By Jon Clarke
They came, they sniffed, they drank.
Not since Roman times has such a collection of important wine figures gathered in the mountains of Ronda.
It was like the second coming, as 24 of Spain’s best sommeliers did battle in the first national competition for wine waiters.
Coming from around the country – and even from the Ritz hotel, in London, which has a Spanish sommelier at its helm – they did battle over two long days at the prestigious bodega El Chantre, which sits at the foot of the ancient Roman city of Acinipo.
Judged by 13 professionals, the 6,000-euro top prize was eventually won by Oscar Lopez Rodríguez, the sommelier from fashionable Madrid restaurant Alboroque.
Comprising a series of written tests and half a dozen practicals, the two dozen wine waiters were expected to differentiate, for example, between five tempranillo-grape wines from around Spain, and five cabernet sauvignons from around the world, including one, even from Canada.
Carbonic Maceration, caudelie and polyphenolic composition (for which bodega El Chantre’s wine Ramos Paul exceeds 100 IPT apparently), these were just some of the terms the wine waiters had to understand.
As well as identifying a series of worldwide vineyards from photographs, they were asked to formulate an international wine list appropriate for a Michelin-starred restaurant in just half an hour.
El Chantre vineyard owner José Ramos Paul, who plans to hold a similar competition every year, says: “We wanted to really put them to the test. This is a superb bunch of professionals and as a wine maker and lover I really appreciate their skills.”
But this was a lot more than just a competition about wine. For the first time in Spain, the competitors were also tested on their expected knowledge of cheeses, olive oils and even cigars.
Areas that are usually overlooked when judging sommeliers, they were not only asked to select, light and hand over a perfectly lit cigar, but were expected to recommend olive oils and a selection of cheeses (and the wines to go with them).
Nobody found it easy, and when the competition ran over on its first day by two hours – meaning dinner did not begin until past midnight – there were plenty of exhausted professionals.
Óscar Ayala Briz, from La Nueva Fontana restaurant in Madrid, says: “It has been fun, but very difficult and quite a strain. I knew straight away that I was not going to win.
“It just goes to show the best sommeliers have to be top of their game in many different areas. There was so much to get through in just two days, but it was inspiring to test myself against such a talented bunch.”
Judge and fellow wine maker Federico Schatz, who in 1982 planted the first vineyard in the Ronda area since the 19th century, says: “They performed extremely well and competition was tight. These guys are all self taught, and because there is no training school for sommeliers they have had to learn it on the job, and through reading and studying wine in their spare time.
“Enthusiasm is the key and it takes three to four years to get to a half decent standard, not three months working on the coast.”
The trailblazer, whose family made wine in southern Germany for 400 years, before transferring to Spain in the 1980s, is convinced competitions like this will help to put Ronda in the top ten most important wine regions in the world as it was in Roman times.
“In terms of quality it could even be in the top five,” he claims. “It is a place for small boutique wines and at the moment there is some excellent competition with around ten vineyards already selling their wine and another six on the way. I hope the authorities will not water down quality by allowing the plantation of more than 500 hectares of vines.”
There is no doubt the area is steeped in wine history. Indeed, under Roman rule, the town was so renowned for its wine, the local coinage bore the stamp of a vine tendril.
“The Romans got it right here,” contends Schatz. “They always knew to produce a good wine you needed three key things: some decent slopes, stony soils and a valley with a river through it, which takes out the cold winds in winter time.”
It was these ingredients that made the sweet wines of Málaga much sought after in ancient Rome, and, as with the region’s highly rated olive oil, thousands of vats were exported every year. Many estates near Ronda, such as La Vinuela, and La Vina, are named after vineyards and the nearby town of Setenil de las Bodegas, became a key production area, thanks to its numerous caves, where the wine could be stored at favourable temperatures.
While production dropped a little under the Moors, whose Muslim faith, largely prohibited the use of alcohol, it picked up again in the 16th and 17th century, and by the 1870s there was an incredible 100,000 hectares of land under vine in Málaga province alone.
But disaster struck when the phylloxera virus arrived from America in the late 19th century destroying all but the hardiest of vines.
It was not until the 1990s through the lobbying of Federico Schatz and the likes of the late Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe (the socialite, who in the 1950s built the Marbella Club hotel to make the Costa del Sol famous) that it once again became legal to produce and sell Ronda wine.
While there are currently only 3,000 hectares under vine in the whole Malaga province today (including raisons), that figure is expected to rise dramatically.
French wine expert Bertrand Nouel, explains: “As in France, the concept of terroir is essential. The quality and nature of the soils in Ronda, combined with the high levels of sunshine and in particular rainfall, thanks to its location near Grazalema, make for a stunningly complex wine.”
The competition judge from Bordeaux explained at Bodega El Chantre, for example, winemakers José and Pilar Ramos Paul are producing a wine with more aromatic potential than anything produced in Rioja or Catalunya’s highly-rated Priorat appellation.
“Here there is a polyphenolic composition of between 110 and 115 IPT, while in Priorat it just reaches 100 and in Rioja only 95 in a good year. It means it is a very mineral wine, with a lot of natural freshness and acidity. The potential here is huge.”
The competition meanwhile was also an excellent chance for the group of wine professionals to visit the town and region of Ronda.
Head sommelier at the Ritz in London, Bruno Murciano, explains: “It was amazing to come and visit this famous city and its incredible countryside. I did not get much chance to see it, but I made a point of getting up early on the second day and walking around in the freezing temperatures, admiring the bull ring, the Tajo gorge and delightful old town.”
As for the prospects for Ronda wine in the important English market, he is upbeat. “When I started at the Ritz three years ago there were only five Spanish wines on the whole list. Now there are 36. And while some of the old fashioned regions such as Jerez are really suffering, new places such as Jumilla, Somontano and Ronda are really coming into their own.
“That said, there is a real knowledge gap, even here in Andalucía. The taxi driver who brought me up from Málaga airport did not understand why I wanted to come up to Ronda in the middle of winter. He was even more surprised when I told him I was visiting a vineyard.
“The truth is probably more people know about Ronda wine in the UK and many in the know there, such as Hugh Johnson have caught on to the Spanish new wave. I have taken it upon myself to at least try and impress on people what a fantastic range of wines Spain now has. And I have been hugely impressed with what I have tried here in Ronda. The clients at the Ritz will be the first to know about it.”