Growing vines in the rugged Axarquía region in Málaga, one of Spain’s most touristy regions, requires a degree of heroic work. The vertiginous slopes make it an unsuitable terrain for those afraid of heights and put a strain on the patience and skills of local winegrowers. In fact, harvesting these wild, slate soils where vines are planted very close to the ground is not too different from practicing extreme sports.
This dramatic landscape should be a powerful argument to attract wine lovers to the sweet wines made in the area, but that seems a particularly hard thing to achieve these days when dry styles thrive and trends shift towards fresh and even light wines. Meanwhile, the sweeter side of wine means concentration and dehydration, either by botrytis or by drying or freezing grapes. It takes several kilos of grapes to produce the precious, voluptuous nectar which usually comes in small-sized bottles.
With great sweet specialists like Sauternes, Tokaji or Porto falling out of fashion, how could Málaga perform any better after phylloxera’s devastating effects? The region didn’t recover until the 1960s –but its regained success came from tourism, not winegrowing.
Among all these once revered wines that shone across Europe’s royal courts, Málaga has retained a surprisingly high, complex (sometimes even confusing) number of styles. Traditional ones have been confined to DO Málaga while a new appellation called Sierras de Málaga was created for still wines in 2001.
The appellation Pasas de Málaga (Raisins from Málaga) joined the Regulatory Board in 2004. Out of roughly 2,350 hectares in the three appellations, it is extremely significant that 1,300 are destined to the raisin industry, an ancient tradition which was consolidated during Muslim times. The Axarquía region concentrates most of the raisin production, an area where Muscat of Alexandria is the dominant crop. Even if only 175 hectares in the area are intended to produce wine, Malaga’s most prominent sweet wines are made here.
Renowned winemaker Telmo Rodríguez and Jorge Ordóñez, his importer in the US at the time, started exploring Malaga’s sweet heritage in the 1990s. Fortified wines were the standard back then, but their aim was to capture the essence both of the variety and the landscape inspired by the way ancient wines were made in the area. As José Manuel Moreno, secretary of Malaga’s Regulatory Board, points out, “the practise of adding alcohol started in the mid-18th century, but the original Malaga was an unfortified wine. Producers used to boast that their wines could travel without any added alcohol”.
Dehydration by sun-exposure concentrates grapes in such a way that all the sugar and alcohol in the resulting wines come strictly from the grapes. This style of wines is rather confusingly called “naturally sweet” (naturalmente dulce in Spanish) as opposed to “dulce natural” (vin doux naturel), a particular style of fortified wines which according to Malaga’s Regulatory Board are made with fresh, non-overripe grapes. When it comes to sweet wines, terminology can be so complex that it doesn’t come as a surprise if consumers flee away from the category.
Telmo Rodríguez made his first Molino Real in the 1998 vintage. It was a light gold, younger version of the region’s traditional wines with grapey, jasmine, citrus peel notes, yet maintaining the volume brought by the dehydration process. Given that the naturally sweet category didn’t exist (it was approved the following year) the wine was sold as a table wine. Regulations back then stated that wines had to be aged in the city of Málaga, echoing old prosperous times when wines were shipped from the city’s bustling port, as it was the case with Port and Vilanova de Gaia.
Rodríguez settled in the village of Cómpeta and partnered with local producer Pepe Ávila (Bodegas Almijara), who brought in tradition and winegrowing experience. As far as Ávila could remember, fortified wines didn’t exist in the area —there was no alcohol to produce them. “Sweet wines are made on the traditional ‘paseras’ where bunches are exposed to the sun; sugar content increases notably,” says Ávila.
The sun-drying process, called “asoleo”, is a tough manual job. After dangerously picking grapes on slopes with 40-60% inclination, perfect, undamaged bunches must be carefully placed in harvest boxes watching out they don’t get entangled. Afterwards, they are carefully laid on the “pasera” and progressively turned over to obtain a homogeneous dehydration. Sun-exposure times will determine the levels of grape dehydration which will in turn lead to different sweet wine styles. The higher the sugar concentration, the more difficult it is to ferment, so alcohol comes usually into play.
