“Tintilla has sparked in me the desire to make red wines in this area again,” says Joaquín Gómez, winemaker at Miguel Domecq following the release last year of Torre de Ceres 2017, the house’s first wine made with this variety. Only 800 bottles were produced but the winery has planted 2.5 hectares in its estate, located halfway between Jerez and Arcos de la Frontera, in the province of Cádiz.
Like many other producers who started making dry wines under the VT Cádiz designation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Miguel Domecq turned to the fashionable grapes at that time: Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot and the ubiquitous Tempranillo, which has proven to be unsuitable in the area. Both Miguel Domecq and Finca Moncloa, the González Byass winery specialized on still reds that recovered Tintilla de Rota and launched a sweet wine in 2009, have grafted their Tempranillo vines with Tintilla and use it as a natural acidity corrector in their international blends. And just a few days ago I received a sample of Iceni, the entry-level red of Bodegas Tesalia in Arcos de la Frontera that blends equal parts of Tintilla and Syrah.
Tintilla de Rota is indigenous of Andalucía and shares its DNA with Graciano. It had languished in the south because of its extreme low yields and the urban development in coastal areas, particularly Rota (hence its name), where most plantings were concentrated. For some time, Bodegas El Gato was the only producer that kept alive the town’s historic, celebrated sweet red until it was joined by Bodegas Ferris in the mid 1990s. El Gato remains active, but Ferris stopped making Tintilla a few years ago.
According to historian Javier Maldonado Rosso, sweet Rota reds are documented in Andalucía since the 17th century. They were one of the various deep-coloured red wines produced with a variety of grapes along the Mediterranean coast from Cádiz to Alicante. Known as tent, they stood in contrast with claret. Samuel Pepys mentions tent in his diary in 1664, as well as canary sack, Málaga and claret. Pepys was a politician and administrator of the British Navy who wrote one of the most detailed chronicles of his time.
In 1806, agronomist Simón de Rojas Clemente y Rubio described Tintilla as a red variety grown mainly in the sandy and clay-limestone (locally called barros) soils in Cádiz (Sanlúcar, Jerez, Rota, Trebujena, Chipiona, Arcos, Espera, Paxarete and Algeciras) and Málaga. The González Byass warehouse inventory from 1845 includes sweet soleras containing Tintilla de Rota and Tintilla de El Puerto -the first one was by far the most celebrated. The wine was successfully exported to the UK, where it was used for religious purposes, France and the US. In fact, Tintilla de Rota was the sole sweet Andalusian red to reach the top of Topographie de tous les vignobles connus, André Julien’s quality classification dating from the early 19th century.
There is older and more abundant literature on Tintilla de Rota than Graciano. Ramiro Ibáñez, who makes an unfortified sweet Tintilla inspired by those produced before the addition of alcohol became customary in the region, says that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to establish its origin in southern Spain given the grape’s genetic erosion as a result of numerous mutations. For his part, Félix Cabello, the researcher in charge of El Encín, Spain’s largest vine collection, believes that Tintilla de Rota and Hebén (the mother of numerous wine grapes across the Iberian Peninsula) may be linked to the Mediterranean family of Spanish varieties, given that they are the parents of Mandó, and that Graciano is also grown in Sardinia under the names of Bovale Sardo and Cagnulari.
Whatever the origin, producers mention major differences in terms of appearance, vegetative growth and the wines themselves, the most significative being the fact that Tintilla has just one, rather big seed as opposed to two or three for Graciano.
At La Melonera, a producer based in Ronda (Málaga) with a strong focus on minority grape varieties, both varieties (should we say clones, perhaps?) grow side by side and the differences are obvious. Winemaker Ana de Castro says Tintilla has much lower yields. “We barely harvest 800g per vine. Clusters are loose and light compared with the tighter appearance of Graciano. In particularly dry years, the seed almost fills the whole berry resulting in an even smaller proportion of must,” she notes.
At Bodegas Forlong, Alejandro Narváez adds that Tintilla vine shoot hang down more heavily. Belén Puertas, who is in charge of winemaking at Rancho de la Merced, the leading grape growing research centre in Andalucía, says that both are late ripening, high acid varieties with relatively high alcohol, but Tintilla’s tannins are sweeter. “Despite its deep colour, polyphenol levels are not high. Having just one seed may result in less tannic extraction,” she suggests.
Most of the Tintilla plants grown in Andalucía come from Rancho de la Merced. One of the pioneers is Paco Guerrero, a grower who planted several hectares in the Balbaína vineyard. He now sells grapes to various producers in the area and has rented two hectares to Bodegas Luis Pérez. Finca Moncloa planted two hectares in 2002 and now grows 6.5 ha, a similar figure to what Bodegas Luis Pérez owns in the area. Figures published by Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture for 2019 reveal that there are 17 hectares of Tintilla in Andalucía, but many producers say the number may have doubled now.
