The wine that nearly died; on the trail of Alicante fondillón

Alicante has a wine secret. It’s called fondillón, and it’s probably the most famous wine you’ve never heard of. We’ve been coming to the Costa Blanca for over 20 years and no-one ever told us about it. Until now.

But the kings and queens of Europe knew all about fondillón. The Sun King, Louis XIV, is said to have drunk it on his deathbed. Elizabeth I of England was apparently partial to a glass or two.

At one time, fondillón was ranked alongside famous names like Jerez (sherry), port and madeira, but in the 20th century, it almost disappeared altogether.

The story of how this amazing wine was reborn, rescued by passion and hard work, is a fascinating one. To find out more, head inland from Alicante, up the road to Madrid to the wine town of Monóvar.

In a tranquil valley just outside town, surrounded by rank upon rank of Monastrell vines, is Bodegas Monóvar, one of the prime movers in the resurrection of fondillón. 

Here in the cool, fragrant darkness of the cellar sit dozens and dozens of massive toneles (antique oak barrels), the fondillón inside them maturing slowly for a minimum of ten years, usually twenty or more. Book a place on a wine tour and see for yourself.

So what is fondillón and why all the fuss? You’d probably call it a semi-sweet dessert wine. But that really doesn’t do it justice; sipping fondillón is a unique experience, with a flavour and an aroma unlike any other. How to describe it? It’s a beautiful amber colour, smooth, nutty, very slightly sweet, with maybe a touch of amontillado about it.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a wine buff to appreciate it; when you taste a fondillón laid down in 1935, you’re drinking liquid history.

Unlike your sherry or port, madeira or marsala, fondillón isn’t fortified. In other words, it isn’t artificially topped up with alcohol. It manages to hit 18% alcohol all on its own, with no outside assistance.

That’s because the Monastrell grapes are picked right at the last moment, when they’ve almost turned into raisins, with the sugar concentration at its absolute maximum. A wine with that level of alcohol could survive long sea voyages and still stay drinkable, which was pretty important back in the days of sailing ships.  Magellan is said to have taken fondillón with him when he set off around the world in 1519.

But despite its fame and flavour, fondillón was very nearly the wine that died. A combination of disease, war and neglect almost killed it.

First, there was phylloxera, the catastrophic infection that wiped out vines across Europe in the late 19th century. France was hit first and worst; Spain was unaffected for years, so many French growers moved mainstream production to the Alicante region instead, forcing out the less profitable, slower-maturing fondillón. Phylloxera eventually arrived in Spain of course, and so fondillón was hit by a double whammy.

In the 1930s came the chaos of the Spanish civil war, followed almost immediately by World War Two, which disrupted pretty much everything else. And when Europe returned to something like normal in the 50s and 60s, fondillón had pretty much dropped off the radar. The old-style bodegas were disappearing and getting rid of the toneles, the huge oak barrels used to mature the fondillón.

If it hadn’t been for the determination of a few men who made it their business to keep fondillón alive, that would have been it.

One was Salvador Poveda Luz, whose son Rafael now carries on the family passion for fondillón at Bodegas Monóvar. Salvador made it a personal crusade to buy up the old oak toneles as their owners threw them out; more than one hundred of these survivors now nestle comfortably in the Monóvar cellars.

The years and years of maturing in these monsters is fundamental to the oxidisation process that turns fondillón into a rancio wine, gradually changing colour from red to amber and acquiring its unique nutty flavour.

So the future of this remarkable wine now seems secure. But it’s never going to be a big seller like sherry or port. Bodegas Monóvar is one of only a handful of producers in the region making it.

Another nearby is the Primitivo Quiles bodega in Monóvar itself, which also played a vital role in keeping the tradition alive in the difficult years. They make their fondillón in a solera style, similar to the way sherry is produced.

When mature fondillón is drawn from the final barrel (tonel) in the solera and bottled, wine from the neighbouring barrel is carefully transferred to replace it…and so on, up the line of toneles to the first, where the new wine is introduced.

The oldest tonel in the Primitivo Quiles cellar – respectfully named El Abuelo (Grandfather) – has been in production since 1892. It even survived the Spanish Civil War, when the bodega was taken over and used for storing aircraft parts instead.

Clearly, fondillón is not a wine you’ll drink every day. At €50-60 for a top-quality bottle, not many people could afford it anyway. But as a special treat, perhaps to accompany a top quality chocolate puro from (of course) Villajoyosa, fondillón is quite something.

© Guy Pelham 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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