Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fondillón: an official European luxury

Fondillón is an odd sort of wine. For a start it's a red wine yet its colour in the glass is amber. It is made from overripe monastrell grapes – the grape which grows on those low, gnarled vines so typical of this area. It is made in only eleven bodegas in Alicante province mostly in Monóvar, Pinoso and Villena. In style Fondillón is similar to fortified wines like Port, Oloroso sherries or Madeira except that those are fortified with brandy whilst the 18º of alcohol in Fondillón come directly from the fermentation and ageing of the wine. These sort of oxidised sweet wines (called rancio in Spanish) were all the rage in the past: Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Defoe and Dumas all mention Fondillón and Queen Elizabeth I of England loved Alicante wine (read Fondillón) "above any other".

The wine exists primarily because of the format of ancient tenancy agreements. At one time contracts between tenants and landowners generally stipulated that whilst the original vines were still productive the tenant farmers could continue to work the land. To make the most of this the farmers left some older, lower yield, vines in place. Apart from guaranteeing land rights these plants made no economic sense and it wasn't worth employing labourers to harvest their grapes. Instead farmers would wait until the very end of the season when the family had time enough to do their own picking. The grapes were left so long on the vines that they withered like raisins, The sugar content rocketed and this was increased further by leaving the picked grapes to sun dry. This difference in the grapes is one of the reasons the wine is so distinctive.

Once picked the grapes are fermented for three to four weeks giving the wine a deep red colour. The wine is then transferred into big barrels traditionally made from Monóvar oak.  The description of the various methods vary from source to source, from bodega to bodega and with changes in techniques over the years. Basically though there are two processes. One is a variation on the solera process used to make sherry where new wine is added to old in the same barrel. In Alicante it's usual to draw off about a third of the wine every year, or two, for bottling. This wine comes from the bottom of the barrel. The Spanish word for bottom or depths is fondo and the name Fondillón derives from this method. It's a process which serves to maintain the same taste without variation from vintage to vintage. Other bodegas simply put the new wine from one year into barrels and leave it to age. By the time Fondillón wine leaves the bodega it will be at least ten years old and most is at least twice that age. This is not a wine for the impatient.

Fondillón nearly died out in Alicante.  A plague of insects called phylloxera devastated European wine production around the turn of the 20th Century. It hit France first leaving new markets open to Spanish wines. The Spanish wine growers grabbed their opportunity and produced wine as quickly as they could. Given the circumstances, the low yield Fondillón vines made no economic sense at all. Fondillón production collapsed, Then, as the rest of Europe began to recover, phylloxera hit the Spanish vineyards and reduced production to a trickle. Fondillón disappeared. It was nothing more than a personal whim during a chance conversation in an unscheduled meeting between two businessmen that led to the re-establishment of a very small scale production of the wine in Monóvar and later in other places like our own village of Culebrón.

So if you fancy supporting a world class wine with a local history you know what to pour into your glass this evening. But don't expect it to be cheap.

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