According to José Manuel Pinedo, winemaker at Finca Moncloa, “Tintilla’s depth is amazing; when berries are ripe, you get a lot of colour just by squeezing them gently; the wines exhibit its acidity and complex aromas”. pH values in Tintilla are between 3.40 to 3.45 compared with 3.70 for Syrah, he adds. The style varies widely from what international grape varieties offer in this area and proves that a late ripening, well-adapted variety with a long history in the region can be really fresh, just like the Arco or Mandó varieties in southeastern Spain.
On its own, Tintilla de Rota tastes pretty different to Graciano wines from the Ebro valley. Reds are spicy rather than herbal, often with meat and liquorice aromas which can evolve into barnyard notes. These are fresh wines, medium to full-bodied with round, gentle tannins. Rosés and sparkling wines (there are a couple of pet-nats) may show the variety’s fresh, lively character. Though scarce, sweet wines show diversity.
Below is an attempt to classify the main Tintilla styles we have come across in our tastings over recent weeks.
Some of the freshest, most quaffable Tintilla wines I tasted are Marismilla rosé, a village wine made by Bodegas Luis Pérez (lively and fragrant with weight and the sapid albariza notes and terroir-driven finish for less than €10 at Decántalo) and Barbadillo’s Nude (naked, €14.90 at Vinissimus). It’s fun and juicy sweet (like strawberry candies) with round tannins that make it very easy to drink. The first vintage was 2015 but the winemaking team has been bottling Tintilla in red blends for over 15 years. The naked bottle suits the name and style to a tee. Armando Guerra, the energetic man in charge of premium wines at Barbadillo, describes it as an Andalusian-style beaujolais.
Very much a glou-glou wine, Bodegas Vinifícate (Mahara) produces Amorro (€12 at Bodegas de Andalucía), a wine that eschews overt ripeness, is made with whole-bunches and is pressed before the end of fermentation to make it easy to drink. It almost feels like biting spicy grapes with some salty notes on the background. Vinifícate also makes two Tintilla pet-nats, a rosé and a red.
Tintilla Ánfora by Bodegas Forlong (€16.90 at Bodeboca) was first released in the cold, rainy 2018 vintage. As the wine had little concentration, they decided to forgo the customary oak ageing after six months in clay vessels. Their plan now is to maintain this style with the grapes from a vineyard they have planted in El Puerto de Santa María that benefits from the proximity to the sea and is suitable for this style.
In contrast, grapes for Forlong’s signature Tintilla (€ 20.90 at Bodeboca) are sourced from Balbaína vineyard. The wine, which spends six months in clay and 12 months in French oak, shows more concentration. The 2017 vintage displays ripe fruit and meaty aromas. This is a mouthwatering, nicely textured red that retains its freshness despite its 14.5% abv.
Alberto Orte, founder of importer Olé Obrigado and wine producing group Cía de Vinos del Atlántico together with Patrick Mata, is a respected Tintilla producer. Though they also own a tiny Sherry bodega, their work in Jerez is mostly focused on the recovery of indigenous Andalusian varieties. They grow 15 white and seven red varieties, of which Tintilla is leading the way. Orte says that Tintilla is a very delicate variety ("the change from ripe to raisin is very rapid") that thrives "in low-yielding vintages of around 2,500 kg/ha resulting in good concentration."
He produces two reds with Tintilla. Grapes for Vara y Pulgar (£16.60 at Vinissimus) come from various vineyards. Orte says the wine combines the area’s distinctive sunlight with its fresh Albariza soils. Lively and delicious, with black pepper notes and a finely textured palate, it is a great introduction to this grape variety. The more concentrated Atlántida (€26.95 at its distributor’s online store) comes from a single plot in the Balbaína vineyard. Partially fermented with stems, it feels darker and deeper, adding meaty notes to the variety’s distinctive spicy character and has good cellaring potential. In both cases I tasted the 2016 vintage.
