THE Axarquia was producing top quality wines, way before Rioja and Ribero del Duero got into the mix.
Indeed, in 1933 the region became the first in Spain to have its own DO – or denominacion de origin.
But the area can also claim to have one of the longest traditions of winemaking in Spain, with vines first being planted by the Phoenicians up to 3000 years ago.
They were later heralded by the Roman poet Columella, and back in 1502 the Catholic Monarchs were so keen on the fabulous sweet wines that they took the first known measure to protect Spain’s wines from imported products.
A century later Malaga wine producers formed a guild, the fore-runner of today’s ‘consejos reguladores’ (or control boards).
It came about just as the wines started to become fashionable abroad, particularly in the UK from the 17th century.
At the time, there were said to be around 14,000 wine presses in Malaga and – along with Jerez – many British merchants moved to the area.
Evidence of their success can still be found, for example, at Venta Galway, high in the Montes de Malaga hills, named after an Irish merchant who settled there then.
But, as was the case in many European regions, the industry was destroyed by the phylloxera bug that arrived in the late 19th century.
It wiped out the vast majority of vineyards and the amount of land under vine dropped from 100,000 hectares at its peak to just 6,000 hectares today; many of this for raisons or eating grapes.
So the crucial work being undertaken by a number of companies today to make the sweet wines fashionable again is vital as a dynamo for the region.
One of the best of these is Bodegas Bentomiz, high in the hills overlooking the sea in Sayalonga.
Here, Dutch winemakers Clara Verheij and Andre Both are currently producing over 30,000 bottles of wine a year from the extraordinarily steep slopes.
Already exporting to over a dozen countries – and to some of the world’s top restaurants, including Le Manoir aux Quat Saison and Pied a Terre – they are also proving that wine can help create jobs in a region where unemployment is currently running at up to 70 per cent in some villages.
“We have proven that it is possible to make these harsh slopes productive,” explains Clara.
“I just hope this success will encourage more of the youth of the area to take an interest in this top quality product.”
The recession has already seen the inevitable drift of workers back to the land to make a living.
And while the bodega only has two hectares under vine, it ‘controls’ another 30 hectares farmed by local families for them.
“But the price for grapes is too low and there are currently too many sellers and not enough producers,” she explains.
Traditionally the sweet Moscatel grape grows extremely well in the Axarquia, largely due to its close proximity to the sea, which brings in breezes to cool the grapes down.
The vines – some of which can be up to 100 years old – are planted in hollows, which help to collect much needed moisture in winter.
They are also left to grow on the ground with the bunches of grapes protected from the blazing sun by foliage.
“Because the slopes are steep it is hard work and the yields are low,” explains Clara. “But the climate and slate soils make for top quality grapes with a nice mineral touch.”
The bodega currently buys grapes from a string of local farmers, as well as a steady supply of red grapes from the larger, flat vineyards north of Antequera, near Mollina.
All in all the vineyard produces half a dozen wines, under the Ariyanas label, including a spectacular, flinty dry white ‘Sobre lias Finas’, which stays in its lees in vat for four months before bottling.
There is also an interesting red wine made partly from the indigenous Rome grape, first introduced by the Romans, and which the vineyard is experimenting with.
So good are the wines that British doyenne of wine Jancis Robinson awarded its sweet Moscatel a lofty 18 out of 20.
“That’s as good as some of Vega Sicilia’s wines, traditionally said to be one of Spain’s best,” adds Clara proudly. “We are very happy how things are coming on and really hope that the improvement continues.”
The wines are that good around the Axarquia, they certainly deserve success.