A taste for the rancid
Fondillon is a wine of process rather than of place
Wednesday 08 December 2021
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At a natural wine fair in Penedes, Catalonia, producers are busy filling glasses for crowds of hip, young wine lovers from Barcelona and its surroundings. Despite being in Cava territory, it seems that pét-nats, skin-contact whites and carbonic maceration reds are far more popular. But there’s always an exception. Among the producers present is 83 year-old, plaid-shirted Jose Maria Espi Sanchez, winemaker at Bodega La Encina in Alicante, who didn’t get the memo about the pét-nats and orange wines. He pours an aged oxidative, viscous, amber, sweet wine, traditionally known as Fondillón.
Aromas of hazelnut, coffee, figs, and dried fruit fill the air. We feel a sudden rush of excitement; the chances to taste Fondillón are few, as the new Spanish wine movement shifts to wines with low alcohol, little extraction, terroir, and imperceptible – if any – oak, could its days be numbered?
Belonging to the Spanish family of ‘rancid’ wines (vinos rancios), which are deliberately exposed to oxygen during ageing, Fondillón is made exclusively in the province of Alicante from overripe Monastrell grapes; a thick black-skinned grape native to the Mediterranean. The dry, hot weather lengthens the growing season and harvest begins in October or even as late as November. Once picked, the grapes are pressed and fermentation begins. Due to the high sugar content, fermentation stops at approximately 16% abv and the resulting wine is slightly sweet with 10 to 30g residual sugar, like an off-dry Riesling. The new wine is then placed in large oak barrels or casks that can range between 16l to 2500l for a minimum of 10 years, although the general practice is to age much longer.
Similar to the solera system for Sherry wines, when the wine is ready to be bottled, a portion is taken out of the barrel or cask, known as the “saca”, and then the barrel is refilled and blended with a younger wine, or wine from the same vintage. This continuous process of blending and topping up can go on for decades, with the original “madre’’ or mother wine always remaining at the bottom of the barrel and continuing to age over time. So, contrary to the new wave, Fondillón is a wine of process rather than of place and is characterised by the oxidative aromas and flavours that result from long oak ageing.
“It is a totally different wine”, says Sanchez.
“We like it. But maybe it is a mistake [to make it] because there isn’t much demand.”
Spain is a country of vinous treasures, many which have unfortunately been forgotten as a result of viticultural epidemics, historical events, and most recently, due to the 100-point scale and the desire to appeal to wine critics. Fondillón is one such buried treasure. Once loved and revered by European aristocracy and clergymen, and popular among writers such as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Dumas, production suffered at the turn of the 20th century due to the vine-eating louse, phylloxera, that decimated European vineyards. When replanting was possible, production levels never bounced back to their glory days. In the latter half of the century, changes in consumer preferences, namely a preference for dry wines, resulted in a steady decline in sales.
With any sweet wine, it is always going to have a much more limited consumption and reach
“People say, ‘it was about to disappear’ or ‘they stopped making it’,” says Rafael Poveda, winemaker at MGWines Group. “But that’s not true. It has always been made. The only thing is that there was no transmission of the product. It was sold locally, a couple bottles in Madrid and Barcelona and that was it. But not now. Now you can go to a two-star Michelin restaurant and our Fondillón is there.” MGWines Group has been one of the leading wineries to promote Fondillón worldwide and with great results; its Fondillón Azorín 50 Aniversario, from 1968, is currently priced at €805.
Other oxidative wines, such as oloroso Sherry, traditional white wines from Rioja and Jura’s vin jaune, have gained cult status among wine lovers in the past decade, with prices to match. But with only 10 wineries that meet the DOP Alicante requirements, allowing them to use the protected name “Fondillón”, is there much of a future for this highly regional treasure?
Nika Shevel, Barcelona-based wine educator and consultant, thinks so.
“It certainly fits with the traditional Spanish wine styles revival and plays in the same league as Rueda Dorado, Empordà sweet wines or brisats,” she explains. The new wave of Spanish producers are not just looking for quaffable and terroir-focused wines, they are also recovering abandoned vineyards, rescuing native varieties from near extinction and reviving traditional viticultural and winemaking practices. This back-to-roots movement could help Fondillón gain more recognition. But, as Nika points out, “with any sweet wine, it is always going to have a much more limited consumption and reach.”
There is a lot to love about new-school Spanish wines; the rusticity of pét-nats, the texture of the skin contact whites and the juiciness of the light reds. But after tasting so many quaffable wines, Sanchez’s wine is truly something different.
“It is definitely worth making,” he says, “because in the end, you have an old wine that few other people have, and there are people who appreciate it. This is part of our tradition.”
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