A Brief History
The coast of Andalucia has always been a magnet for seafarers, explorers, colonists and conquerors, and each group have left a little of their culture behind.
Although the exact origins are unknown, it was probably the Greeks who introduced wine making to the area 2500 years ago. By Roman times Malaga wines were big business. Empires came and went. Romans and Visigoths, Moors and Christians, but very little disturbed the steady commerce of wine making.
During the 16th century England discovered the pleasures of drinking Sherry and the great bodegas of Jerez were founded. Wines from Andalucia were exported throughout Europe.
For almost 2000 years the winegrowers of the area led a charmed life (except for the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians sweeping through the region in bloody rampages at regular intervals). Then during the 19th century disaster struck. First the grapes were stricken by fungus and the crop failed. Then, as the vineyards began to recover, Phylloxera, a type of American root louse, devasted the area wiping out thousands of acres of grapes. Although this happened more than a hundred years ago it is still referred to by farmers as 'the plague'.
Twenty years later the fields were replanted with louse resistant stock but many areas never did completely recover. Other Spanish wines like Riojas and Tempranillos which are lighter, drier and lower in alcohol now grace our tables.
Vineyards in Crisis
Farmers have invested small fortunes in improving production and irrigating the land but per capita consumption of local wines has dropped almost 30% in the last 12 years. Although still popular in bars and at home, the increased production and fall in sales has led to a glut on the market causing a drop of 50% in the price of grapes and financial problems for many farmers.
The Denominacion de Origen label guarantees the origins and quality of wine, similar to Champagne and Port. But places such as California and Australia make wine and put a Vino de Malaga label on it. U.S. winegrowers consider the names 'Sherry' and 'Malaga' to be semi-generic and there is currently no legislation in place to prevent them exporting wines under these labels.
Drying the Grapes
Historically, the Malagenean owners of vineyards have separated part of their crops to make raisins. The grapes are laid on paseros (raisin dryers) next to the farm houses. Paseros built in the form of rectangular white sloping platforms can be seen throughout Axarquia.
In 1880 the French pharmaceutical researcher Husson wrote that only in Axarquia could real raisins be produced - 'raisins require those beautiful skies to dry by the burning sun'.
The 18th and 19th centuries were the most commercially successful period. In only two decades of the 19th century, over 200 million kilos of raisins were exported to the rest of the world. Decorated boxes were regularly requested from popes, emperors and kings.
Then, the muscatel raisin met an important competitor in currants grown in Corinth, Greece. Currants however, are smaller, pitless and darker than the sweet Axarquean raisin.
A new breed of wine growers are emerging in Axarquia. Combining years of family experience working the land and often with degrees in agriculture, there is now a trend toward organic growing.
With support from the Junta, families are experimenting with different rootstocks. Merlots, Chardonnays, Cabernets and Champagne - twenty varieties in all - are being tried. Although constantly tested for sugar content, this is not a problem in Axarquia. It is one of the few regions in Europe that has no need to add suger to their wines.