The fair that marked Mallorca's wine revolution
The history of wine in Mallorca is a long one. We have Pliny the Elder to testify to this and to a Roman appreciation of the wines from Mallorca and the Balearics. His ‘Naturalis Historia' (Natural History) of AD 77 said that the islands' wines could rival the best of those produced locally for Rome. The reference to Pliny is one often made. As an example, a bodega in Pollensa, Can Vidalet, does so, even if they get their ADs and BCs mixed up. Oh well, not to worry; it was a long time ago whichever 77 it was.
Can Vidalet is one of 39 Mallorcan bodegas that will be represented at the Pollensa Wine Fair this weekend, an event that is a triumph of the love of wine. Sure, there is a commercial side to it, a very important one not just for sales in Mallorca but also overseas. But the wine fair has grown into the success it has become thanks to that love of wine and of what Mallorcan vines and know-how can create from Mallorcan land to lands overseas.
The fair showcases a quality of wine that is the product of a revolution that really only erupted some thirty years ago. For much of the twentieth century, the island's wine trade had been in the doldrums, but investors - both local and foreign - came to realise that the potential, one known about back in Pliny's day, was enormous.
No, there wouldn't be mass production - there wasn't the land anyway - but there would be the emergence of boutique bodegas to add to long-established wineries, such as José L. Ferrer (also represented at this year's fair). It would be responsible and sustainable production with an indelible mark of quality and of origin. The grapes and wines were of course to be paramount, but bottle design - the labelling - was to also exude this quality. A Mallorcan bottle is a thing of beauty.
Josep Bibiloni is the president of the Associació Vi Primitiu de Pollença, the organisers of the fair since its inception in 2004. Some years ago I spoke to Josep about the fair, and what came through was the passion for wine. It was as if there was an almost spiritual element, a reflection perhaps of the antiquity of wine production, rooted in Mallorca's soil and in Mallorca's culture. Josep was a remarkably modest man, yet he, his association and wine entrepreneurs had brought about a revival of this ancient tradition. Now celebrating the twentieth edition, the association is worthy of being honoured. Maybe it will be.
For there to have been a revival, there had to have been a decline. And there was. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, wine production was practically zero. Why? Disease, that's why.
Banned American rootstock was to blame. It was imported illegally. On June 6, 1891 came the first report. Phylloxera had been found in Algaida and Llucmajor. In less than a year, the largest wine-producing area at that time (the Llevant) was being ravaged. So were other regions. Mallorca had enjoyed some golden decades because of the pest's destruction of French vines. The golden era was now over.
Although production started again before the Civil War, this in itself didn't help. Nor did Franco's system of autarky; agriculture was for self-sufficiency reasons. Wheat, barley and other crops were more important than grapes. This helps to explain why true revival was so long in coming and why Mallorcan wine for export was all but non-existent.
Germany is nowadays one of the most important markets, but once upon a time there was a particular interest from the US. In 1809, the US consul in Mallorca, John Martin Baker, was asked by President Thomas Jefferson to arrange for Mallorcan wines to be sent to Washington. Jefferson was a wine buff, a serious one, and he used his consulate officials - Baker in particular to seek out fine wines with which he could stock his cellar for when he retired.
Some years later, ‘A Handbook of Wines’ for Victorian Britain gentry observed: “The island of Majorca furnishes several wines of sufficiently good quality to bear exportation, among which, those made in the district of Benesalem (sic), three leagues from Palma, are accounted the best, at least of the red growths. At Banalbusa is grown the white wine known under the name of Alba Flor.” Benesalem, aka Binissalem, was to be a key centre for renewed production after the devastation caused by phylloxera - José L. Ferrer was one of the producers. Today, there is the Binissalem DO, as there is the Pla i Llevant DO as well as the Vi de la Terra Mallorca PGI. Marks of quality and of origin, of grapes from Mallorcan land and of wine of Mallorcan production. Part of Mallorca's culture to be sampled in a cultured venue as delightful as Pollensa's Sant Domingo Cloister.
We raise a glass to the association and to Mallorca's quality wines.