Nacho Sánchez lives by the beach in Malaga, a region with a strong wine tradition and some of the most interesting Spanish wines. As a journalist, he has worked in a variety of media with a focus on wine and local cuisine.
It is seven o’clock in the morning and the harvest team is already at the finca. Summer is at its peak but so are the grapes. This is where one of the first harvest seasons in Europe takes place, at the same time as the Canary Islands and Montilla-Moriles in Córdoba, which is in Southern Spain. The vineyards are not at all easy to reach. They grow on a hillside with slopes of almost 50 degrees. This steep grade in the middle of the countryside allows the vines to be nourished by more sunshine, but also makes the harvest difficult. This is why several mules can be seen standing next to the team of harvesters. This trustworthy animal is an essential part of the harvest season in many areas of the Axarquía in Málaga (Spain). It’s the only way to transport the grape-filled crates to an area accessible for motor vehicles. That’s why its traditional name is vendimia extrema (extreme harvesting) or vendimia heroica (heroic harvesting).
The remarkable scene is not unique however, and can be seen throughout the region in little white washed villages such as Moclinejo, Almáchar, El Borge, Cútar, Cómpeta or Iznate. Harvesting with the help of mules in the Axarquía region has much to do with the complex orography of the area. It is a place where small mountains pile up one on top of another creating very high slopes. Vines grow on them with plenty of sunlight and an especially mild climate all year round, with hardly any rain. The land, which is at an altitude of between 1300 and 3000 feet, has shallow decomposed slate soils that allow the grapevines to grow long roots and cling tightly to the ground. As a result, the grapes from this region are greatly valued and praised by the entire world. In fact, the area’s main varietal is the Muscat of Alexandria, which is a large-berry variety and very aromatic; very different from theMoscatel morisca (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) grown in other areas of Málaga. It is a grape that allows for the production of wines rich in sugar, with aromas reminiscent of honey, citrus blossoms and fresh, sweet grapes. The Axarquía is also known for its Romé grape variety, which is a red grape native to the area with has a hint of saltiness due to it growing so near to the sea. The vineyards make up a total of 540,000 acres (65 % of the province of Málaga), and produce around two million pounds of grapes each year.
The scenic roads that run through these mountains are surrounded by almond trees, but also by subtropical crops such as avocados and mangos that were planted in the late 1970s. The roads are a series of tight curves that leave you no option but to drive slowly and enjoy the views, stopping every now and then to get to know the region’s tiny villages. Moclinejo is one of them. This small village is the home of the Antonio Muñoz Cabrera winery known as Dimobe (http://www.dimobe.es). The winery opened its doors almost a century ago in 1927. In fact, it has a small museum were visitors can learn all about its history and take trip to the past when wine was made using traditional methods. There are also barrels dating back to the end of the 19th century, where wines are matured for up to 40 years.
This winery has a tradition of producing sweet Muscat wines with a reputation of great quality, but just over a decade ago the managers decided to launch a line of still wines: whites, rosés and reds which they sell under the Lagar de Cabrera brand name and which are achieving great results. They use almost 100 acres of land, of which only five belong to the winery: the rest belongs to local wine growers who sell them the grapes at twice the price of the local cooperative. This is a way of ensuring the quality of the vines, which are supervised at all times by the winery. A total of 90,000 bottles are produced a year and, just recently, they began making a sparkling muscat wine which is the first in Málaga to have two fermentations and will be available around Christmas of 2016.
From Moclinejo, a 40-minute drive will take you to the most mountainous area of the Axarquía, right at the feet of La Maroma, which is the highest mountain in the province at over 6500 feet. In this magnificent countryside you will find villages such as Sayalonga, were the main industry is loquats but it also has plenty of vineyards. It is here that you will find the Bentomiz winery (http://www.bodegasbentomiz.com/index.php?lang=en). Its owners, a Dutch husband and wife team Clara Verheij and André Both, started the winery in 2005 after having lived in the area for around 10 years. The beautiful building, built by André himself, is were the Ariyanas wines are made. They include dry white, red, sweet red and white wines as well as a rosé made from the native Romé grapes. Their wines are very highly regarded, so much so that they can be found in many Michelin star restaurants such as the Celler de Can Roca (considered the second best restaurant in the world after being named the first best in 2013 and 2015), Arzak and SantCeloni in Spain, as well as in five other restaurants in Great Britain, five in the Netherlands and Holland, as well in the Blanca restaurant in the USA which has two Michelin stars. The winery receives visits and also organises frequent wine tasting events and other activities including dinners and concerts. In fact, the winery opened its own kitchen just over a year ago where they offer a creative menu with the help of Chef Juan Quintanilla who runs the Sollum restaurant located in the seaside town of Nerja.
