For me, nothing beats speaking to a wine maker about their wines (and tasting them of course) on their own patch.
As a part-time wine writer with a day job and a young family I have to be creative with my holiday plans to allow me to do this on a regular basis. I typically tag on a vineyard visit to most holidays, if the geography allows it.
On family trips it normally involves a negotiation with Mrs Wineloon, resulting in her spending a morning in an expensive spa, while I take care of the kids as the other half of the deal. When I'm away with my mates - usually to play golf - I'll go out a day early to get my vineyard fix.
I did this last month when I went to Marbella on a golf trip with a group of mates. A quick look at the options and I identified Bodegas Bentomiz as a very manageable day trip; about an hour's drive from Malaga. To my surprise, one of my mates who had never previously shown an interest asked to come along, so I had company on the very precarious, single track road, winding through the Sierra de Tejeda Mountains.
We have been mates since we met at school at the age of 12 and when together tend to act as if we have moved on very little since then. Before we got out of the car, I felt the need to set some ground rules. At 41 he shouldn't need ground rules, but he's got form. In the end, he generally behaved, although as the afternoon progressed and he became more inebriated, he walked a rather fine line.
Bodegas Bentomiz is the creation of Clara and André Verheij, a Dutch couple who moved to the Malaga region 22 years ago. Clara is a translator by trade and André a builder, but their passion for wine and food led them to create Bentomiz - André designed and built the stunning winery using bricks made from the local slate. They discovered the plot and were convinced that there was great potential from the ninety year old bush vine Moscatel, despite the general lack of quality wine produced elsewhere in the region.
Above; Bodegas Bentomiz's ninety year-old bush vine moscatel
The contrast with the vines in the neighbouring property is stark, emphasising Clara and André's quest for quality
The winery has a stunning location, perched on the side of a very steep hill outside the village of Sayalonga, about 400-450m above sea level high in the Sierra de Tejeda mountains, with views down through a deep valley towards the Mediterranean Sea. The fried breakfasts and Irish bars of Puerto Banus feel a long way away up here.
Above; the stunning winery. That's André in the chef's whites at the kitchen window
Below; André's view from the kitchen sink
Apart form the very modern, yet sympathetically designed winery, the surrounding buildings are generally white-washed and Moorish in style. In fact the bodega is named after a white Arabic building on the hill opposite, and the surrounding villages are referred to as the "white villages of Bentomiz". All of the cuvees produced by the bodega are called Ariyanas, meaning "aromatic" in Arabic.
The classification in Malaga is not straight forward. Malaga DO is only used for sweet and fortified wines, which the area is most famous for historically. Sierra de Malaga DO is used for table wines.
Moscatel de Alejandría is the predominant grape, along with Romé, an indigenous red grape variety. Bentomiz grows both on its 1.5 hectares of vines, and also buys in Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from local growers, whose vines they manage on behalf of the landowners.
The rough, dry terrain gives the land up here a desert-like appearance, a good place to shoot a cowboy movie. There is typically no rain to speak of during the growing season. Vines need to work hard here. But the bush vines have learned to survive. The lack of rain means there is no risk of rot so they sit low to the ground, with the bushy leaves acting as a shield from the blazing sun.
The dry conditions mean that the yields are low so the emphasis at Bodega Bentomiz is on quality. The breeze from the Mediterranean Sea cools the vineyard, giving the wines that all important freshness. The slate soil gives the wines great minerality.
"We prefer fresh, elegant wines, not too much alcohol or oak." says Clara. She always picks a day or two before her neighbours, in search of the freshness she loves.
Clara shows us round before lunch
Opening in 2005, the winery today is now a fully fledged tourist attraction. As well as creating delicious wines, André has turned his hand to cooking and runs the kitchen at the bodega, producing brilliant dishes to go with the wines.
They offer a three and 5 course tasting menu. We ate the 5-course menu when we visited and each dish was a roaring success, matched perfectly with a mix of the Ariyanas wines and some well selected sherries from nearby Jerez.
