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A Must Visit Wine Region: Málaga, Spain

An hour and a half flight, southwest of Barcelona, Spain brings you to the bustling, coastal city of Málaga. This sun-drenched historic town on the Mediterranean coast rings with church bells, salty grilled sardines, spicy patatas bravas and an active night life. Party goers fill the streets stopping in the many tapas bars that line the historic city center. Passing over the sangria that tops most menus, keep reading and you will find a diverse selection of high quality wines from this little-known Andalusian region.

Although Málaga’s wine region is only 3,800 hectares / 9,400 acres in size, choosing a wine is a little overwhelming. Red, white and rosé varieties are abundant with a diverse number of grapes and styles from extremely dry to incredibly sweet. The geographic area, averaging 700 meters / 2,300 feet above sea level is also highly diverse with a continental climate and Mediterranean influences closer to the sea. While Málaga is southern and quite warm and dry in the summer, the Mediterranean climate brings cool breezes and humidity north and the region has significant diurnal temperature shifts which greatly benefit the grapes. Winters can be cool, and the region can often experience snow, especially at higher elevations.

The wines to try are labeled Denominación de Origen (D.O.) Sierras de Málaga. These are dry red, dry white and dry rosé wines. The D.O. Sierras de Málaga wines will have alcohol levels between 10% and 15.5%, a large range, and must be under 12 grams/liter of sugar.

Dry white wines within the D.O. Sierras de Málaga are made mostly with Pero Ximen (Pedro Ximenez), Moscatel de Alejandría, Moscatel Morisco (Moscatel de grano menudo). Flavors of tart green apples abound, perfectly paired with Málaga’s seafood during the hot summer.  It is also permissible to use other non-native grapes like Chardonnay, Macabeo, Colombard, Sauvignon Blanc, Lairen and Doradilla, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Verdejo and Viognier. The most common and the best white wines tend to focus on Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel, however. Blended wines are also typical.

Among the dry D.O. Sierras de Málaga reds, another vast array of grapes can serve as single varietals or blends. The authorized grapes include native Romé, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, Graciano, Malbec, Monastrell and Tintilla (Rota Tintilla). Many producers will replicate Bordeaux blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc but the styles in Málaga are richer, and fruiter compared to their Bordeaux cousins, with less structure and lower acidity – designed to be consumed soon after bottling.

Within the larger Málaga region, there are five sub-regions: Axarquía, Costa Occidental, Montes, Norte and Serranía de Ronda. About half of the wineries from the D.O. are in the Serranía de Ronda. The tendency to use internally recognized grapes and the dry reds make this region one to watch. Wines labeled Serranía de Ronda will have 100% of the grapes from this small, 250 hectares / 615 acres sub-region. At 700 meters / 2,300 feet in altitude, you will also find a growing number of organic and Sulphur-free wines in this area, where the soils are generally sandy clay above a limestone subsoil. Joaquín Fernández purchased land in Ronda for his winery in 2000. From the start, he embraced organic farming and winemaking styles. Early in spring, you will find sheep roaming the fields and no pesticides or chemical fertilizers on the property. Fernández embraced traditional winemaking and innovative techniques, even opting for bees-wax seals on the bottles from a supply collected from their local bee colony on the property. Everything is done by hand. From these well-tended grapes Fernández produces a compelling selection of reds and a Rosado wines. A standout is their Merlot – Syrah blend with bright acidity, that surprised me on a hot summer day in the vineyard. A few miles down the road, Martin Kieninger, who also purchased his Ronda property in 2000, practices organic and biodynamic wine-making techniques. Vines climb the slopes, where everything is hand-harvested and bottled onsite, at the Bodega. A wider range of styles is produced here, including some grapes imported from Kieninger’s native Austria. My favorite was the Vinana, a wine with dark cherry flavors, balanced tannins and a spot-on left-bank Bordeaux blend.

Leaving Ronda, Axarquía is in eastern part of the wine region from the Mediterranean to the mountains. The climate is generally mild, given the proximity to the sea. This area has significant slopes, and decomposing slate soil that make machine harvesting impossible. Most of the wine produced here is sweet (Málaga D.O.) and Axarquía is the most productive of the Málaga wine regions. Costa Occidental, in the west, has a strong Mediterranean influence and white limestone soil. Montes and Norte are smaller regions, also with limestone soil and cold winters and hot summers. Norte is distinctive, as the region is too far from the Mediterranean and the climate is continental.

Some D.O. Sierras de Málaga wines are also aged before they are brought to market. On the label, you may find several terms to indicate the aging of the wine. Crianza requires at least two years aging with at least six months in oak and Reserva mandates at least three years aging with at least a year in oak. Gran Reserva for red wines requires at least five years aging with at least two years in oak. Gran Reserva for white and rosé wines also requires at least five years aging between both oak barrel and bottle, but only mandates six months of barrel aging.

The more traditional wine of the region is D.O. Málaga, a sweet wine. The geographic regions that produce the sweet D.O. Málaga and D.O. Sierras de Málaga wines are the same. So, the style of the wine (not the location within the region) will dictate the D.O. and if the wine is produced sweet or dry. For over 750 years, these wines were highly desired throughout the region. These typical drinks also have a more complex classification hierarchy depending on the type of wine making utilized and the aging time. Vino dulce natural wines makers will add alcohol once the desired sweetness level is achieved. Vino maestro is fortified first, and then fermented very slowly. Vino tierno is dried in the sun, like the Amarone style in Italy, and once fermentation begins, is then fortified with alcohol. Some producers also blend these wines three into a Coupage and sometimes add a syrup to darken the color of the wine. Regardless of the method, these wines are sweet. D.O. Málaga wines will have sugar levels over 45 grams/liter and most producers use the traditional grape varieties of the region Moscatel or Pedro Ximen and age the wine in oak butts using an añadas or solera system similar to Sherry. Depending on the aging, Málaga D.O. labels will indicate Pálido (no aging), Málaga (6 months in oak butts), Noble (2-3 years in American butts), or Añejo (5 years in American oak butts). These wines are usually served in small glasses. Globally, sweet wines are much less popular today than they were in years past, so while still common, there is a definite shift in Málaga to the dryer Sierras de Málaga styles.

The wines of Malaga are unique and worth exploring. Fernandez, in his native Spanish, told me that “even though we grow the same grapes in Ronda that are grown in other parts of the world, our grapes are unique. Just like a person who grows up in Ronda will be different if he or she grows up in Rioja, the same is true of the grapes. The soil, climate, and the environment all create something unique that we express in our wines.”