Stage 4: Estepona to Vejer de la Frontera

Ronda Gorge 2 LW
Ronda Bridge

DO Málaga

Tuesday’s ride is the longest of the Vuelta, at just over 200 kms.  While predominantly flat with a sprint stage in the middle, there is a tricky ascent to the finish line at Vejer de la Frontera, another of Andalucía’s stunning “white towns.”  Vejer, like all of the sparkling white villages that speckle the coastal ridges, has killer views of the Mediterranean (and, in this case, the Straits of Gibraltar), a vacationer’s dream.  While we wax poetic about spending a few weeks in this made-to-order seaside paradise, it’s hard to remember that the raison d’être for these towns was first-line defense against invaders.  If you’ve noticed, quite a few of the “white towns” have the words “de la frontera” appended to their names – literally “on the frontier.”  Arcos de la Frontera, Jerez de la Frontera, and many more were deceptively beautiful lookout points critical to the region’s security and independence.

For today’s wine recommendation, I’m going to retrace my steps and talk about the positive changes happening in the Málaga region. Whereas traditional winemaking here has focused on fortified wine more similar to Port and Sherry than dry table wine, there are some encouraging shifts taking place, not least of which is a real effort to produce dry red wines of quality.  Winemakers are also experimenting with using less fortification in the sweet wines, and creating a lighter, drier style of white wine made from Muscat of Alexandria.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the Denominación de Origen (DO) is divided into three sub-regions:  DO Málaga for sweet and fortified wine production; DO Sierras de Málaga for still wines, especially red table wineñ and DO Pasas de Málaga, for the production of raisins (areas too hot for wine grapes.)

The production of red wines is of particular interest because, in 1980, there were no red grapes planted anywhere in Málaga!  Luckily that has changed, as local winemakers follow the lead of their brethren in the Douro in Portugal, who dramatically shifted the narrative about Portuguese wines from a singular style that was sweet and fortified to a larger profile that also included dry red wines.  Their success is evident in the number of Portuguese wines that now line the shelves of American wine shops.  Will the Spaniards have such luck?  With a long growing season and high daytime temperatures, the challenge is daunting, but not impossible.

Thanks to research conducted by the Andalucían government, several red grapes were identified as potential matches for the soil, climate and terrain of Southern Spain.  In addition to the indigenous grapes Tintilla de Rota and Romé, vignerons have had notable success with international varieties such as Syrah and Petit Verdot, both of which do well in the Sierras de Málaga region around Ronda.  Shining examples of these “new” wines are made by Bodegas Melonera and Bodegas Bentomiz, among others.  Again, they may be tough to find here in the states.  But let’s toast to the daring winemakers who are challenging what it means to make wine in Málaga by sampling what their counterparts in the Douro have accomplished.  Most wine shops have at least a small section devoted to dry Portuguese wines.  Take a look around your favorite local establishment and try one.  It will likely be made from Touriga Nacional, a grape with a major role in Port production that has now taken a starring role in the burgeoning dry red wine revolution.  Who knows, perhaps in a few years we will find the new red wines from Sierras de Málaga on the shelf right next to them.

(For any of you who would like to read more about the evolution of Málaga wine, there is a great article on entitled Málaga Beyond the Beaches by Ferran Centelles.  He delves into the nitty-gritty of the region and includes detailed tasting notes, to boot!)