Very nearby is the Sedella winery (http://www.sedellavinos.com/), located in the town of the same name. This winery can also be visited and is the personal project of enologist Lauren Rosillo, who works in different wineries throughout Spain. Here is where he makes two very special red wines. Sedella, matured in used French oak barrels for 12 or 18 months and Laderas de Sedella, a younger wine that spends a year in clay and cement amphoras. With just two hectares of vineyards (some have reached the old age of 75 years) and a production of between 6,000 and 8,000 bottles a year, this winery is one of the most interesting in Málaga. Its two wines sell out in just a couple of months each year to seven countries. It is an intriguing project by this enologist. He also organises visits and wine tasting events as long as you book in advance. This is a great opportunity to also visit the nearby village of Salares, one of the smallest in Málaga with just 200 inhabitants, and where you can see a beautiful Arabic minaret and a Roman bridge, vestiges of the different cultures that passed through during Axarquía’s long history.
The climate, the quality of the Muscat grapes and harvesting by hand are the key elements that make Axarquía wines the most sought after wines in much of the world. One of the most interesting wineries, and one that exports the most, is Jorge Ordóñez (http://www.jorgeordonez.es/index/?lang=en). This young company began in 2004. Right from the start, they aimed to produce excellent quality wines focusing on the market outside of Spain. Their average production is 150,000 bottles a year and nearly 85 % is exported to Northern Europe, the United States, China, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong among other countries. The wines come from their own vineyards, but fundamentally they buy grapes from other vine growers in the Axarquía, who are the essence of these wines. The most internationally known wine is Botani, an excellent Muscat which can also be found in different varieties: Botani Garnacha (the first red wine made from 100 percent grenache grape to have the Sierras de Málaga D.O), Botani Espumoso (sparkling wine) and the very recent Botani Muscat, which is perfect as an aperitif or after a meal. The winery also offers some very special wines such as their Nº 1 Selección Especial, a specially selected sweet muscat wine of which only 12,000 bottles are made each year, or their Nº 2 Victoria, another sweet muscat that was awarded 95 points on Robert Parker’s prestigious list. It is also the only Spanish wine to have been served at the Nobel Prize celebration banquet in Stockholm in 2012. The Jorge Ordóñez winery can be visited, as can their vineyards, and you can take part in wine tasting events.
Almáchar is the village were the Jorge Ordóñez winery was born. It is a lovely village with less than 2,000 inhabitants and a clearly Arabic street layout, just like the other towns in the area. In Almáchar, and in its neighbouring village El Borge, one of the most interesting traditions of Southern Spain takes places after the harvest. That is the drying of the grapes to turn them into raisins. Towards the end of August and beginning of September, depending on the weather, the women from these villages sit on their doorsteps or on wicker chairs and, patiently, pick the raisins from the bunches of grapes one by one, making sure that they keep the part of the stem attached to preserve the fruit. The work is called picada, and it is one which requires hours of dedication because this is the village that uses more hectares for growing raisins that any other in Spain. The residents still do this the old way: with the sun as the only additive during the three weeks of cochura (drying), plantás (distributing on the floor) and turning on the paseros (mats used for drying) which are built on a sloping framework which completely suits the landscape in this area of the Axarquía. This is how the raisins with their own Denomination of Origin are obtained.
And it is how the Axarquía becomes a beautiful place to discover some unique wines from a very special place in the South of Spain. It is a place with a unique landscape, amazing villages and little family-run wineries where visitors are attended to with the utmost care. These small wineries are well worth a visit to understand and appreciate the aroma of the Axarquía region and one of its best kept secrets: its wines.
BOOKING A WINERY VISIT
Most of the wineries in the Axarquía receive visitors and organise wine tasting events, however it it generally necessary to book beforehand via email or telephone. The main wineries in the region are:
Bodegas Jorge Ordoñez
Telephone: 0034 952 504 706
Telephone: 0034 952 115 939 / 0034 658 845 285
Telephone: 0034 952 400 594
Telephone: 0034 687 463 082
Telephone: 0034 952 553 285
PLACES TO STAY
El Acebuchal is a tiny village that was abandoned in the 1930s, but has recently been restored with extreme care.
Aldea el Acebuchal
Tel: 0034 650 617 901
An intriguing hotel with snail-shaped rooms. The views of the pretty Frigiliana village are spectacular with the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop.
Ctra. Frigiliana-Torrox Km 4,5
Tel: 0034 952 030 680 / 0034 616 779 339
A small rural hotel in the town center of El Borge, one of the most beautiful villages in the Axarquía.
