A wine lover’s guide to Malaga

The history of wine in the Andalusian province of Malaga tells a story of the Moscatel de Alejandria grape variety, the oldest unadulterated strain in existence today. Cultivation of this grape for sweet wine began in Malaga some 3,000 years ago, brought to the region by the Phoenicians from Alexandria, Egypt. The Phoenicians, Romans and even the Islamic Moors all produced and enjoyed the golden nectar. So coveted and delicious was the wine that the Moors, whose religion forbade consumption of alcohol, justified their indulgence by labeling it a curative, medicinal product.

Bentomiz Viña

By the mid-19th century, nearly 250,000 acres of vineyards blanketed the area surrounding the city of Malaga – twice the area of the largest wine region in Spain today – and ten million litres of sweet Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez “mountain wine” flowed out to the corners of the globe, from the Americas to Russia and the far east. The phylloxera vine scourge decimated not only the vineyards of Malaga in 1878, but the population also dwindled as the region’s main industry dissipated.

Some refer to Malaga as the “Atlantis of the Spanish appellations” because of this, and production today is nowhere near what it was during the peak. However, wine production did rebound spectacularly after a long drought, and more importantly, diversified so that Malaga now produces some exquisite reds and dry whites in addition to the traditional sweet ambrosia.

Today, Malaga is an emerging hotspot for wine lovers of all levels. Here is a guide to help you find some of the best, traditional Malaga wines to sample, the wineries that produce them, and other establishments and tours that offer much more than just a taste, but a full Malagueñan wine experience.

The Ordoñez effect

By the 1990s, there were only eight wine producers left in Malaga. Native born Jorge Ordoñez already had built a wine empire in Spain and succeeded as the largest importer of Spanish wines to the United States by the turn of the year 2000, and many locals within the industry give much credit to Jorge Ordoñez & Co. as one of the main drivers of the resurgence of the Malaga sweet wines in the early years of the new century.

Ordoñez Wines

Today, the Ordoñez group, under the local guidance of Victoria Ordoñez in Malaga, produces four exquisite Moscatel sweet wines in the Axarquia, that together recapture the variety and regality of the historical tipple. For the sweeter wines, grapes are left to dry in the shade for eight weeks and then fermented from 12 to 18 months. The sweetest selection is akin to “raisin wine” as it is so purely sweet, virtually squeezed drop by drop from raisins rather than juicy grapes. The sweetest of the Ordoñez wines, “Esencia”, requires a heaping 50 to 60 kilograms (110 to 130 pounds) of Moscatel grapes (practically raisins) to make just one litre of wine. This weight would normally make 50 bottles of table wine!

The new breed, Bentomiz

The Axarquian region of Malaga has long been one of the historic drivers of Malaga wine production and this agricultural centre is now the leading producer of tropical fruit in Europe. It is not surprising then that other modern wineries have emerged from this little area on the easternmost edge of Malaga province. Bodegas Bentomiz, near Sayalonga is one of the most important and impressive of these.

Bodegas Bentomiz is a small winery, producing a full range of superb wines: white, red, rose; dry and sweet. The dry Moscatel is sweet on the nose, but dry and fruity to the palate and very distinctive; the sweet wines come both oaky and unoaked, but powerful, rich and rounded either way; the rosé wine is pretty, floral and refreshing; while the red, softened by six months in French oak barrels, is as complex and voluptuous as a fine Bordeaux. Then there is a unique sweet red that must be experienced, not described. But don’t take my word for it – famed critics such as Jancis Robinson, Rose Murray Brown and Julia Harding have been singing praises themselves, and Bodegas Bentomiz has enjoyed a litany of accolades from the industry’s most important publications such as Decanter Magazine. You will find the Ariyanas wines in the world’s most excellent and prestigious restaurants such as El Celler de Can Roca***, Arzak***, The Ledbury**, Hertog Jan***, Blanca**, and more.

Bentomiz taste

Unlike the Ordoñez winery, Bodegas Bentomiz offers tours and tastings to share their special approach with interested outsiders and locals alike. And not just any basic tour, but a visit complete with a gourmet lunch designed by local chef Juan Quintanilla to perfectly pair the Ariyanas wines with an Andalusian feast to remember. If that is not enough already, and it should be, the bodega has also organised a series of summer concerts at the winery where guests can sample the Ariyanas wines while enjoying performances covering classical piano, a string quartet, Flamenco song and dance, Andalucían jazz and soul.

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The Ronda school

The picturesque village of Ronda, with its dramatic gorge cutting right through the centre of town, has long been an attraction for tourists and culture buffs; however, Ronda has also managed to establish itself as the most important wine producing area within Malaga province, as pertains to non-sweet wine. The “terruño” or “terroir” in French (conditions of sun, soil and climate that determine the quality of grapes and wine) in Ronda is optimal for red wines and most of the best red wines produced in Malaga come from such Ronda wineries as Chinchilla, Schatz, and Cortijo los Aguilares. In fact, many of the wineries in Malaga province that produce red wines buy their grapes from Ronda and produce the wine in their own facilities in their own way.

Ronda

For a better insight into the Ronda wine scene, a visit is the only way to go. Any dining experience anywhere in Ronda will yield some interesting options for sampling the local wine, but tours and tastings are a better way forward for the interested wine lover.

Malaga City, the centre of it all

Malaga city has been trading in wine for more than 3000 years, a good start on a still thriving industry. Today there are a number of important outlets for buying and sampling the local specialties as well as a wider collection of Spanish wines, including bars, wine merchants and restaurants.

La Antigua Casa de Guardia (the old guard house) is an iconic wine bar just steps away from the historic Atarazanas food market in the centre of Malaga. The bodega itself where the wine is made sits only about 30 minutes outside of the city centre, but here it is possible to sample a wide selection of the multitudinous varieties of Malaga sweet wines, from both the Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes. Until you visit a bar such as this, you really can have no idea what the fuss is all about. Massive barrels with types of wine never conceived in other locations, between sweet wine and the driest of sherry, line the wall behind the bar and the bar tenders will happily help you discover your new favourite.

Antigua Casa Guardia

The old centre of Malaga makes a wonderful place for wandering the streets in search of a little snack here and a taste of local wine there… just do it! But for a few tips on places to target, besides the Antigua Casa de Guardia, try Meson Astorga for one of the most extensive wine lists at any restaurant in the city and traditional food to match, or Los Patios de Beatas, for a similar but more sophisticated approach. El Pimpi, possibly the most iconic (if a bit touristic) restaurant in the city, has a celebrity patronage and a serious list of local wines. La Mallorquina shop carries a full selection of local wines and specialty meats and cheeses to enjoy at home if you prefer.

Finally, if you prefer a guided tour to fully explore the rich tradition and contemporary approach to Malaga wines, there are a few luxurious routes to follow. With the rental of a private, luxury villa in the area, you are more likely to find an insider’s guidance and local connections for tours and tastings, while a hotel in the city may recommend some good restaurants and bars. For professionally guided tours and immersive experiences speak with a specialist wine and culinary travel design company such as Paladar y Tomar, offering the highest level of access and insight into the Malaga wine scene.

Alan Hazel is Owner and Director of Cortijo El Carligto.

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