Spanish Muscatel Sweet Wine
The importance of family closeness is one of the many things I admire and adore about the Spanish culture. While I have a close family back home, we span nearly the entire west coast and southern states making it difficult to spend a lot of time together. Family tradition and quality time doesn’t run short in Spain. As a teacher, I absolutely love seeing aunts, uncles, and even grandparents taking on the role as “parent” in children’s lives—picking them up from school, attending events, and caring for them after school. The old saying “it takes a village to raise a child” in Spain really refers to a “family village” to raise kids here. Family tradition and time spent together often spill over into professional lives, too, often seen especially in agricultural trades such as vineyards or “bodegas,” in Spanish. While there are only about 16 official wineries in the Malaga area, they are booming with business—many promoting eco-friendly, organic wines, warming my Oregonian heart.
Spanish sweet wine umbrellas those varieties of Sherry, Muscatels, and sweet red wines. I’m not going to pretend I am a wine expert, but I will say that from my experience, Spanish sweet wines are fruity, florally, and have notes of honey flavors. While I don’t normally crave dessert wine, I have to say that Malaga’s Muscatel sweet wine has won me over—especially well enjoyed during warm months and served chilled on my terrace. They pair well with pate, cheeses, and desserts or just chilled as an afternoon treat. Spanish sweet wines are mostly derived from the Muscatel grape and its history is traced back to ship trading routes around the Mediterranean.
Muscatel grape plants are mostly found on the eastern and southern coasts of Spain and while its origins are based in Italy or perhaps Greece, Spaniards have been happily sipping this wine for centuries. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon at a family-run vineyard in the Axarquia region to learn more about Spanish sweet wines, especially Malaga’s famous Muscatel.
This picturesque vineyard has been in the family for over 50 years and daughter, Maria, was kind enough to walk us around the property located near the town of Competa on the Southern coast of Malaga. One thing you’ll notice about the vineyard is that its quite hilly! The hills the grapes grow on in this area are steep, making the picking process difficult. In fact, they are so steep that machinery cannot be used to help the farmers pick! Instead, they turn to the proven, traditional method: donkeys! Using donkeys with large baskets, the farmers still handpick grapes as they’ve done for hundreds of years.
There are a few varieties of grapes that the family grows to produce sweet wines, roses, and reds. To make sweet wine, they collect grapes and sun-dry them in flat areas, turning them every now and then for about two weeks. The sugars inside the fruit become very concentrated—making the end result wine strong and sweet! In order to have this concentrated sweetness, you need nearly three times the amount of grapes as a regular wine to make it! Malaga’s muscatel sweet wine is made from raisins, or “pasas” in Spanish; the grapes are dried enough to be either consumed as raisins or to be pressed into sweet wine. As seen in the photographs, the dried grapes are then cleaned, dried, and layered between all natural basket pieces. Using a large weight, they are pressed, extracting the liquid inside. Later this sweet and strong liquid is used to make the wine! This vineyard doesn’t use any chemicals in any process of producing wine; the flavors yielded are fresh, organic and simply delicious.
As mentioned before, instead of pressing raisins to make Muscatel wine, often times families would consume the fruit as raisins, not wine. Raisins became important in Andalusia because they are easy and inexpensive to produce—the grapes not used for wine were for raisins—and even at some times in history raisins were more profitable than wine! Furthermore, raisin cultivation was something the women could do while taking care of the home and farm while the men were out picking grapes and tending the land away from the house. As beautifully displayed on the properties barrel room, you’ll see the wooden containers used to serve the raisins. Many traditional Spanish homes served raisins on these trays on a regular basis for guests and family members alike. Also note the white trimmed plots of land on the property– this is where they transfer the grapes to dry in the sun to become raisins. This drying process takes just a couple weeks, turning them occasionally.
The family would enjoy fresh raisins, often with an overflow to share with friends and neighbors, or even make a profit! Andalucian raisins are sweet and delicious- its very easy to taste that they haven’t been sitting on a shelf for years! You can find them in fruiterias or purchase them at wineries. The winery also sells a variety of delicious local products produced in the area including honey, oregano, tobacco, and marmalade made from Andalucian fruits. The sense of community and family producing and selling these local products make them all the more attractive- its great to know where your food comes from!
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In short, I think the bodegas and local farms dotting the southern coast of Andalusia represent more than just wine—they represent the family tradition that is so very rooted here in Spain. The pride and tradition of keeping family farms in the name help produce some of them most organic and well-attended vineyards you’ve ever seen. Come join us for a sunny afternoon of wine tasting and touring around some of the most beautiful countryside Andalucia has to offer!