Featured Wine Region: Mallorca

I didn’t head to Mallorca with grape expectations. After all, I’ve been to its Balearic neighbor Ibiza, where commercial wine is not made. But I did depart for my weekend trip with Radio 4 in hope, my World Atlas Of Wine assuring me (admittedly in its final paragraph on Spain) of “Mallorcan pride in its wines and its native Manto Negro.”

Indeed, Mallorca has a thousand year history of wine production. Yet that peaked in the late 19th Century, when the phylloxera blight plagued France, and the isolated islands of Mallorca and Minorca planted excess vines to export back to the beleagured French. Through the middle of the 20th Century, as post-Civil War Spain expanded other forms of agriculture, the quality and reputation of Mallorcan wine sank even further and faster than that of the mainland.

This modernist map of Spain wine territory comes from the equally modernist Wines Of Spain web site. The Balearic islands are off in the Mediterranean in the east. Mallorca is the t-shaped one in the middle.

Now, as Spain joins the world of Modern (read International) wine at warp speed, Mallorca is playing an equally fast game of catch-up. Two Denominacione de Origens have been created: Binissalem, in 1990, and Plà i Llevant, in 2001. There is also at least one wine with an international reputation, Anima Negra, more of which later.

Anima Negre aside, modern Mallorcan wine producers appear to be following a relatively straightforward pattern. They have purchased, inherited or planted vineyards with the island’s indigenous grapes: Callet and Manto Negro for the reds, and Moll a.k.a. Prensal Blanc for the whites. These are obscurities even for an anorak like myself, and finding any proper information on them is a thankless task. The best I could do was an entry about Manto Negro on the official Spanish wine web site, which assures us that “it produces light, very well balanced wines,” and that “it has shown a tremendous potential for ageing” (though these don’t exactly sound like compatible qualities); and a note on Mallorcan wines in Hugh Johnson’s pocket wine book 2007 which states instead that Manto Negro and Callet are “rugged and prone to oxidize.”

No surprise then, that this new generation of wine-makers have supplemented these old grapes with the internationally recognized Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay, and the everyday Spanish grapes Tempranillo, Monastrell, Moscadel and Macabeo. If there is a shock, it’s that they then tend to put just about everything into the same bottle. It’s not unusual to notice four, five, even six red grapes listed on the back label. Where and when Mallorcan producers do make a single-varietal cuvee, it’s almost always from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah or Chardonnay: these are wines for the export market, where Merlot needs less translation than Tempranillo. That said, these producers still have their work cut out for them. While an impressive 60% of wine drunk on Mallorca hails from Mallorca (the restaurant menus are filled with them, which I greatly appreciated), only 5% of Mallorcan wine makes it out of Spain.

I did my bit by bringing three bottles home with me, purchased at Lodivino, a wine bar/bodega in Palma Old Town that I’d scouted online. We went there on our first night in town, where we were greeted by the thickest cloud of tobacco smoke I’ve ever encountered, even in Paris. We hacked our way through, past the occupied wooden tables, and up to the bar, where the tender was all set to pour us generic red wine until I spoke up for something specific: did they have Anima Negra?

Winemaker Francesc Grimalt with his Anima Negra, Mallorca’s wine curiosity.

Delighted to find proper wine enthusiasts in the room, our bartender Joân proved eager to practice his English and discuss Mallorcan wine. As his girlfriend and bartending partner opened two bottles of AN for our group, Joan told us, authoritatively, that Anima Negre may Mallorca’s most famous wine, but it was certainly not the best. Nor could it be pure Callet as publicly claimed, he insisted, because that grape is simply not good enough to produce a wine of international quality and cellaring potential. He may well have a point: Anima Negra wine-maker Francesc Grimalt opted out of Mallorca’s DO regulations (the wine is a simple Vi de la Terra Illes Balears, the Balearic equivalent of a vin de pays), which might make it easier for him to intimate that his wine is 100% Callet than to prove it, and the bottle itself, with a notable label that intimates high price, does not even list a grape. It’s purposefully sold as something of an enigma.

Joân’s cynicism aside, we were nonetheless impressed: “bright red with a slight herbal nose,” I noted of the Anima Negra 2004, 14% alcohol. “Good animal notes on front palate, some vegetal flavors, spice and body at back.” That’s not exactly poetry, but hey, we were hanging out in a dark room full of smoke getting our groove on. Put it this way: while it was expensive (€30 at the bar), it was also distinctive.

