- The steep slopes of the coastal valley, La Axarquía, offers us a grape harvest tradition that has changed little in last few centuries.
- The Muscat grapes of La Axarquía are picked by hand and transported with the help of mules.
- It is calculated that the harvest will amount to about 500 tons compared to the 375 last year.
The vineyards in La Axarquía are those furthest south on the continent of Europe in the zone of the Denominación de origin (appelation), D.O. de Málaga and D.O. Sierras de Málaga (Mountains of Malaga) famous internationally for their moscateles dulces (sweet muscats). The varietal is unique and very aromatic due to the membrane surround the seeds. The variety originated in Egypt and possibly brought by the Phoenician some 2,700 year ago. Sweet wines dominate, which during the 18th and 19th centuries was the rage of Paris and London and was tax exempt in Russia under Catherine II. Recently however, a new wine, the dry fruity Muscat wine has been produced here in the valley by at least 4 different wineries during the last decade, and is also
The grape harvest is organized according the maturity of the grapes from the different plots, usually owned by different families and family members of the above named communities. The ripeness of the grapes depends on the altitude and directional positioning on the slopes. The harvest begins early in the morning to take advantage of the cool freshness, often after warm balmy nights. As is the custom in Andalusia, work breaks for the large meal of the day at about 2 p.m., then there is an hour or so to rest, siesta, to wait out the heat of the day, after which family members, friend and hired workers return to the slopes to work until just before dark. This work routine will normally extends until all the grapes are picked around the middle of September.
Traditionally, the grapes, which are rather large and high in sugar content, are dried to produce raisins, winter delicacies here and abroad. After harvesting, the grapes are taken to specially arranged beds of rock or gravel facing south to maximize the drying effect of the sun. They are evenly placed, spread over the area by hand, and later, every couple of days, they are turned over, again by hand, in order for them to dry evenly. After about 2 weeks, when dried, the raisins are later taken to farmhouses to be cut by family, neighbors and friends. Each individual raisin is cut from the cluster leaving a small part of the stem intact. This is necessary to prevent them from rotting. The high sugar content preserves the raisin for at least a year if stored in a dry, relatively cool place. They are traditionally packed in flat boxes to prevent any of them from being too pressed in the middle, increasing storage life.
Bodegas Jorge Ordóñez was established in 2004 in Álmachar. The director Victoria Ordóñez says that in the beginning it took quite a bit of effort to the get producers to sell them grapes, growers saying that the grapes are too good to make wine out of them, finally convincing these producers that the winery was producing an excellent and unique dry Muscat of D.O. de Sierras de Málaga. This wine is called Botani and is mostly exported to the US and elsewhere, driving up the price to 12€ a bottle. Bodegas Almijara in Cómpeta produce their Jarel, moscatel seco y afrutado, which is a very nice wine that sells for 8€. Dimobe in Moclinejo produces a slightly inferior dry muscat for 6€. However, the best priced wine of this type is from Bodegas Cortijo de Fuente just north of La Axarquía in Mollina. Their Blanco Afrutado, 100% moscatel grano menudo (not moscatel de alejandría) sells for just over 5€ a bottle.
The forecast for a better harvest this year is due to the fact that last year’s harvest was relatively low because of the attack of fungus caused by more precipitation than usual. Last year’s harvest was a disaster at 375 tons. According to agriculturalists, it is calculated that this year’s harvest should exceed 500 metric tons in La Axarquía. However, due to the mild winter and the excessive heat in August, although there are more clusters, the fruit is a bit smaller than normal, but of excellent quality. The smaller fruit can also be seen in Mollina where heat has delayed the harvest with a 30% to 40% decease in production.
As this is being written the harvest is in full swing at the end of August, grapes are now being harvested for wine, fresh consumption as table grapes as well as to be dried for raisins. Because of the deceased size of the grapes, there is a bit of uncertainty. The price is a function of the size of the harvest and the diameter of the fruit, both factors still pending, also at this time of year, heat waves are common, which is delaying harvest as in Mollina. While the prognosis is positive, it is for this reason that grape production is problematic. However, if conditions progress normally, the quality of the harvest will compensate the size of the grapes and the harvest will be commercially viable. Muscat Alexandria has the beneficial, double option of being able to produce either wine or raisins.
The problem in La Axarquía is that the vines are of an advanced age and the vineyard owners equally so, making the maintenance of vineyards and continued cultivation difficult. Experts say this is a problem in mid-course. Owners are not renewing their vineyards. They are retiring and leaving plantations to go fallow. They are not being cultivated by the younger generation because it isn’t considered to be sustainable. In La Axarquía the yield is relatively small, very difficult to work, due to the terrain, and with little economic benefit. Possibly the economic crisis may create more incentive to return to the vineyard to produce traditional as well as new wines in the future.