Fondillón may not be a name that trips off many wine lovers’ tongues today, but in the 16th and 17th century it was among the most expensive and sought-after wines in the world. After a decline in fortunes during the last century, this once-famous wine is making an extraordinary comeback, thanks to the determination of a handful of producers and a chance unearthing of a forgotten hoard of aged treasures.
Whether archaeology or art, there is something uniquely special about something being discovered after years of being ‘lost’. Finding a forgotten or missing masterpiece conjures (in the truest sense of the word) up a uniquely romantic feeling of wonder.
In the words of The Society’s Director of Wine, Pierre Mansour, Alicante’s ‘Luis XIV’ Fondillón has been ‘shaking up the wine trade’ in the UK, and not merely because of the serendipitous circumstances that led to its creation. Not only is it a remarkable wine, but it also represents the revival of a tradition and the continuation of a legacy for generations to come.
Spain’s forgotten great
Fondillón is a very particular style of red wine unique to Alicante, made using overripe monastrell grapes. Known as mourvèdre in France and mataro in Australia, monastrell is a grape that lovers of the Rhône, Bandol and ‘GSM’ blends will know well in addition to its repertoire across Spain. Here it’s the third-most planted red grape, fashioning everything from the inexpensive robust and fruity to full-bodied, oaky and ageworthy fine wines.
The wines of Fondillón show a very different side to monastrell. Legally they must be at least 16% alcohol, but this strength is not achieved by fortification: its high alcohol and its ability to age magnificently (indeed, the legal minimum is ten years before release) is purely due to the overripeness achieved by leaving the grapes on the vine for longer. The concentration of sugars means that the wines range between off-dry and sweet.
Like sherry, Fondillón wines use a solera system where barrels are topped up over time with younger wines, though the legal requirement is that these have a minimum of four years in barrel themselves before being added to a solera.
In terms of the nearest wine comparisons, it reminds some of Madeira, Banyuls or amontillado sherry, but these only go so far: this is very much a style all its own.
Alicante’s coastal location and these heady concoctions’ ability to withstand long, hot voyages ensured a healthy trading route in centuries gone by. The most famous of the many places where the wines found an appreciative home was the court of Louis XIV (records state that, on his deathbed, the Sun King could only stomach Fondillón-soaked cakes) and when France’s vineyards were ravaged by phylloxera, the region’s exports took a further upward turn.
But then of course the same scourge found its way to Spain and vineyard area was greatly reduced. Other Alicante wines could be made and sold quickly, rather than consigned to the long ageing necessary to make Fondillón. The once-famed wine’s fortunes dwindled, with only a few co-operatives and bodegas fighting on.
Then something extraordinary happened. In 2015, a descendant of an old Fondillón dynasty, Ferrero Valdés, got in touch with David Carbonell asking for some advice. David’s Vins del Comtat, formed in 1997, has its own vineyards but also works with a network of contract growers in Alicante, of whom Ferrero was one.
Ferrero wanted David to visit an old cellar on his family’s historic estate, where a remarkable discovery had been made. The estate shut its doors in the 1960s and the barrel room had lain untouched since. Inside were 25 barrels of different sizes containing Fondillón wines, and the precious contents were in superb condition.
The first hurdle was to identify just how old the wines were. Sadly, documentation on these barrels was sparse, so other local experts were called in. Wood was carbon dated, cooperage markings were traced, and a conclusion was eventually reached: ten of the 800-litre and four of the 850-litre ‘toneles’ in the cellar were from the end of the 19th century, while the remaining 11 500-litre ‘pipas’ hailed from the beginning of the 20th. The findings were presented to the local Consejo and certification granted.
Continuing the legacy
It may have been tempting to either bottle or to sell the barrels’ contents to a local négociant all in one go. Excitingly, however, Ferrero and David took the decision to look to the region’s future as well as its past, and to the legacy they wanted to leave to subsequent generations of winemakers and wine lovers.
They established Colección de Toneles Centenarios’ (CTC) as a partnership with another old winemaking family in the region, who also had stock of mature wines and barrels stretching from the recent to the ancient.
Their shared aim is to take a long-term view, preserve Fondillón’s heritage and continue its traditions. Using their equipment and now with access to some fantastic vineyards in the region (including 100-year-old vines), replacement stocks can be vinified and the precious soleras maintained.
The casks from which the 25-year-old bottling available from The Society was taken, for example, have been topped up with wine of at least ten years old. A combination of wines from two different soleras, the final blend aged in 19th century American oak, the wine is absolutely stunning. Pierre describes it as ‘garnet coloured and gloriously sweet with complex flavours of hazelnuts and dried figs.’ It represents not just a look back to an historically prized wine but also, we hope, a building block for an exciting future we can all look forward to.
Discover all our Spanish wines