Within the relatively new “naturalmente dulce” category, MR 2010 (20,000 bottles, €15.80 at Ideavinos or via Wine Searcher) displays good depth on the palate, combining citrus and honeyed nuances with a pleasant bitterness on the finish. The Molino Real 2012 I tasted at the winery goes one step further in terms of unctuousness and texture with herbs, lime and nutty flavors adding extra complexity. In 2005 Rodríguez made Old Mountain, a wine sourced from his own very old vineyards with extended sun-drying and aging times. I had the opportunity to taste a 2009 sample from barrel which had amazing and complex varnish, toasty flavours, vibrant acidity and tremendous length.
With the help of the Kracher family, a top sweet wine producer from Austria, Jorge Ordóñez set up on his own in the 2004 vintage. Ordóñez sourced grapes from the vicinity of Almachar, a traditional raisin area. “Vintners from Almachar boast a long, high-quality tradition of growing grapes, something they are very proud of,” adds his sister Victoria.
Working with high altitude vineyards, Ordoñez’s sweet wines are different in that grapes are not sun-dried; instead they are dried indoors. The late Alois Kracher was so concerned about preserving acidity that he never allowed to expose Muscat in the sun heat. Bunches are therefore placed in 9kg boxes, stacked up to three heights during four to five months.
The range includes a late harvest (Nº1 Selección Especial) and the low alcohol, highly concentrated Esencia Nº4, but the most representative wines are the outstanding Nº2 Victoria (€15.95 for a 37.5 cl. bottle at Decántalo), made from the earliest-harvested grapes within the sweet wine category (a voluptuous, honeyed wine with very high acidity displaying well-defined flavours and persistence); and Nº3 Viñas Viejas (Old Vines) which has higher concentration and price (€40.95 the 2008 vintage at Vinissimus, 50 cl. bottles).
2004 was also the first vintage launched by Bentomiz, the brainchild of Danish couple Clara Verheij and husband Andre Both who are based in the village of Sayalonga. They also work with sun-dried grapes but instead of the traditional “paseras” they use floating grids for better ventilation. They craft delicate wines with fine herbs aromas and pleasant bitterness. There are two naturally sweet wines; the first one ferments in stainless steel tanks offering a fresh, fragrant character (Ariyanas Naturalmente Dulce, €14.5 the bottle of 37.5 cl. via Wine Searcher) while the second one, Ariyanas Terruño Pizarroso, comes form very old vines and fermentation takes place in barrels. This is a lush, yet fine, clean example with orange zest aromas, spices and enveloping texture. (from €28 the bottle of 37.5 cl. the 2008 vintage via Wine Searcher).
Francisco Medina has worked among barrels at Málaga Virgen, one of the historic producers in the appellation, for over 30 years. He knows by heart all the wines stored in each of these barrels and has a perfect mental map of the ingredients needed to blend the enormous array of sweet wines produced here. The flagship is Málaga Virgen, a liquor wine which mixes wines from sun-dried grapes, vins doux naturel, naturally sweet wines and old Oloroso. A real tongue twister of a wine, it reflects how complex sweet winemaking can be. That’s why as general manager Didier Bricout often explains, they don’t pass the terminology onto the consumer.
Even if Málaga Virgen currently produces naturally sweet wines like Tres Leones, their field of expertise are fortified wines made from Pedro Ximénez grapes. This variety is widely grown in the northern subarea, a flat area of about 600 hectares, the biggest surface under vine intended for wine production in the province. PX rules the roost here — to the north lies Montilla-Moriles (Córdoba), the appellation which is specialized in dark, sticky sweet wines made with sun-dried Pedro Ximénez grapes.
According to Hugh Johnson’s and Jose Peñín’s History of Wine books, the legendary, historic mountain and Malaga sack wines were made with Pedro Ximénez, something that Victoria Ordóñez also acknowledges: “Mountain wines from the 18th century were described as dry wines made from Pedro Ximénez grapes and alcohol levels of 14%”. For his part, the Regulatory Board’s secretary Manuel Moreno says that Muscat from Axarquia was destined to produce raisins while Pedro Ximénez used to be transformed into wine. Unlike today, PX grapes were sourced from Montes de Málaga, the steep region surrounding the capital where there are now barely 20 hectares under vine.
