Party on: Ibiza wines are rocking again

Party on: Ibiza wines are rocking again
For decades it’s been known as the world’s greatest party island, but Ibiza’s wine scene pre-dates the clubs by more than 2000 years
Small-batch wine production by innovative winemakers is on trend. Yet one region with an ancient winemaking tradition and a clutch of independent producers barely registers on the international wine scene. Ibiza is one of the most famous islands in the Mediterranean, visited as much for its clubs as for its growing gastronomic scene – ‘premium clubbing and premium dining go hand in hand,’ one prominent club owner told me - yet few visitors are aware of the island’s ancient history of wine production. Two thousand years ago Ibiza was a key stop on the Mediterranean trade route. The Phoenicians were the first to plant grapes – possibly Monastrell (interestingly, one producer mentioned how the indigenous grape varieties of Mallorca - Giró, Fogonéu, Valent, Manto Negro and Callet - don’t seem to have been planted here) – followed by the Romans who improved vineyard and winery practices. With its proximity to the mainland, Ibiza’s wine production and expertise outweighed that of its sister islands, but from the late 1800s, land under vine on Ibiza shrank from several hundred hectares to around 60, more due to economics than phylloxera. Farmers turned to profitable crops that were less labour intensive, and the popularity of the island from the 1960s onwards changed much of Ibiza from an agrarian to an urbanized society.
Today on Ibiza, two styles of wine are produced. Family plots make herbal-infused vi pagès (country wine), traditionally from Monastrell where herbs such as thyme are used as a natural filter before bottling, whilst a handful of commercial producers create wines from local and international varieties. The island’s Mediterranean climate is tempered by coastal breezes which mitigate humidity and regulate daytime temperatures to 29–31˚C in summer (compared to 40˚C on the mainland), whilst an annual average of 400mm of rain falling over the cooler months allows for a dry growing season and harvest. Grown typically on poor soils, ranging from sandy to limestone on the hills to a red clay-based soil on the flats, vines are planted at sea level and up into the rolling hills at altitudes of up to 300 metres. Over 80 percent of the vineyards on the island are planted to black grapes, led by the heat-resistant Monastrell, which makes full-bodied, dark-fruited and spicy wines. Other local and international varieties include Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and the white varieties Macabeo, Malvasia, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat de Petits Grains, Parellada and Chardonnay. Traditionally, vines have been bush-grown, though modern trellising systems are becoming popular. As in many hot climates, the bush or gobelet-training method helps the vines to shield one another from the sun and trap moisture. A number of ungrafted vines can be found on sandy soils towards the southwest of the island. Henrik Smith, director of sales at Ibizkus Wines notes: ‘Nine of our 64 vineyards are ungrafted Monastrell, planted between the 1920s and 1960s. They do well in poor soils with low density planting per hectare. We’re fortunate that the sandy soils have helped with reducing phylloxera.’ It’s not surprising that Ibizan wines have a minimal international profile, given that the island contributes just 4 percent of wine made across the Balearics each year. Ibiza was awarded its own appellation, Vino de la Tierra Ibiza, in 1996, but commercial production is still a relatively new phenomenon here, with the five registered producers focussed on a sustainable, ‘quality-over-quantity’ approach.
‘Ibiza is where premium, organic wines can be produced,’ Laura Garcia, oenologist at Ojo de Ibiza explains. ‘The diverse terroir offers so many possibilities. Monastrell and Syrah are well adapted to our climate, but there are many varieties that can work well here.’ Founded in 2016 by the world-renowned Swiss musician and artist Dieter Meier, Ojo de Ibiza’s vines are spread over 12 hectares (29 acres), its top plot a 100m high vineyard planted on stone terraces in the rugged north of the island. The focus here is on premium, organic wines that support Meier’s mantra to champion Ibiza as an island for ‘international haute cuisine’. Plans to grow Ibiza’s wine industry are limited by land use and regulations. Appellation wines must be produced only with Ibiza-grown grapes; there’s limited opportunity to purchase land and commercial producers are only able to create wines from their own, or managed vineyards. ‘In other wine regions, wineries may purchase grapes from elsewhere but we don’t have this option,’ says Smith. Such constraints don’t dampen producers’ optimism. ‘Ibiza will be a prestigious wine region in the next few years’ says Garcia, ‘wineries will have the opportunity to develop their portfolio alongside its high quality, local gastronomy’. In keeping with the emphasis on premium wine, Garcia’s winemaking is hands-off. ‘We ferment the wine into tanks and use old 225-litre French oak barrels for our reds. Maintaining the varietal character is crucial. The wine needs time to express itself and old barrels allow our wines to mellow.’ The results are distinctive fruit-forward, aromatic wines, balancing dark fruits against concentrated phenolics. Use of indigenous yeast is common, as is experimentation with different ageing vessels. At Ibizkus, Smith says they age 70 percent of the wine in French oak and 30 percent in clay amphorae. ‘The latest vintage of our premium red was partly aged in a 220-litre, hand-blown glass vessel. There’s also a trend to reduce the use of wood, or ageing in old French oak rather than new’. Smaller commercial wineries on the island are also modernizing their approach. The family-run Bodega Can Maymó uses large stainless-steel tanks to produce fruit-forward, easy-drinking wines, alongside a small number of French and American oak barriques for ageing. Bodega Can Rich is the only sparkling producer on the island, using Malvasia and Syrah to create organic, traditional method sparkling wine, aged up to 18 months on the lees. And the latest contender to emerge, literally from the ashes, is Blacknose, a biodynamic vineyard whose ancient dry-stone walls and terraces were only discovered after a devastating fire destroyed the property’s trees in 2011. While most of Ibiza’s wines are sold on the island, direct from the wineries and local wine merchants, a handful are exported to the UK: Ibizkus and Blacknose wines are available at Wanderlust Wine and Bodega Can Rich wines can be found at Vinissimus. As an emerging island wine region, Ibiza offers something new and intriguing to UK customers. ‘We’re seeing Ibiza starting to make waves,’ Sharon Wong, sales and marketing manager at UK importer Wanderlust Wine said. ‘There’s already a spotlight on island wines, with Sicily and the Canary Islands at the forefront, and customers are now exploring other island wine regions. This surge of interest has led to a growing curiosity around Ibiza. In fact, the Ibizkus Rosé is garnering sales comparable to some of our Provence and Sicilian rosés.’
Bronwen Batey has been a freelance wine and travel writer for four years, having segued from 25 years working in luxury hotels to develop a new career in wine. As the wine columnist for the UK lifestyle country magazine, Wildflower, Bronwen specializes in English and Welsh wines as well as wine tourism, with a not-so-subtle bias towards her Australian wine roots. Bronwen is currently in the final few months of studying for her WSET Diploma in Wines.
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