Calle Cristo, 1 · El Borge
Tel: 0034 952 512 127 / 0034 646 898 206
Lovely hotel located in the historic center of the town of Benamocarra.
Calle Grupo Cerro · Benamocarra
Tel: 0034 952 03 77 16
Beautiful hotel located in the middle of the countryside and very near the lovely village of Macharaviaya.
Carretera de Macharaviaya, kilómetro 3
Tel: 0034 952 40 09 49
Lovely hotel just outside the town of La Viñuela and the La Viñuela reservoir.
Ctra. de Vélez-Málaga – Alhama · La Viñuela
Tel: 0034 952 51 91 93 / 0034 676 488 144
WHERE TO EAT
Located in the El Acebuchal village, every meal on the menu is homemade. They also offer home-brewed beers and a wide range of La Axarquía wines.
Aldea el Acebuchal
Tel: 0034 666 790 895
Traditional village restaurant in the Axarquía, specialities include Argentinian cuts of meat. Try the daily menu for some delicious local dishes.
Ctra. Corumbela S/N · Árchez
Tel: 0034 678 618 119
Apart from offering a rural lodging, they also have an interesting restaurant where you can taste the local gastronomy and buy wines and olive oils from the area.
Calle Cristo, 1 · El Borge
Tel: 0034 +34 952 512 127 / 0034 646 898 206
$ BAR MIGUEL
Traditional delicious food served as meals or tapas. Taste their callos (tripe stew), lamb stew and steaks with muscat wine sauce.
Plaza de España, 6 · Almáchar
Tel: 0034 952 51 23 52
WHEN TO VISIT
The Axarquía region has many activities, interesting routes and places to visit year round. That said, for wine lovers, the best month to visit is September. This is when the harvest takes place and it isn’t as hot as in summer but the days are still warm enough to go the East Costa del Sol beaches, which are not far away. These beaches are, of course, the perfect place to be when the summer heat is scorching. The temperatures in winter are mild, although sometimes it snows on the La Maroma peak, and in spring the region turns green and fills with flowers making it ideal for hiking around the area.
THINGS TO DO IN LA AXARQUÍA
During the summer months many interesting tourism fiestas are celebrated in different Axarquía villages. These festivities include the celebration of a product in particular, which is free to taste for the thousands of visitors who come to see the event. The gazpacho fiesta in Alfarnatejo, the Muscat grape fiesta in Iznate, or the the ajoblanco (cold soup made with olive oil, garlic and almonds) fiesta in Almáchar are some of the main festivities, although the most important one is the Noche del Vino in Cómpeta where in the middle of August visitors can learn all about their traditional muscat wine making methods and, of course, taste them all. In El Borge the Día de la Pasa (day of the raisin) is also celebrated and tons of the fruit are given away freely to all visitors.
The Axarquía region has a large coastal area bathed by the Mediterranean Sea. Towns such as Torre del Mar or Torrox have ample beaches, although the nicest ones are in Nerja and in the village of Maro: a place full of cliffs where one can find beaches with the most turquoise and crystal waters of the entire province of Málaga.
There is only one motorway that runs from east to west along the coast of this regions, the rest of La Axarquía can only be seen by entering little roads full of curves. But this is far from a problem, it is an amazing way to get to know the area for the visitor: there is hardly any traffic and there are plenty of surprises at every corner. There are small villages with 200 inhabitants such as Salares and Sedella, which are outstanding jewels of Arabic town planning and still have buildings from that period; but there are also towns with 5,000 inhabitants like Cómpeta or Frigiliana, where large colonies of foreigners live and which are interesting examples of a mixture of traditions with a cosmopolitan flair. The best thing to do is drive around with no clear destination and explore the narrow streets.
The Sierras de Tejada, Almijara and Alhama Natural Park include many of the Axarquía villages resulting in numerous hiking routes to explore the area. One of these routes is the Gran Senda de Málaga, which goes through different villages, but others which take you right up to mountain passes such as La Maroma, El Lucero or El Pico del Cielo are spectacular. This is the perfect way to get to know the flora and fauna of this Natural Park, find mountains goats that live there and enjoy the fresh air and the best views of La Axarquía.
The best way to travel to La Axarquía is to fly to Málaga and, from there, travel to the area which is just half an hour away from the airport. There is no direct bus or train from there, so the best option is to rent a car. This is without a doubt the best idea because it is also the only way that you will be able to enjoy the different villages and get to their wineries. The buses between each village are few and far between and connections are not great. The capital of the region is Vélez-Málaga, which is just 25 minutes from Málaga.