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Although Málaga is now better known for its sun and beach holidays, it is one of the oldest wine regions in Spain: tracing its viticultural history back to the Greek colonisation of the Mediterranean around 600 BC. Production continued through later antiquity with the Romans, who struck imperial coins dedicated to wine in the region. Even through heavy taxation by successive Islamic empires the Malagueños persisted with wine production.
Following the reconquest of Andalucía by the Catholic monarchy, Málaga saw a surge in demand for their fortified wines aboard the grand Spanish ships of exploration. Their wines were also fashionable in the British Empire and eclipsed those of Jerez. Catherine the Great was so impressed with them that they were exempt from Russian taxation.
Then in the nineteenth century phylloxera struck and wiped out most of the vineyards across the region. Vineyards were replaced by olive and almond groves and any recovery was further inhibited as consumers moved away from sweet, fortified wines, towards drier, fresher whites. By the mid-twentieth century production was limited to small pockets in the east of the region and most of those grapes were used to create bulk sweet wines of little character.
Despite the fall in popularity, a number of producers persevered with quality wines from old vines. This caught the attention of wine makers from the north of Spain, who found abandoned old vineyards with terrific potential. Through investment and modern production techniques the region has seen a leap in quality in recent years. Alongside the traditional sweet wines are delicate dry whites and surprisingly elegant reds. For the intrepid wine traveller, Málaga offers a perfect opportunity to explore a dynamic region, searching for its identity on the world stage.
DO and Sub-Regions:
The production zones for Málaga wines covers most of that administrative region of Andalucía in southern Spain. Unsurprisingly this vast area has significant climactic and soil variations, so Málaga’s wine regions are sub-divided in to the five areas shown on the map. The most exciting sub-regions are Serranía de Ronda in the far west and Axarquía in the east.
There are two Denominación de Origen (production zones) for Málaga wines; confusingly these cover the exact same geographical area. It is the style of wine that determines which DO covers it.
• Set up in 1933, DO Málaga covers the area’s traditional sweet wine production, made solely from the white grapes Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel.
• DO Sierras de Málaga was set up in 2001 to cover the newly rediscovered potential for dry wines. These can be produced from either red or white grapes.
The area around the stunning town of Ronda is steeped in viticulture; and is one of the oldest wine regions on the Iberian peninsula. The Romans called the region Acinipo, Land of the Vines, revealing the importance of wine to the local economy. But in the nineteenth century, after two and a half millennia of uninterrupted wine production, Ronda was one of the first regions in Spain struck by phylloxera. Within a few years wine production, which once totalled over 13,000 ha of land, was wiped out.
Only in the past 35 years have vines made a return to the area with the help of huge investment; today there are over twenty wineries. Ronda has a continental climate; hot, dry summers and very cold, wet winters. The heat of the growing season is tempered by an altitude of 750-1,000 metres, giving a diurnal swing that can see days in excess of 40°C followed by 15-20°C nights. The calcareous rocks and quartzite sand allow the roots to bury deep in to the soil to find water. All of these factors allow winemakers to experiment with grapes and produce dry red and white wines with a surprising freshness and acidity.
When & Where to Stay:
Ronda is a stunning town, attracting millions of visitors each year, so avoid the sweltering peak summer months and visit mid-week in April/May or September/October.
Due to its popularity, there is no end of accommodation options on the websites listed below. However, one hotel that must be on your bucket list is Parador de Ronda. This luxury state-run hotel is expensive for Spain, but boasts jaw-dropping vistas over the Ronda gorge.
Bodega Cortijo Los Aguilares
Set within an estate of over 800 ha of oak and wild pata negra pigs, this bodega is owned by a Burgundy-loving businessman from northern Spain. He tasked head winemaker, Bibi García, with the difficult job of producing Pinot Noir in this hot, southern climate. Thanks to heavy investment and avoiding any pesticides or herbicides, they won Gold in the 2008 and 2010 Mundial du Pinot Noir in Switzerland. As well as this pet project, they produce fine Petit Verdot-led wines of great freshness and pure fruit. Innovation is important on the stunning Cortijo Los Aguilares estate and each year new pockets of land are planted with international and indigenous varieties to see what vines best express the terroir.
When I asked Bibi why she moved from the premium Priorat DO to Ronda she simply replied that ‘history is here to be made’.
Located an hour and half drive north of Malaga, the villages of Sayalonga and Sedella are the heart of fine wine in eastern Málaga. Production is largely focused on sweet wines, but there are a growing number of wineries producing superb quality dry wines from old, indigenous vines.
Vinos Telmo Rodríguez
Telmo Rodríguez was a well-known wine producer from northern Spain before turning his attention to Málaga. Setting up in an old traditional winery, Telmo uses the traditional method of drying Moscatel grapes in the sun on paseros (large straw mats), raisining and concentrating the flavours of the grape whilst retaining acidity. These are then pressed on capachas (smaller straw mats) by pneumatic press and aged in oak to produce outstanding luscious wines.
Set up by a Dutch couple after their construction business collapsed, Bodegas Bentomiz recently opened a brand new winery. Designed in the Bauhaus style and finished in slate to match the local rock, this tasteful building boasts state-of-the-art equipment, producing beautifully complex naturally sweet and dry wines from 80-100 year old vines.
Any trip to Málaga has to include lunch in this winery. With a commanding view over the Mediterranean and surrounding mountain peaks, you can enjoy stunning dishes of local produce designed by renowned Málaga chef, Juan Quintanilla, paired with their stunning wines.
Where to Stay:
The tranquil villages in the hills above Velez-Málaga boast traditional rural Andalucían white-washed houses. They are stunning to visit, but have little infrastructure for tourism. I suggest staying nearer the coast and driving up to the hills. Nerja is one of the prettiest coastal towns and is only a 25 minute drive from Sayalonga.
If you would rather work a city break in to your wine holiday, then Málaga city is a great choice. Small and compact, with plenty of beautiful restaurants and tapas bars, it is steeped in the history of Andalucía. Take a day to visit the Alcazaba, an Islamic fort built on the hills behind the city, and the adjacent Roman theatre. Then stroll through the Old Town, taking in the cathedral before visiting the Wine Museum located nearby. If you have the time I highly recommend the Museum of Glass and Crystal; a surprising gem located in a stunning old traditional Málagan house.
How to Get There:
Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly regularly from Dublin to Málaga airport year round and from Shannon and Cork airports during the summer.
Despite their proximity to the busy Costa del Sol, the vineyards are not easily accessible by public transport, so you will need to hire a car to explore any of the wine regions. The best value I found is Málagacar- excellent rates and no hidden refuelling fee. Shuttle bus runs from Terminal 1. You must book in advance.