I have been writing about Spain and Spanish wines for Catavino, as well as my own blog, for quite a while now, and sadly this will be my last Catavino piece, but by a remarkable coincidence this week saw another last for me regarding Spanish wine.
For almost thirty years I have been a devotee of a Málaga wines, especially those made by the wonderful, if rather un-Spanish sounding Scholtz Hermanos.
If you have never tried a Málaga, then you have really missed out as it can be one of the world’s great dessert wines and deserves to be as famous as Montilla-Moriles and Sherry which are its near neighbours in Andalucia. The Victorians, who often knew a good thing when they drank it, loved Málaga, calling it Mountain, or Mountain Wine, a direct translation of Montes which is the name of the mountainous sub-region just to the north of Málaga itself. Sadly, since that nineteenth century fame it has become almost forgotten and nowadays the region is more famous for holiday homes, Larios gin and San Miguel lager.
In fact so obscure has Málaga become that some years ago, when I was staying in the region, I attempted to order some to go with my dessert, but there was none to be had. This wasn’t in any old place either, but the Parador in the town of Antequerra which is at the very heart of the Málaga grape growing area of – if you can drink the wine anywhere, surely it ought to be there.
Traditionally only two grapes varieties are grown for the sweet Málaga wines, Moscatel (Muscat) and Pedro Ximén which is, of course known as Pedro Ximénez in Sherry and Montilla – strange but true, I was once in quite a bit of trouble with a Spanish customs officer at Almeria airport (trying to take frozen calamares out of Spain if you must know) and according to his badge his name was Pedro Ximénez!
The original Montes area has very few vines left in production today, but that is where the classic unctuously ripe Pedro Ximén hails from and their sweetness and intensity define the wine’s style – which is presumably why this area gave the wine its nineteenth century name?
Today a mere handful of producers make traditional Málaga dessert wines and they do not find it easy to keep going. Scholtz Hermanos was for a long time the standard bearer for the style and region and produced wines of stunning quality, but they closed in 1996 and the site of their bodega now houses a branch of El Corté Ingles.
As far as I can make out Málaga can be made in various ways and from combinations of base materials made from the grapes. Classically the grapes are picked super-ripe and concentrated further by being put out in the sun on esparto grass mats – a common scene in the Spain of my childhood. These intensely sweet raisined grapes are then fermented, but of course they contain so much sugar that the yeast can only manage a brief fermentation. Some juice is not fermented, but reduced down to a third of its original volume into a syrup called arrope. Some arrope is reduced down even further to make an almost black vino de color. Some juice remains unfermented, but fortified with the addition of grape spirit up to 15-16%, this is called mistela.
So a winemaker can call on any of these as well as a straightforward wine made from the sun-dried grapes and fortified wine too. All these things are sort of cobbled together into a wine that is then aged in old wood casks, sometimes in a solera system and often not. The finished wine often receives an additional dollop of some ancient reserve wines, whichever way they do it. It is a complex and wonderful process, but very hard to pin down in an easy to pigeon-hole kind of way. Indeed, thinking of Málaga simply as a fortified wine, like Port and Sherry is a little misleading, the truth is a little more complex and less predictable.
Any way, the other day I was at a tasting and a Spanish dessert wine was called for, so I opened my very last bottle of what I understood to be Scholtz Hermanos’s greatest wine:
Solera 1885 Scholtz Hermanos
I cannot find anything out about this great winery as it no longer exists and when it did information was less easy to come by than today, but everything I have ever tried from them was superb and it seems they made over 30 different Málagas. I remember buying this bottle in Spain when I was 18, so I have had it for nearly thirty years. It is likely that the wine is mainly, if not all Pedro Ximén – it certainly has the figgy, raisiny, molasses nose and flavour of PX, but a certain freshness and elegance could be a pointer towards some Moscatel too, or as this was their top wine it might just not have any vino de color or very much arrope? Long ageing has made the wine perfectly integrated and it was utterly, utterly delicious with an array of cheeses, even smoked, and worked well with a rich chocolate tart too. Indeed it had a delicate chocolatey character, especially on the amazingly long finish, which showed none of its 18% alcohol, but was graceful and refined. It was also sweet without being sickly, I love rich PX wines from Montilla and Sherry, but this was lighter and fresher than those – another pointer towards not being pure PX, or just a very refined and elegant example?
If you enlarge the photograph of the bottle and study the wonderful label you will see that this wine was winning awards all over the world in the 1870s. That is because, as I understand it, the 1885 in the name is not the year the solera was laid down, but the year the Scholtz brothers bought the winery. I was once told that the solera was created right at the beginning of the bodega’s history, so something like 1807.
Fortunately for us a few producers are clinging on and continuing to make excellent Málaga in the old way:
Bodegas Larios, of gin fame, make some that are pretty good, most are Moscatel based, but their excellent Málaga Dulce is a PX and thanks to their excellent distribution network you can often find their wines in Spain.
The best of the remaining producers that I am aware of is Bodegas López Hermanos whose Pedro Ximenex Reserva de Familia is magnificent.
However this week I slowly drank my last bottle Solera 1885 Scholtz Hermanos and relished an experience that I might never be able to repeat. It was a strange feeling saying goodbye to a wine forever, thinking about the time span of this astounding bottle, remembering when I bought it and what I was doing and ruminating on all that has happened since. Democracy in Spain was young then, the Cold War was raging, no one knew what Nelson Mandela looked like, Saddam was America’s friend and I was going to be the world’s greatest actor. It felt a little like watching my own life on film, I found it moving and a little melancholy.
Much like bidding adieu to the readers of Catavino.