By Daniel Briggs, Assistant Manager, Majestic Wine Horsham
Last year Majestic Wine assistant manager Daniel Briggs was awarded runner up for the Young Wine Writer Award. His focus was on diversity and tradition in a modern wine industry and this is one of the articles from his portfolio. Whilst Fondillón is not a wine Majestic stock, take a moment to read Daniel’s article for an introduction into the rare Spanish wine – if you’ve tried it before you’ll realise how lucky you are!
When I arrived in the Slumberous old town of Monóvar, perched in the arid foot hills of Spain’s central plateau, I was looking for a wine that was unique; a wine that provided a new sensory experience, but also a wine that was enshrouded in history and tradition; a wine that had a story. Old World wine has come under much scrutiny in recent years for being too complicated for consumers to understand. The success of simpler New World Wines with easy to understand varietal labels has highlighted this. There are currently over four thousand wine producing regions in the world, over five thousand grape varieties and countless producers. To know what the quality and style of a wine will be just by looking at the bottle is not always possible, even for the professional. To become a master of wine is so rare more people have been into space. So is all this complication and fragmentation worthwhile? Does it provide wines that are diverse and interesting or does it just create frustration and disappointment? I hoped that the wine I was seeking to discover would be proof of the former.
The wine I came to find is called Fondillón and I came to a winery called Primitivo Quiles to find it. Primitivo Quiles are the oldest producer in the Alicante region still to be making Fondillón and they can be found in an ancient town with steep and narrow winding streets called Monóvar. The town is scattered with churches and historical monuments including a large Moorish castle watching sleepily over from a nearby hill top. The basic winery has terracotta roofs and white washed walls and sits on the edge of the town with views over the surrounding dusty hills – speckled with scruffy shrubbery; hazy and warped in the hot dry air.
Primitivo Quiles is so called after the name of its founder and I was welcomed into the winery by fourth generation Primitivo himself. He was a friendly, smiling man wearing blue overalls and boots. He asked me if I’d tried Fondillón before. I hadn’t but didn’t want to offend and had read that it is similar in style to oloroso sherry. I said that I liked sherry, particularly some of the more interesting oloroso styles I had tried… Ouch. I later realised I’d put my foot in my mouth with this comment. It was when his brother Francisco was showing me round the winery he told me a story of how, unbeknown to them, one of their German importers had entered Fondillón for a German wine award. It won the gold trophy which they were very happy about apart from one thing. The category it had won was for sherry.
It was painstakingly explained to me that Fondillón is not a sherry. Apart from not coming from Jerez, it is different in the grapes used, how they are grown, how the wine is made, the wine’s style and in its history. Fondillón is in fact an ancient wine which can be traced back to the writings of Shakespeare and was reputed to be a favourite wine of the French King Louis XIV. For much of the wine’s history it has in fact been a more important and famous wine than both sherry and port.
The wine itself is made from the grape variety Monastrell, more commonly known of under its French name Mourvèdre, a grape variety often used in wines from the Rhône Valley and the South of France. Monastrell is perfectly conditioned for this wine as its thick skin fares well against the dry heat, and it is late ripening. This means it can hang for longer on the vine and develop ripe intense fruity flavours, and when it comes to Fondillón they take it a stage further, letting the grape semi dry giving a raisin like quality. This increases the sugar intensity and therefore the alcohol. At 16 degrees of alcohol there is no need to fortify lending to a much purer style, and a significantly different one to that of its cousins from Jerez.
Like sherry, Fondillón is however, aged in a solera system. This is a series of barrels of progressively different ages which are blended down with each vintage, each age known as criadera. Every bottle made will have a proportion of wine dating back to the creation of the solera and the current Primitivo Quiles solera was started in 1948. The transfer of wine from one criadera to another is an intensely stressful time for the brothers as one mistake could ruin a whole barrel of carefully aged blended wine that could not be easily re-introduced to the system.
Francisco had taken me into the oldest part of the winery, tucked away in the furthest corner where the solera system sat in a dark, cool room, with stone walls. Away from the noise of the industrious hub of the winery – the room had a still, silent, calm about it that reminded me of walking in to a darkened chapel from a bustling street.
As Francisco talked about the solera system it occurred to me that it didn’t seem very big. I asked how much Fondillón he produced. The answer was 3,000 bottles a year. I was shocked and immediately began to worry I wasn’t going to be able to try it. To put this figure in to perspective, the infamous Bordeaux Château, Château Pétrus, produces up to 42,000 bottles a year. I was flabbergasted when Francisco explained that this wine retailed at just 40 Euros a bottle. This is not a wine they produced to make them money. Fifty percent of the wine is shipped out to America where there is demand for more. Primitivo Quiles refuses to export a bottle more and sells the remaining bottles in the local area for less money. Although the winery was founded to produce this wonderful wine, it is now a business that survives by producing table wines that are designed to meet the criteria of popular demand. Still loyal to the tradition of Alicante these light wines are also made from Monastrell.
Thankfully I did get to try the wine. I was first amazed by its sweet and complex bouquet, which was reminiscent of a fine cognac, but much richer and softer, no alcoholic burn, just sweet aromas of fig, raisin, walnuts and orange zest. The liquid was an exuberant russet, golden brown colour and lethargically slipped around the glass. On the palate the wine was surprisingly dry, all those sweet aromas still carried through giving the impression of sweet character, and real nuttiness which all followed on to an exquisitely long finish.
What impressed on me more than anything from my visit to the Primitivo Quiles winery was what drove the brothers to continue to make Fondillón. They had a successful business making table wines and the production of Fondillón seemed highly time-consuming and painstaking. So much so that it seemed to alter their focus from the main business. There was little benefit to them to keep making the wine, but yet they still continued.
This noble stand for the wine of their region is impressive and humbling. The diversity we still find in the modern wine industry is thanks to many passionate producers such as the Quiles brothers. We are lucky such wines still exist, but it takes more than willing producers to keep these wines alive. So what else is it?
Some of the best journeys involve frustration and disappointment if the final reward is great. Take Burgundy for example – one of the most fragmented wine regions in the world. Its wines can be overpriced, inconsistent and disappointing, but demand for its wines always exceeds supply. Why? Because when you get a good one its more than good, its sublime. Vintage, region and producer variation makes these wines highly collectable and of course the prestige and history of Burgundian wines play a large part to.
For me, this explains it perfectly well. My enjoyment of wine comes from a journey through diversity. Exploring, different styles that are born of different climates, topographies, wine making technique, traditions and personalities. Yes there are disappointments along the way, but my catalogue of great wines, becomes richer by the day.
Fondillón, is for me, living proof of a truly great and unique wine born of a highly, complicated, fragmented world of wine. To simplify this fragmentation would be a crime that would devalue wine and kill the magic that surrounds it. Given the choice of shopping in a store that had a range of 10 or 300 wines, I wonder how many consumers, would chose the shop with the range of ten for simplicity.
All I can say is thank goodness for the Quiles Brothers and the many thousands of producers like them around the world. It is because of them that wine is complicated, diverse, confusing, inspiring, frustrating and exquisite.