Willy Pérez, from Bodegas Luis Pérez, is another producer to follow. His trilogy of terroir-driven, beautifully presented Tintillas aims to reflect the different expressions of this variety in the soils and microclimates of Jerez. Just under €20 at Bodeboca, the range includes three wines; the first one, Corchuelo (meaty, barnyard notes, slightly firm tannins), is made from vines grown on gypsum loam soils. The other two are grown on “tosca de barajuelas”, a type of albariza that resembles a deck of cards. Carrascal (leather aromas with riper fruit, more volume, yet fine texture and chalky tannins) comes from the innermost vineyard or pago in Jerez whereas Balbaína is born in the eponymous pago, which lies closer to the sea. With its bright, energetic expression and delicious, sapid palate, this last one was my favourite (2018 vintage). Willy Pérez points out that in the second half of the 19th century, Pedro Domecq did several trials to produce reds in the style of the powerful Burgundies of those days; in order to do so, he studied the potential of Tintilla, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Lesser known but worth trying, Alquitón (€15.90 at Licores Corredera) is made at Bodegas La Parrilla Alta under the advice of winemaker Ramiro Ibáñez. It is a good value red, with the trademark spicy notes of Tintilla very present and gentle tannins.
The more ambitious Torre de Ceres by Miguel Domecq (€25 at the winery’s online store) reaches 15% abv. It combines black pepper aromas with fully ripe fruit (plums and blackberries) and enough acidity to make it a pleasant drink. I found some firm, oaky tannins so a couple of months in the cellar will be beneficial.
Some producers we had the chance to talk to say that Tintilla is perfectly suited to make sweet wines. According to Ana de Castro from La Melonera, who has experience in this regard, sweet is its “natural habitat”. She compares it to Moscatel, with its high acidity and alcohol bringing natural balance to the wines.
Ramiro Ibáñez highlights something that Tintilla grapes share with Pedro Ximénez: their thin skins are extremely helpful to raise their alcohol potential in a relatively short time exposed to the sun. At Cota 45, Ramiro makes the range Pandorga like the traditional sweet wine styles that were popular before fortification became widespread. His Tintilla (€40 the 50cl. bottle at Coalla Gourmet) is inspired in the Rota tent of yesteryear and is a naturally sweet wine with less than 8% abv. and slightly over 450 g/l of sugar. The winemaking process is highly selective: only 270 litres were made out of 2,000 kg of grapes left to dry on the sun for a week. Tintilla’s acidity adds balance, nerve and length.
Made as a liqueur wine, the Blanco brothers from Callejuela have tried to avoid the cloying style of traditional Tintilla made with sun-dried grapes which were later destemmed and fermented with arrope (a thick syrup made by reducing must). They use late-harvest, overripe grapes and stop fermentation with alcohol to get about 190 g residual sugar and 15% alcohol. Their 2017 Tintilla (€21.50 the 50 cl. bottle at their distributor's online store) is very dark, almost black and feels young, fruit-driven (grape skins, fruit preserve) and spicy, with moderate sweetness on the palate. It will be interesting to see how it develops in the bottle.
Finca Moncloa also regards Tintilla as a liqueur wine and follows the arrope-free recipe described by Manuel María González in his book Jerez-Xeres-Sherry. Thus, grapes are left to ferment until they reach 4-5ºC and then alcohol is added. The biggest problem they have faced to date was finding a yeast capable of fermenting such high alcohol potential. Their Tintilla usually has between 280 and 300 g residual sugar with alcohol slightly over 15% abv. The 2017 vintage (€54,60 at Gonzalez Byass' online store) displays plenty of fruit preserve and liqueur notes with hints of black olives on the nose; the sweet mouthfeel is nicely textured and it does not feel at all sticky.
The oldest sweet Tintilla wines we tasted come from Lustau and Bodegas El Gato. Lustau Single Cask comes from an old solera that stopped being refreshed after a bottling in 2001. Since then, it has remained untouched for 17 years -although more than 250 litres have been lost to evaporation. The style reminds me of the old sweet wines from Jerez and Montilla: very complex and with nutty, roasted coffee aromas, carob and caramel, but with a fresher, more aromatic and lighter texture than a PX. Sugar levels (around 252 grams) are also much lower. Only 204 half bottles were released and the wine is exclusively sold through Vila Viniteca at €140.95.
The Tintilla wines of Bodegas El Gato, the producer who preserved the traditional style with the addition of arrope and spirits, are also liqueur wines with an alcohol content of 17%. This small family bodega, which regularly ships a few cases of its wines to Japan, makes a young Tintilla (€18.90 at its online store) with notes of raisins and caramel, and the "Noble" or Reserva (32,40 €) from its oldest solera, with greater depth and complexity --dried figs, sweet spices, coffee, dark chocolate and hazelnut aromas and a comforting, enveloping palate with remarkable length, once again less powerful and cloying than a PX.
When you think about it, the historic trio of Andalusian sweet wines (PX, Tintilla and Moscatel) was perfectly defined and distinct. The grape variety that has suffered the most was the one in the middle.