By Melvyn Crann
“A sad story this. The Málaga DO, that once great stalwart of Victorian morning rooms, is down to just eight bodegas and even some of those are struggling.” These words open the single-page entry for Málaga in John Radford’s book ‘The New Spain’. It was published in 1998, ironically just about the time that a new wave of winemaking was beginning to develop in the region. As I noted in a previous article, the creation of a new DO, Sierras de Málaga, in 2001 helped to stimulate an influx of winemakers producing unfortified wines, and in turn revitalising the region. Most of the new bodegas are sited well inland, in the Ronda area, and vineyards often include classic French grape varieties. The producers of traditional fortified Málaga wines are located in the hills near the coast, near Málaga itself in the sub-zones of Montes de Málaga and Axarquía. However, each time I visit there seem to be exciting new developments, even in the traditional heartland.
Sedella Vinos is one of the most interesting newcomers, high in the Axarquia hills. It employs the practices of what might be called ‘Modern Retro wine making’. Lauren Rosillo is an enthusiastic winemaker with experience in several parts of Spain. When he visited the Málaga area a few years ago he saw its potential and bought vineyards planted with some old vines. He has now added more vines and a small but smart bodega, overflown by eagles and with fabulous views towards the distant Mediterranean. Production is biodynamic, as it is in an increasing number of vineyards, but less common is the use of ‘field blends’. Jean-Michel Deiss of Alsace is famous for advocating the use of this old-fashioned approach: instead of the now standard practice of growing different varieties separately and blending later, the fruit comes from mixed varieties planted and harvested together. According to Deiss this produces the true taste of the terroir. Lauren follows the practice for his red wine. The grapes used are Garnacha, the local Romé, and Jaen Tinto (known as Mencía in the increasingly familiar Bierzo DO). The wine is aged for 16 to 20 months in new French oak barrels, and the results have been impressive enough to draw praise from Jancis Robinson. The dominant local grape is Moscatel and Lauren produces an unfortified version from bought-in fruit. To give the wine extra depth it is left on the lees and part is matured in a concrete “egg”. Some winemakers claim this shape and material provide temperature stability, even fermentation, and confer the benefits of oak barrels without the taste of oak, adding richness and body but preserving fruit flavours, like stainless steel. Certainly this Moscatel (named Beso de Judas – Kiss of Judas – because if you give in to its easy drinkability it will betray you in a hangover) has lots of character and flavour. The egg is also being used in a lighter red called Laderas and the next stage of experimentation will be the use of a recently acquired clay amphora, the fermentation vessel used in wine production several thousand years ago.
Although the Romé grape will be unfamiliar to most wine drinkers, perhaps that will change in the not-too-distant future. Clara Verheij and André Both, the savvy owners of Bodega Bentomiz (featured in the original article), also in the Axarquía sub-zone, have added to their award-winning range of wines a rosé made from Romé. The appearance brings to mind the rosés of Provence and the palate is similarly dry and food-friendly with a good length and savoury character derived from lees ageing. The handsome, modern, slate-clad bodega is in the process of opening a restaurant in which food and wine tastings will be held. This will no doubt ratchet up level of wine tourism in the area and raise the modest profile of Málaga.
Bodegas Jorge Ordoñez
Another recent innovation has come from this bodega at Velez-Málaga. Established in 2004, it is as a joint venture with the Kracher family of Austria. The late Alois Kracher was renowned for his dessert wines, and saw the opportunity to unite two traditions of sweet wine production, which his family have continued. In 2011 a newcomer to the range was Botani Sparkling Moscatel. The inspiration is obviously Moscato d’Asti, and this low alcohol, full-flavoured wine compares very well with good examples of its Italian model.
Amongst the innovatives it is heartening to find that there are still old-fashioned methods in use to produce delicious wine. Bodega Almijara is a small producer in the village of Competa (still in Axarquía). The wines are modern in that they are all unfortified and made under the Sierras de Málaga DO. Alongside a very attractive dry Moscatel called ‘Jarel’ there are two sweet wines, one bottled early and fresh, the other barrel-aged for 10 years. Although this is unfortified it produces a rich, dark wine akin to Pedro Ximénez sherry. Local photographer and friend Mitch France recorded the production process:
1. The grapes are part-dried on bamboo mats for about a week in the traditional paseros which are an obvious feature of the countryside. 2. The wine press used is intriguingly “vintage”. The grapes are placed in thin layers on top of circular mats. 3. Eventually a huge pile is built up, like an extravaganza of pancakes. 4. A hydraulically powered platform moves upwards, squeezing the pile of mats and producing a thin trickle of juice from each layer. On completion the impressive tower of mats has been squeezed to a fraction of its former size. The rich juice is drained off into old barrels for fermentation and maturing. The result, after long barrel-aging, is a wine of knee-weekeningly luscious richness. It is this wonderful marriage of traditional and modern approaches that seems set to re-launch the international reputation of the region as a source of desirable wine. As yet Malaga wines have limited distribution in the UK, but their merits suggest that this situation should change over the coming years. Photographs courtesy of Mitch France, Canillas de Albaida