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Jerry Lockspeiser on some peculiar but inspiring winemaking in Mallorca

Published:  12 September, 2014

The first thing you see at the winery is a sign saying "HIPPIES USE BACK DOOR- NO EXCEPTIONS".  In the barrel room oak vats are identified by the names of rock bands - the Clash, Joy Division, Pulp and Portishead amongst them - or images of molecular structures. Outside the back door a large pile of straw bales wait to be wrapped around modern stainless steel vats, nature's insulation to keep her product cool.

This is not California but the outskirts of Felanitx in south eastern Mallorca, home of the 4 Kilos wine company. The name comes from the amount of money Francesc  Grimalt and Sergio Caballero invested to start the enterprise in 2006, 4 million pesetas in Spain's old currency. That's 24,000 euros, not much to launch a wine business.  But then nothing about these guys follows the norm.

Their first wines were fermented in milk refrigeration units in the garage of a winemaking friend.  Then an old sheep farm was converted into a small but modern winery overlooking some vineyards. Production is now 60,000 bottles a year, a tiny amount from the organically farmed 50 hectares they harvest. 

This is wine making driven by purpose not profit.  The vineyards are dotted with trees, the land between the vines left untouched. Francesc is credited with having rescued Mallorca's 'lost' variety Callet, pronounced kayet as in kayak. He describes it as being like Pinot Noir, and it certainly has elegance and light to medium weight. Along with the fickle, easy to oxidise Mantonegro, Callet is the hero variety of Mallorca's indigenous wine renaissance.   

To most people Mallorca barely registers in the list of Spanish wine regions.  An island of less than a million people, 80% of its GDP comes from the almost 10 million annual tourists. The Germans are by far the biggest contingent, the Brits second in number if not in noise. Many enjoy budget holidays in the alcohol fuelled night life of Magaluf and Palma Nova to the west of Palma, Mallorca´s differently intoxicating ancient capital.

The more family oriented head north to Alcudia Bay or the small villages on the east coast.  Others strike into the hilly beauty of the Sierra Tramuntana which runs the length of the west coast from Andratx in the south to Pollenca in the north, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011.

The resurgence of Mallorcan wine's cultural identity has been aided by a government keen to lessen economic dependency on tourism.  Spurred on by modern wine making knowledge and growing market opportunities the number of wineries has grown from 10 in 1980 to nearly 70 today.

The wine scene

The wine producers fall into three broad types. A growing number, like Francesc Grimalt at 4 Kilos, are artisans driven by a sense of all things 'Mallorquin' and a philosophy of purpose.  

Toni Gelabert, Miquel Gelabert, Jaume  and Barbara Mesquida  and Anime Negre are just some of the others. They variously revive old varieties, farm biodynamically, eschew standardisation, seek experimentation and innovation, contribute to their community and appeal to consumers who engage with their objectives.   And they seek to produce wines that are both delicious and interesting. Some retail locally between €6-10, many are between €10-20 and the top wines are anywhere north of that.

4 kilos eponymous wine is classy, a mostly Callet based blend that changes with the vintage, as does the label design. The juicy, gutsier 12 Volts  "works like an energy accumulator. It's a wine that connects to the central nervous system and recharges batteries".  Gallinas & Focas (Hens and Seals) is a Manto Negro-Syrah blend made with the participation of an association of people with mental disabilities. They took part in the winemaking, brainstormed the name and designed the label. Why the name hens and seals?  Because: "Hens are funny and seals clap their hands".

At the other end of the spectrum in size and market approach are Pere Seda, Macia Batle and José L Ferrer.  Their wines are available in the island's supermarkets and start at less than €4 a bottle, climbing up through their ranges from there.  Each with around 100 hectares and a million bottles production they are big commercial operations by Mallorcan standards, if small in comparison to competitors on the mainland. Producing wines from both local and international grape varieties and across the price points they are commercially competitive with other Spanish regions.

In the middle are wineries like Bodegas Angel. Andres Gelabert (the AN and GEL of Angel) is a Mallorcan who was raised in southern California, returning to buy an old Finca which he converted into a modern winery in 2006. With vineyards planted at the same time he now produces 200,000 bottles a year. With such young vineyards he is understandably proud that his Gran Seleccio red won the prestigious Bacchus Oro in Madrid in 2012.

One of the new wave producers with one eye on the local culture and the other towards the latest market trends, Andres makes fruit forward wines with international appeal. More than half his production is exported, with tourist leader Germany the number one destination. He also makes wines for cava producer Freixenet under their Susana Sempre label.

All around the world lesser known wine regions are upping their game and expressing their heritage. Catalan speaking culturally distinct Mallorca is amongst them. The artisan wine makers and local grape varieties provide interest and quality for the wine enthusiast, the larger companies offer affordable wine for those simply wanting a decent glass of something local. Mallorca has earned the right to be better known for Mantonegro than Mamading in Magaluf.