be rung on just two dominant grape varieties. I tasted part of the range.

Bodega Casa Antigua de Guardia Verdiales Seco
(15.5% alcohol with 8 to 10 grammes per litre of residual sugar) is made from PJ and aged for 4 years in barrel (making it an Añejo). It is redolent of sherry, with a spicy nose and a palate rounded by the residual sugar, with good depth and concentration.

Bodega Casa Antigua de Guardia Verdiales Cream
Also PJ (16%, 40 – 45 g/l RS), is a blend of dry and sweet wines. Deep amber in colour, this is a tierno wine. It has a nose of raisins and a spicy fragrance recalling incense. The palate is medium sweet and attractive, but not complex.

Bodega Casa Antigua de Guardia El Chavea
This is a Moscatel dulce natural (15%, 17 g/l RS) with a pleasing clean lemon sherbet nose, but an enriched mouthfeel and lingering flavour.

Bodega Casa Antigua de Guardia Pajarete 1908
The date commemorates the birthday of a former head of the family. It is an Añejo PJ wine (15%, 120 g/l RS), oscuro in colour, a mellow, pale brown. The nose promises figs and muscovado, which are delivered on the palate. Despite the amount of sugar there is an impression of underlying savoury dryness.

Bodega Casa Antigua de Guardia Doña Isabel II
The star of the show. Casa Antigua de Guardia has a famous bar in Málaga. It was visited by Queen Isabel in 1862 and she was so pleased by the wine that it was afterwards named after her. This is a Moscatel Trasañejo, in this case aged for 10 years. Arrope (3%) was added to the must before fermentation, which is carried out in barrel, not tank – and only a single barrel is bottled (16%, 140 g/l RS). The colouring is a rich brown; the nose spicy, peppery, savoury, meaty; the palate superbly deep, rich and long. The fact that everyone in the small group I took to the bodega bought a bottle of this, the most expensive wine tasted (at 20 euros), testifies to its impact. “This is the Christmas pudding wine”, said one of the group.