Getting stuck behind a small van on a single-lane mountain road in Spain is a bit like getting caught behind an old person in the supermarket. I’d promised José Losantos of Bodega “Doña Felisa” that I would join him on a tour of his vineyard near Ronda, Malaga at 12pm sharp (it was 11.50), and coming round the mountain at a leisurely shuffle was making me late.
I should have known that being on Spanish time is relative (I’ve been coming here since I was a cute brunette in armbands). Despite being an hour late, José greeted us with a huge smile and led us towards the orderly green rows stretching across the horizon. Phew.
The Costa del Sol’s reputation precedes it, most recently as holiday location of The Only Way is Essex cast (no carbs before marbs). There’s no point denying its flaws (the once-retro, currently-shabby beachfront of Marbella; coach loads of curry loving English tourists in Fuengirola; the more-money-than-taste mentality of Porto Banus), but there is much to recommend it: mild climate, hidden beaches and great food. We were staying in the tiny mountain village of Monda (20km inland from Marbella), a sleepy arrangement of narrow back streets, a church-framed plaza, panaderia and tapas bars. We have one plan for the four-day trip, to do some of the things most tourists don’t on this coast, this included visiting a winery.
As we walk between the vines, José tells us that winemaking in Malaga is relatively new (he’s only been producing wine for 10 years). Here they grow three types of grape, Cabernet, Merlot and Tempranillo and the entire process, from picking to bottling is done on site. Knowing nothing about wine (I tend to pick wine based on supermarket deals), when José tells us they lost 20%of their grapes that year due to the heat, I have no idea if this is normal and feel quite upset for him. I’m also interested to know that lack of rainfall dries the grapes, upping the alcohol content of this year’s harvest (no rain in Spain will get you pissed, evidently).
We see the factory, where the picked grapes are stored for 24 hours in a refrigerated room, sorted by machine (separating the leaves, debris and too-dry grapes), crushed, blended and pumped into huge steel vats. We’re then led down to the cool cellar to stare at barrel upon barrel of maturing wine (220 barrels are used each year, younger wines left for 8 months, the more mature for 12-14 months). José opens a Cabernet made in November 2010, and we take turns sniffing. The smell of oak and wine is heady and sweet. After a quick peek at the bottled wine store, it’s upstairs for the tasting (the bit I’ve been waiting for).
We start with a year old rosé (100% Tempranillo). I copy José, swirling the wine around my glass, smelling deeply before letting the wine hit the back of my tongue. All I can taste is vinegar. Next, a year-old 10% Cabernet and 90% Merlot blend which is dry and tastes strongly of alcohol at first, but gives way to something more interesting; after José points out notes of toast and pepper, amazingly I can taste them. The final two, the Seis & Seis (60% Tempranillo and 40% Syrah) and a Merlot/Cabernet blend, we taste in tandem. The Seis & Seis, aged for 9 months in French oak, is smoother and darker than the younger wines with more tannin; José explains that tannin, a naturally occurring compound found in grape skins, essentially means that the wine is stronger in taste. The other has been aged for 12 months which I can immediately taste and start scribbling furiously in my notebook (‘summery’, ‘fruity’, ‘grapefruit’, ‘hint of cloves’, ‘complex’) between sips. José tells us to try the Seis & Seis again which, with the remains of the fruity second wine on my tongue, tastes completely different. Now – without José even guiding me – I discern coffee and oak. For someone who uses wine mostly as a tool for binge drinking, this is miraculous. I’m tasting wine like a proper grownup.
On the road back to Monda, I am on a grape high and marvelling over all that my simple, uneducated brain has learnt, ‘Can you believe about the tannin?!!’ I exclaim to my poor (driving) boyfriend, ‘Isn’t it amazing that sipping wine has a totally different flavour from pouring it down your throat!’ I shout. Thus enthralled, I fail to notice the vehicle a few meters in front of us, a small van ambling along. ‘Oh well!’ I say, ‘We’re on holiday, it’s not like we’re in a rush.’
Contributing Writer: Lucy Self