Above; the food
Below; the wine
The dishes themselves are designed with the help of renowned local chef Juan Quintanilla. He is paid for his help with wine, so Ariyanas is the house wine in his restaurant. A good deal for Juan, I reckon.
The cellar door is getting more popular, not only with wine tourists but music fans as well. Bodegas Bentomiz's patio is an ideal setting for music concerts which are put on regularly through the summer.
They sell about a third of their wine from the cellar door, and export a further 40% to seven countries, including the UK, where Indigo Wines are the importer.
Talking of which, here are my thoughts on the wines I tried;
The white moscatel, Ariyanas, Seco Sobre Lias Finas, 2015 (€10.90) doesn't see any oak, but spends eight months on the lees. "It gives it more body, a creamy texture and great length", enthuses Clara. It had peaches and elderflower on the nose. Floral with a lovely creamy texture, it reminded me of a peach melba yoghurt but bone dry and great length on the finish.
The Ariyanas Romé Rosado, 2015 (€10.90) also spends time on the lees and has a heady concoction of flavours. This is a serious rosé. Bitter orange Aperol notes on the nose lead to flavours of caramelised grapefruit on top of vanilla brioche, before a salty minerality comes splashing in to leave your mouth feeling fresh and gagging for more.
The Ariyanas Tinto de Ensamblaje, 2013 (€13.90) was a rounded blend of Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Romé and Cabernet Franc. This had aromas of blackcurrant and polish, the dark berry fruits continuing onto the palate with a minty, menthol freshness.
The Ariyanas Petit Verdot, 2015 (only made commercially available after the Norwegian Monopolet rated it in their top 10 wines in a recent tasting) was the standout red for me. No oak used here, so it was delightfully light on its feet. Classic Petit Verdot aromas of spiced cherries, a touch of plastic and menthol. Really fresh leafy finish - leafy in a good way, like fresh herbs.
Moving onto the sweets wines, the first wine was the David Tinto Dulce, 2013 (n/a), a naturally sweet 100% merlot. The sweetness is created by stopping fermentation by forcing the temperature of the wine down to -2 degrees. The result is a dark fruited juicy delight of a wine. Relatively light, this would be great with cheese and fruit based desserts.
The Ariyanas Naturalment Dulce, 2008 (€13.50) is made from bought in moscatel grapes from young vines. It has a honey and caramel sweetness but could do with a little more acidity for me, as I found the finish a touch cloying.
The Ariyanas Terruno Pizarroso, 2009 (€19.95) is a different proposition. 100% moscatel again, but this time from the old vines behind the winery. Great balance of sweetness and acidity here. A cocktail of tropical fruit, orange zest and lime. The finish is very clean, fresh and long.
As we were served the last of the wines, Clara had to leave and we were left in the capable hands of André. By this point, it was getting on for 5pm and we were the last people in the place, so André joined us for an digestif. And what an digestif it was.
As well as making wine, Clara and André have turned their hand to spirits. André is the master distiller of a very small scale distillery. Gin being the current spirit of choice. Using their moscatel grapes - he gets 1 litre of gin from 7 litres of wine - he adds local herbs to create moonshine of the highest order. The raw product weighs in at 83% alcohol but he helpfully dilutes this down to just over 40%.
Above; the still
Below; the gin (served freezer cold)
We drank it straight and very cold, André pouring us a glass seconds after plucking the bottle from the freezer. I would describe it as a combination of grappa, limoncella and gin. Not the most refined of drinks but it makes you smile, whoop and slap your thigh all at once.
At the moment this is not available commercially but André has plans to roll it out soon, along with possibly a grappa and a vodka as well. Look out!
The gin finished this long lunch off perfectly and put a spring in our step as we said our goodbyes, got back in the car and tottered back down the hill to the coast.
If you are visiting the area over the summer holidays check out the website and plan your visit.