Malaga and its environs are a well-established vacation and relocation destination for northern Europeans. The 'Moscatels of Malaga' are mostly found in the less touristy highlands of Axarqua which were, as is the case in much of Spain, 30 years ago far more covered with vines than today.
With an agri-economy based largely upon wine grapes, the introduction of phylloxera foreshadowed the region's eventual depression with a nearly 50% drop in its population. Opening wineries is an expensive venture anywhere, Malaga was also caught in the crossfire of tourism's rise and the overall poor impression Spanish wines enjoyed up to the 1990's.
The Mediterranean is often within easy eyesight all of the region's hodge-podge of heavily sloped vineyards, scattered in every possible direction at 2000-3000 ft. elevation. Rains arrive January-March with flowering taking place around late May. Cool daytime winds abate in July/August though nights are cool enough to help the vines retain acidity. With so little rain available the vines, many which were planted pre-phylloxera, roots must burrow deep for water in the long, hot summers. These mountainous soils are comprised of an array of rugged, decomposing shale and brown slate, some with clay and some with quartz veins. Manual labour is essential for harvesting these untrained gobelet vines and grapes are typically collected in baskets holding 30lbs of grapes.
My introduction to these wines begain at the 2008 edition of Jerez's Vinoble wine fair where, along with 25 other members of the wine trade, I was whisked away to an outlying tapas bar's back room by one of Spain's star winemakers. Telmo Rodriguez dazzled the assembled with his passion for and tasting of a complete 8-vintage vertical of his naturally sweet Malaga wine, 'Molino Real'. "
A wine from Malaga is a wine that should have a memory," he told us. He's chosen to eschew fortification in favour of a previously unknown naturally-sweet style allowing the intense minerality and length of the old-vine, often ungrafted, Moscatels to shine through. His first vintage, 1996, was not allowed by the D.O. to be called 'Malaga' but he persevered. Others were to follow including his former US importer (below).
On a subsequent visit I met a number of other Malaga producers:
In 1994 a sunworshipping Dutch couple, Clara Verheij and Andr Both, turned their backs on their native Utrecht to settle outside the Axarqua mountain village of Sayalonga and began the process of establishing Bodegas Bentomiz. They planted a test vineyard of many varieties with an eye to one day making wine. It wasn't until 2005 they produced their first commercial vintage from Moscatel and a blended red from Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, and the indigenous Rom. In addition to the one hectare they own, they also buy annually from 35ha of growers, many of whom also work in Andre's construction business.
Their brand name 'Ariyanas' yields a modern style of both very dry (2g/l RS) and medium sweet styles. The French oak-aged Terruo Pizarroso is the winemaker's preference though I prefer her low-sulfur Dulce Naturamente. All are bottled in 50cl formats with a glass lock closure and a modern label design. All are very well-made, bright and minerally, with a powerful varietal character.
One May afternoon Clara treated me to a 30-minute drive, then a 90-minute hike deep into the stunning hills of the Parc Natural Sierra Almijara designed to work up an appetite for Bar El Acebuchal. Located 14km from Cmpeta on the way to the more famous weekend tourist attraction of Frigiliana, the key to its owners, the Garcia-Sanchez family's success is the preponderance of wild herbs (more rosemary than I've ever seen growing wild, oregano, at least two varieties of thyme, and fennel) growing around them and finding their way into almost every dish served. Many of the vegetables also come from their garden.Sour elements play an interesting part in the preparation and sauces. My only complaint would be that the hearty, wintry style of food served in late spring was too rich for the time of year. Here are the dishes we tried:
Garbanzo beans with mixed pig parts in a mild yellow (turmeric?) sauce with oregano.
Chicken in Moscatel sauce--moderately sweet with black pepper (would've been terrific with a Bentomiz Dulce Naturamente had one been available)
Mixed fruit and vegetable salad with an array of wild herbs
Lamb in a wild mint/vinegar sauce
Wild fennel with white beans & rice, chicken and blood sausage
Wild deer in a thick ragout of wild greens, herbs, carrots, onions, black pepper, red wine, Cognac
Rabbit with celery, carrots, onions, thyme, nutmeg
Wild boar with onions, white wine, thyme, cumin, black pepper
All were accompanied with plenty of local beer and a bottle of Clara's red.
Bar El Acebuchal
+34 697 255 363
Brothers Juan and Antonio Munoz are natives of the mountain village of Moclinejo. Their grandfather started the family winery officially in 1927 though Munozes have been growing grapes and making wine long before that. The winery is but one business within their Dimobe group; they also distribute drinks for the region and own a scenically-poised Vistalmar hotel & restaurant. which provides a welcome stop along the windy road to the heart of Axarqua's wine country. A typical menu consists of medium-sized green olives cured with a lot of whole garlic cloves and a little paprika, a range of tapas typical to the region and to Spain as a whole, seafood including shelled prawns 'pil-pil', in a very hot and oily pepper-garlic sauce as a starter (mopped up with bread), sepia a la plancha with a touch of garlic and roasted meats such as lamb, goat, beef and pork. Dimobe's medium sweet and fortified Seorio de Broches 2007, satisfying enough to act as dessert, would also have worked well with a melon and ham salad or blue cheese
Ctra. de Moclinejo, Km 1
+34 952 400 507
Bodegas Jorge Ordoez
Former medical doctor Victoria Ordoez embarked on a second career working with 'flying' winemaker, 28-year old Austrian Gerhard Kracher, who took over from his late father Alois at Bodegas Jorge Ordoez. The elder Kracher founded the project with Victoria's brother, the former US importer of Telmo Rodriguez, in April 2004 when he came to Almchar for his first harvest of sweet Malaga. The later-implemented idea of a dry Moscatel was that of Kracher's and the 100% first-ever dry Malaga Muscat. Victoria credits Alois with having the vision though she tasted with him all the time, giving credence to my theory that the wines' more feminine style is a reflection of her involvement much as Clara Verheij's is at Bentomiz.
During our vineyard tour, Ordoez took me to Bar Almchar for a snack of baby boquerones battered and fried in an oily salad with cucumber, tomatoes, green peppers, potatoes, onions, olives, chopped egg, and orange pieces. This was followed by raw clams, 'conchas finas', which was perfect with a glass of the town's signature cool drink, 'ajoblanco'. which is made of raw blanched almonds, raw garlic, dried bread soaked in water, salt, olive oil, and vinegar.
We also went to Restaurante Marichuchi one of several restaurants in a former fishing district to the east of Malaga, which are famed for their boquerones which are skewered and grilled over smoky wood fires built in tiny boats, raised up on the sand immediately in front of the restaurants. Ordoez considers this her 'HQ'! We also tried:
Garlicky green olives, a regional staple
Mixed salad with cooked tuna, another typical regional dish
Small rectangular clams steamed with an olive oil dressing
Gambas a la plancha with rock salt
Batter-fried baby mullet
Batter-fried boquerones which had been beheaded and gutted, "a style of cooking unique to Malaga", Ordonez claimed.
Roast pepper salad
With it we drank a bottle of her excellent dry Moscatel, Botani, which was named after the city's botanic gardens and the sweet, naturally low-alcohol 'Esencia'.
Paseo Maritimo el Pedregal 14
+34 952 290 412
David Furer is a freelance wine writer, and educator and author of Wine Places (Mitchell Beazley, 2005) He travelled to Malaga as a guest of the bodegas mentioned in the article.