Mallorca's beaches are famous worldwide, but its wines haven't been so lucky. Now, as the Spanish island's wine industry rebuilds itself after a few ill-fated centuries, it is producing some exceptionally delicious bottles—and attracting a new kind of traveler.
The island of Mallorca, located just off the eastern coast of mainland Spain, is known for its beautiful white sand beaches, but as I stood in front of the 17th-century dairy that houses the winery Bodegas Anima Negra, it was hard to imagine there was a beach within a thousand miles. The ground under my feet was dry and hard, the building itself—an old stone monstrosity surrounded by bored dogs—was as far from a beach cabana as it was possible to envision. "You know, when we started here, this place was still full of cows," said Pere Obrador, one of Anima Negra's three young partners. He sighed. "It took a long time to have a winery that didn't smell like cow."
He shouldn't worry. When I was there, not long after harvest, the winery smelled of just one thing: wine. Specifically, it smelled of fermenting Callet, a quirky varietal native to Mallorca. Its flavor is a cross between the spicy, herbal qualities of Cabernet Franc and a powerful Syrah. Anima Negra's top wine, AN, is made almost entirely from Callet. It was not only one of the best Spanish wines I'd had at a recent tasting in New York, but it was also the inspiration for my trip to Mallorca.
Anima Negra, it turns out, is part of a small but growing number of Mallorcan wineries that are producing impressive wines from varieties largely indigenous to this Mediterranean island. The most widely planted is Manto Negro; others include Fogoneu, Prensal Blanc (or Moll) and Girò Blanc. Sometimes they're blended with more familiar varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and sometimes not. At their best, these unusual varieties make distinctive, emphatic wines, some of which are now turning up in the United States.
I'm not claiming to be the first to see the potential in Mallorca's wines. Back in the first century, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, stated that the island's wines were equal to the best wines of Italy—and who am I to argue with Pliny? Unfortunately, over the intervening two thousand years, Mallorca experienced a few problems, particularly in the 19th century, when phylloxera (a destructive vine-eating louse) devastated the vineyards. Add a World War or two, a civil war and a massive changeover of the island's economy from agriculture to tourism, and the almost 75,000 acres of vines (in 1891) now number about 2,500, almost all of which are located in two DOs, or denominations of origin: Binissalem and Pla i Llevant. Binissalem is in the center of the island, while Pla i Llevant occupies the eastern side. Some of the best wines, however, opt out of the DO system and are simply designated viña de la tierra.
When I asked Pedro Coll-Pastor, an owner of another of the up-and-coming Mallorcan wineries, Finca Son Bordils, whether the island could ever reach the level of production it once had, he laughed at the idea. "Land in Mallorca is about 10 times more expensive on average than on the mainland," he replied. "For that reason alone, we can't compete with Rioja or Ribera del Duero." Most Mallorcan wines are consumed by the millions of tourists who descend every summer: A full 60 percent of Mallorca's production is sold locally, Coll-Pastor noted, and yet that accounts for only five percent or so of the wine sales here. "Mallorca has 2,300 hotels and 2,000 restaurants," he observed, "and only 33 cellars."
Of course, all those restaurants and hotels make Mallorca an awfully appealing place for a wine traveler, especially since the island is only about 40 miles wide. It's easy to land in Palma and drive an hour or so to most any bodega, many of them not far from small, picturesque villages like Pollença and Sóller. What's more, the drive itself is stunning. The Serra de Tramuntana mountains form the western edge of the island, and the road from Pollença to Sóller follows the cliffs, diving into craggy valleys then revealing sun-dazzled slices of Mediterranean water. You quickly understand why famous couples like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones own homes on the island.
The arrival of celebrities like Douglas and Zeta-Jones are one measure of the change in the tourist scene. The new hotels built to accommodate them is another. The 10-month-old Puro hotel, in Palma's old town, is a sleek and serene designer hotel in a renovated 14th-century palace. Similar in style and sleekness is Son Brull, a hotel and spa in a restored 18th-century monastery near Pollença. The decor is spare, but the amenities are plush and include Bang & Olufsen televisions, Egyptian-cotton sheets and Michel Cluizel chocolates at turndown.
There are also wine bars, like Palma's Lo Di Vino. More like a wine salon, its walls are covered with wine racks and bookshelves in about equal proportion, and its light fixtures are made from old vinyl LPs. The selection of both wine and literature is quirky and appealing, and there's no pressure to down your copa de vino and make room for someone else—owner Juanjo Gomariz Berbel wants people not only to drink wine but also to linger, talk, even read.
Palma has good restaurants, but one of the best in Mallorca is hidden in a little town on the eastern edge of the island about one hour away by car. Es Molí d'en Bou opened four years ago in the shell of a 200-year-old windmill in St. Llorenç des Cardassar. The barrel-vaulted dining room is somehow warm and cozy, despite its two-foot-thick stone walls. Chef Tomeu Caldentey takes traditional Mallorcan ingredients and gives them a modern spin: My amuse bouche was finely chopped Mallorcan shrimp and couscous formed into a quail's-egg-size sphere in an intense wild mushroom broth. More to the point, the wine list features the best wines from every significant Mallorcan producer.
That was true, too, at the restaurant at Ca's Xorc, a boutique hotel in the hills above Sóller. The sommelier, Xisco Rullan, opened a bottle of Toni Gelabert's Torre des Canonge, considered the best white on the island. Made from Girò Blanc, it's rich, with white-peach flavor and a creamy texture; unfortunately, it's not imported to the States. "Ten years ago, Mallorca was trying to make quantity wines," Rullan said. "Now we are concentrating on quality wines."
Even the oldest winery on the island, Hereus de Ribas, provides evidence of that change. Located in an old estate in Binissalem, Ribas has been in owner Maria Antonía Oliver's family since 1711. It produces a range of wines, among them a standout red, Ribas de Cabrera. A blend of Syrah, Manto Negro and Cabernet Sauvignon, it has a cherry-blackberry nose, with smoky, blackberry flavors.
As we tasted through the Ribas wines in the old manor-house dining room, pure Mallorcan light streaming in the open door, Oliver was sanguine about the difficulties of working with Manto Negro. The variety is distinctive, but it's hard to grow and it oxidizes easily. "Manto Negro is just a completely unsupportable variety," Oliver remarked cheerfully, contemplating the wine in her glass. "Cabernet is fantastic, Syrah is easy, but Manto Negro is difficult. It takes to the character of the land very well, but it's like a wild animal, savage, and you have to educate it."
And maybe that's the appeal of the best Mallorcan wines. Though they're grown on an island where the tourists outnumber the locals by more than 15 to one, they still have a hint of wildness. Maybe under all the flash, the real Mallorca is still a plot of scraggly Manto Negro vines, their roots dug deep into the ruddy, rocky earth.
Ray Isle is the managing editor of Wine & Spirits magazine.