As it turned out, Joân works by day for one of the island’s premier wineries, Miquel Oliver from the Plà i Llevant DO, and before the night was done, he’d sold Radio 4 percussionist PJ O’Connor and myself a bottle each of what he insisted was Mallorca’s finest wine; the Miquel Oliver Aia 2003. Only upon returning to the States and unpacking did I realize it was 100% Merlot. I shouldn’t diss the wine based purely its grape, its seven months in French and American oak, or its high alcohol content; I will merely note that I like to taste local, rather than international, wines on my travels, and would love to have a bottle of Anima Negra on hand, for comparison, the day I sit down to hopefully enjoy the Aia. (That should not be impossible: Anima Negra is imported into the States by the massive Winebow company.)

Jaume Mesquida and Bini Grau make typically modern and delicious Mallorcan wines.

Juan also sold me two more typical Mallorcan wines, at lower prices, each of which I have opened since my return, and each of which I thoroughly loved. The Jaume Mesquida Negre 2004, also from the Plà i Llevant DO and priced around €15, blends Tempranilloo, Monastrell, Merlot, Callet and Manto Negro, for an impressively complex wine that the producers claim could age several years. “Very dark, almost black,” I wrote of it after a Saturday’s hard skiing. “Vanilla on nose, some hefty cedar elements, very brooding black fruits and then this almost tar-like finish, pure licorice. Chocolate too. Not so much tannin but plenty oak. You could see this wine going somewhere in several years, just not sure where.” You can certainly see the difference in my note-taking when I’m not distracted.

Yet even this was not as immediately enjoyable as the 2004 Binigrau ‘Obac,’ from the Binissalem DO. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Callet and Manto Negro, it was “Dark dark dark ruby purple bordering on black. A dusty tannic cholate flavor on palate with strong raspberry-blackberry finish. Seriously dusty flavors and good acidid bite to it. Medium body.” The Obac cost us all of about €10 Euros and was an absolute bargain. I wish I had more of it.

The following night found us sharing a wine for dinner that exceeded even the Jaume Mesquida for multiple grape content. The Son Bordils 2003 Negre is a Vi de la Terra Illes Balears that includes the requisite Callet and Manto Negre, the now familiar Spanish mainstrays Tempranillo and Monastrell, and not just Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but Syrah too. (I’m surprised they didn’t throw some white grapes in there for the hell of it!) Though I didn’t make notes, I remember thinking that the wine was somewhat ordinary, and being surprised to subsequently learn that Son Bordils also produces one of the island’s more expensive wines; you wouldn’t know it from their primitive web site.

Son Bordils Negra, a kitchen sink blend

After that night’s concert we headed back to the old town and, somewhat unexpectedly, into La Vinya, a trendy but surprisingly quiet little joint. Our young male host, like Joân before him, was thrilled to find a customer on whom he could practice English and discuss his favorite subject. Turned out he formally owned a restaurant but tired of all the business and worry and downsized to this wine bar, which he opens and closes himself every day. This “man in the corner shop” considered La Vinya and Lodivino the two best wine bars in Palma, and he shared Joân’s rather dismissive view of Anima Negre, pronouncing it a triumph of marketing over substance. You want good local wine? he asked (rhetorically I trusted), and opened a bottle of the Macia Batle Crianza 2004. Weighing in at a hefty 14.5% alcohol, you can pretty much guess at its content: yes, Manto Negro and Callet, Cabernet Sauvignon and, in this particular case, what the winery calls Shiraz but which I insist on calling Syrah. The company’s flashy web site talks about “forest berries” and “balsamic mix”; I noted merely that it had a “smooth, chocolate finish.” My mental memory tells me that it was damn good and serious, a wine I would like to have brought home with me, but the important thing is, we emptied the bottle.

Macia Batle has been making wines since 1853. Judging by this one, they know what they’re doing.

Fact, we did better than that. Our host treated us to a lock-in, and he celebrated by opening (on the house), and pouring into an expensive decanter, what he considered to be a far superior wine: a Martín Verástegui 2001 from Castilla y Leon, around Ribera del Duero on the mainland. His generosity masked an evident inferiority complex: the sense that Mallorcan wines did not best represent Spain. Ultimately, he was right. The wines from Mallorca are but bit players even on the Spanish stage, barely register on the global radar and don’t have the complexity, body, aroma or texture to lay claim to international repute. But as I sank my teeth into the near tar that was this massively over-done Castilla y Leon, I memorized my fondness for Mallorcan all the same: they’re priced attractively, they can be enjoyed immediately, and they do have personality. Those that contain the indigenous grapes Manto Negra and Callet, in whatever unspecified quantity, are unique, and the two blended bottles I brought home with me were fine red wines for cold winter nights. Mallorca may soon become more than just a holiday isle, but a new destination on the wine traveler’s global map. Let’s just hope the island’s producers remember their roots and keep working those local vines.

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November 2021