When Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe made it known that he was heading up to the Sierra de Ronda to make wine, all of us in Marbella thought he had lost his marbles. In spite of being recognised as a versatile businessman who had turned his hand, admittedly with mixed results, to a number of projects, this was a new one. What did our beloved and charismatic Alfonso know about grapes and vineyards and all that?
The Marbella Club had passed out of his ownership and the assumption was that Alfonso now had enough money to do whatever he wanted. Retirement was not an option, so his thoughts apparently turned to the Cortijo de la Monjas finca that he had owned for many years near Ronda. The property, set in a natural valley among rolling hills, was a delightful place even without vineyards, but his friend, the gentleman oenologist Marqués de Griñon, saw other possibilities.
Flying-winemaker Michel Rolland also became involved and 80,000 French vines were planted. The resulting wines from 1992 on were passable, and mainly bought by wine snobs, although the rosado did win a minor award. Matters improved when Juan María Vetas, now with his own bodega, came to Ronda from Bordeaux and took over. But, as tends to happen in any business, Alfonso’s was sold to a multinational company and the distinctive label disappeared.
Up in them there hills at between 750 and 1,000 metres altitude, you can expect to find mostly Shiraz/Syrah, Petit-Verdot, Tempranillo and Cabernet-Sauvignon grape varieties, and occasionally the local Romé. At the outset many people thought Ronda wines were overpriced, and restaurants on the Coast refused to list them for that reason. Prices have now come down to a more reasonable level.
Celebrated English wine writer John Radford (RIP) once wrote ‘the dream has taken hold’, referring to the Ronda wine industry and its huge potential. Similarly, at a wine conference a few years ago, Jancis Robinson sat with some of the world’s best winemakers, including American Paul Draper and Spain’s enfant terrible Alvaro Palacios, to spread the same message.
Wine had been made in the Sierra de Ronda since the beginning of time, and in spite of its artisan nature the activity gave work to people who otherwise would have had to scratch a living from subsistence farming. Unfortunately the phylloxera bug devastated Ronda’s vineyards in the 19th century and the region was put out of the wine business for the foreseeable future. It is now very much back in action, all happening in the last couple of decades.
There is a heavy non-Spanish influence in the area, with several producers being of foreign origin. German-born Federico Schatz got his wine to the market before Hohenlohe, and Swiss Conrad-Stauffer, who started in 1991, recently sold his bodega, having finally perfected wines like Soleón, San Lorenzo, Cristina and Niño León.
To make wine in Ronda you need to be patient. The Cortijo los Aguilares 800-hectare finca, acquired by José Antonio Itarte, a Basque businessman, in 1999, will take years to become profitable, as he himself admits. But in the meantime ace winemaker Bibi Garcia continues to win international awards for the Pinot Noir. The other wines, such as Tadeo and Pago del Espino, are far above average for the region. Currently only a few hectares are under vines but plans are afoot for expansion and also a white variety to add to the already existing Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah,
There are four Cortijo los Aguilares reds and a rosado, all very good indeed. The regular vino tinto (2015) is the wine of the year as they say, made with Tempranillo, Syrah and Merlot. Good value at €11 euros (all prices ex-bodega, though you will find these wines at most major outlets, since they are certainly among the best and most representative of the Ronda region.) The rosado is equally good and the same price.
The Pago El Espino (2014), a blend of Petit Verdot, Tempranillo and Syrah, is about as typical a Ronda wine as you can get. Not exactly a snip at €19, but very full and flavoursome.
The Tadeo 2013 has sold out but the new 2014 vintage is to be released soon. This Pinot Noir is many aficionado’s favourite wine from the bodega; limited production and hand-numbered bottles: €30.
Which brings us finally to the star of the bodega, the Pinot Noir (2015), though by the time you read this all will be gone. Bodega owner Jose Antonio Itarte is a lover of great burgundies, so wanted to produce a notable Pinot Noir – and he has succeeded. The winery oenologist, Bibi Garcia, although having worked on two continents, had never made a Pinot Noir until 2004, when the first Aguilares one appeared on the market. It is highly unusual for a Pinot Noir, a difficult grape variety and very delicate to be produced successfully at such a high altitude where the winters can be harsh. But Bibi did it, not once, but three times, which is the number of top awards the wine won in consecutive years at the Mundial de Pinot Noir at Sierre, Switzerland. The Gold Medal was the prize as the top choice out of more than 1,100 wines from 25 countries, blind-tasted by an expert jury.
By AJ Linn