I love Spain and I love cycling, so I always look forward to the end of August because it brings the two of them together via the Vuelta a España or Tour of Spain. One of the sport’s three Grand Tours, it offers three weeks’ worth of panoramic Mediterranean views, death-defying mountain passes, and an excuse to indulge in the delights of Spanish food and wine.
And, for the first time since 2010, the fight for the red jersey should be quite a contest. Neither of the race’s most dominant winners over the past eight years will be in the peloton: Alberto Contador, a three-time winner, retired last year; and Chris Froome, 2017’s victor and perpetual podium-placer, has opted out this year after a subpar performance in the Tour de France.
So that widens the road for riders like Vincenzo Nibali, who crashed out of the Tour after tangling with a spectator; Rigoberto Uran, the runner-up in last year’s Tour (who also crashed out of the 2018 Tour); the up-and-coming Yates brothers; and, of course, Richie Porte, whom Lady Luck has cursed of late.
Traditionally a climber’s race (every year the Vuelta seems to become harder and hillier) the 2018 route promises some spice in the form of sprinters like Peter Sagan, who normally forgo the torture of the Vuelta in favor of – well, almost anything else. This year, though, we’ll have the pleasure of watching the terrifying/exciting sprint finishes that draw so many spectators to the sport.
Why subject themselves to the pain? They’re getting ready for the World Championships, which are taking place in Innsbruck, Austria in October. And I don’t know about you, but when I think of Innsbruck, I think of the Alps. Rumor has it that this year’s race route will be much more mountainous than in previous years. Contenders hoping to challenge for the top spots have come to Spain for training. All the better for us spectators!
About Stage 1
It’s an individual time trial, on a flat course along the Málaga coastline. Meh. Except that there will be some spectacular scenery to watch as each rider takes a turn against the clock. Málaga is a 3,000-year-old city founded by the Phoenicians. Ruled at different times by the Romans and Moors, the Reconquista brought the city back under the auspices of Ferdinand and Isabella and the Catholic Church.
Evidence of the Moorish influence is scattered throughout Málaga, most notably the Alcazaba (citadel) whose massive towers dominate the hills overlooking the port. Built by the Hammudid dynasty in the early 11th century, it was fortified by three layers of stone walls, two of which remain today. It was ultimately reclaimed from the Moors in 1487, during the Siege of Málaga, one of the longest and hardest-fought battles of the Reconquista. The Romans left souvenirs as well, including a theater that sits adjacent to the Alcazaba.
Málaga is renowned for its cathedral which, unsurprisingly, was originally a mosque. Locals refer to it as La Manquita, a Spanish term meaning “one-armed woman,” because of its single tower. Original plans had called for two towers, one at either end of the structure, but lack of funding coupled with Spain’s increasing interest in the Americas, left it with just one.
Modern Málaga also offers a host of treats for the traveler. In homage to one of the city’s most celebrated natives, there is a museum dedicated to the life and works of Pablo Picasso. And the Málaga coastline provides a beautiful backdrop for a relaxing lunch: fresh sardines and a glass of Rosado, anyone? Mountains loom just to the north, showcasing a dramatically different landscape from the blue-green Mediterranean. It’s all good.
So, while Stage 1 may not deliver a ton of thrills from the peloton, focus on the enchantments of Lady Málaga and pour yourself a glass of wine from the region.
Which Wines to Drink
Winemaking in Málaga dates to the time of the Phoenicians, who exported their products as early as 1100 BC. Because of the hot climate, most wines made in Andalucía, along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, have been sweet and fortified but, over the past 20 years, a few winemakers have successfully produced dry table wines from the cooler spots. Sweet wines are typically based on the Muscat (aka Moscatel) or Pedro Ximénez grapes and are labeled as D.O. Málaga.
In 2001 D.O. Sierras de Málaga was created as a subzone of D.O. Málaga, to distinguish dry, unfortified wines from the sweet, fortified wines traditionally made in the region. Vintners have the advantage of growing their vines at altitudes above 2,000 feet, where coastal breezes take the edge off the hot climate and there is a larger diurnal shift in temperature. Plantings include native Spanish grapes like Tempranillo, Romé, and Macabeo, as well as international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Muscat, while not originally from Spain, thrives in its hot climate and has been a mainstay of traditional winemaking in Andalucía.
Not long ago I sampled a delicious dry Muscat from famed importer Jorge Ordoñez. It brings together the best of both Málaga worlds: it’s based on Muscat, traditionally used to make sweet wines in the region, but is made in a dry style. I highly recommend trying it!
2012 Jorge Ordoñez Botani Dry Muscat (14% abv; $9 on Last Bottle)
Color: Pale lemon, even lighter at the rim.
Nose: Pronounced aromas of orange flower, sweet grapes, and clementine rise from the glass with nary a swirl. This wine smells like a warm, sunny day.
Palate: Dry, with citrus notes (lime, orange) mingling with ripe stone fruit (white peach). Acidity is medium, as is the body. There is a saline/wet rocks note at the back of the palate, which leads to the dry finish that lingers with more orange blossom.
Enjoy the sights and scenes of Málaga. Stage 2 keeps us in Andalucia but adds a few hills to the mix. In the meantime, Viva la Vuelta!