“Both grapes suffered with phylloxera. Each of them roughly covered 40% of the vineyards, but the new plantings after the plague amounted 73% for Muscat and just 13% for Pedro Ximén”, adds Moreno.
Malaga Virgen’s most distinctive sweet wines are the so called “Trasañejos”, aged in the same solera system used for Sherry for at least 30 years. The Don Juan label is made with Pedro Ximénez both in sweet (around €28, 37.5 cl.) and dry versions (dry fortified wines are also allowed in the appellation) from which just one barrel is bottled per year. The excellent Don Salvador Trasañejo Moscatel (from €44.90, 37.5 cl. via Wine Searcher) is the opposite of a naturally sweet style: a dark, black tea, raisiny liquid with enveloping texture, candied fruit and bright acidity. The aging process contributes to further concentrate both alcohol (varnish notes are standard in these wines) and acidity, the latter adding an appealing, lively edge and far more length.
Wine geeks willing to try the whole range of Malaga’s sweet wine styles should head to Dimobe, a family winery in Moclinejo (Axarquia) where traditional wine from the region has been produced since 1927. This producer didn’t join the appellation until regulations were modified in 1999. Their wine called “tierno” is made from extended sun-dried Muscat grapes which ferment up to 1-1.5 degrees when it gets fortified with alcohol. It is currently released as a vintage wine under the brand Zumbral (€8.5 at La Despensa de Valdés) with the 2011 offering a sticky, raisiny character.
Dimobe may be the only producer crafting “vino maestro”, a sweet wine which is fortified before fermentation —the process of turning sugar into alcohol takes place very slowly in order to obtain the desired amount of residual sugar. Francisco Medina, form Malaga Virgen, says that the style almost disappeared with the arrival of refrigeration techniques to the wine industry that allow fermentation to be under control. Alcohol was rather evident in the Axarkia Maestro I tasted somewhat blocking out the fruit. But I enjoyed the naturally sweet Diamater 2012 (€13.95 at Social Vinum) with Muscat adding depth and complexity. Dimobe also produces interesting Trasañejo wines both from Muscat and Pedro Ximénez.
I had the opportunity to try some other sweet wines at the Regulatory Board’s offices in Malaga like the so called pajarete. This is a fortified wine that must be aged for at least two years. The Pajarete Cream from Bodegas Quitapenas had an extra year of aging, the style being rather oxidative with distinctive raisin notes yet it felt rather light.
The complexity of wine making practices is a serious challenge for sweet wines. Consumers need to find something different and singular in their glasses for all theses styles to survive.
Production figures between 2010 and 2013 show a decline in the production of traditional sweet wines. Vin doux naturel production has dropped from 500,000 to 175,000 litres, while the tierno style abruptly came down from 103,000 to 35,000 litres. Even worse, fortified musts fell from 1.2m litres to 750,000). Only the small niche of naturally sweet wines climbed from 180,000 to 203,000 litres.
Other challenges include raisin production costs (10 kg of grapes are needed to produce 2.5 kg of raisins), the next generation’s disinterest in taking over the vineyards and land and real estate pressures from the tourism industry. Given that the coast is a stone’s throw away with many vineyards overlooking the sea, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Axarquia’s winding, fiendish roads are far more crowded than those from other hilly winegrowing regions like Priorat in Catalonia or Ribeira Sacra in Galicia.
Logically, still wine production is gaining ground and not only in the northwestern subarea of Ronda, which has become a specialist in the category. Producers who came to the region attracted by Malaga’s sweet wine tradition —as is the case with Jorge Ordoñez— have understood the potential of dry Muscat wines and recently also of sparkling wines.
Will these market-oriented products help to preserve the historical heritage of sweet wines? When one looks back at the breathtaking, dramatic Axarquia landscape it seems pretty obvious that only value-added wines will succeed in sustaining the laborious, artisan work of growing grapes in these hills.