Since the city has had a port, this first wine has travelled around the world and has become known and appreciated as a luxury product beyond the Mediterranean arc, in central and northern Europe. Thus, the thesis of those who defend that this popularised and appreciated wine was not a Fondillon makes sense, because to make such a wine one needs a decisive variant: time. Aging, with soleras, requires years and special care, so that the production is always very low.
The success of the wine from the Alicante plain was such that the cultivation of grapes spread during the 16th and 17th centuries to the neighbouring towns and to the regions of the Middle and Alt Vinalopó, which were very well connected and linked to the Valencian bourgeoisie. Thus, at that time, two different varieties of Fondillon coexisted, that of Horta d'Alacant and that of the neighbouring counties, both from the Mourvèdre grape (Monastrell in Castilian, Monestrell in Valencian), but with different maturation processes. There are those who consider that the first one, from Horta, was Fondillon, but it is not clear whether the production is in accordance with what defines the current Fondillon.
It is certain that wine production was very important in the lands that we now consider to be the province of Alicante. A significant fact, which reflects the weight of the sector in the economy, is that Fernando the Catholic signed a privilege on 18th January 1510 by which he prohibited the entry of wines from other cities into Alicante until the local production was consumed. He created the Council for the Prohibition of Foreign Wines which also served to regulate the origin and quality of Alicante wine. This was the first designation of wine origin.
On the whole, experts in the field believe that neither of the two red wines from Alicante - neither the one from Horta, nor the one from the neighbouring regions - can be called Fondillon. It is therefore not possible to talk about the origin of Fondillon. Hopefully, we will be able to say who, when and how this first bottle was made. It was probably the result of the accumulation of barrel bottoms and the mixing with younger wines. So there is no possibility that the bottles of this sweet wine that travelled around the world was a Fondillon. You see, the case is complicated.
What seems indisputable is that the sweet and generous red wine of Alicante was the most famous, appreciated and consumed by the European elite. It is said to have been the favourite of the Sun King and Elizabeth I of England. The Duke of Saint-Simon, the official court chronicler, says that Louis XIV of France used to dip biscuits in it. This is why it was nicknamed the "wine of kings". As an example, here is a reference in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alejandro Dumas:
- But sit down, says Monte Cristo; I really don't know what I'm thinking about... I've kept you here for a quarter of an hour.
- That doesn't make you Mr. Count... The old man took an armchair and sat down.
- Now," said the Count, "would you like something to drink? A glass of Jerez, Porto, Alicante?
- Alicante, since you insist; it's my favourite wine.
We must go beyond the question of origins to consider what will take us to the present, let's stop at the golden age of Alicante wine. According to the sources consulted, at the end of the 19th century there were around 4,000 wineries in the province. They claim that they were dedicated to the production of Fondillon, but we now believe that the demands of its production prevented them from doing so. With phylloxera, changes in the world and the Spanish economy and other economic factors, the cultivation of vines declined. It is estimated that at the beginning of the 20th century, before the Spanish Civil War, there were less than 100 hectares dedicated to the cultivation of Mourvèdre.
Contrary to the idyllic version of a triumphant and popular wine, everything suggests that Fondillon was rather a wine of limited production and destined for demanding minorities; an elitist wine that could not escape the difficult times either, it was on the verge of disappearing.
As cycles and stages never end, a renaissance has recently brought us hope. In the middle of the last century, there was a research and recovery project that is attributed by some sources to two important Alicante winemakers: Salvador Poveda and Primitivo Quiles. In the 1960s and 1970s, they bought, recovered and restored some old barrels to make Fondillon again.
The fact is that this wine has reappeared in force, and is a great success, curiously among the classes with greater purchasing power in the icy lands of Eastern Europe. The noble wine of Alicante is finally being recognised and valued as a wine made with true love deserves.
What is Fondillon?
The DO (Denomination of Origin) Vinos Alicante dedicates a whole manual to the most emblematic wine, the wine of kings, in which it is explained that the first step in obtaining it, one of the most important, is to let the Mourvèdre grape ripen under the sun's rays. Because by leaving it longer than it would take to make any other wine, the grapes gain a few more points of sugar; this is what gives the wine its characteristic sweetness. Here we have another point of controversy. The purists claim that the only variety to make Fondillon is Mourvèdre and on the other hand there are those who produce it from other grapes, relegated to ostracism and with the impossibility of obtaining an Appellation d'Origine.
The sugar offered by the sun and the arid soil in which the grapes are grown give Fondillon its second characteristic, a minimum of 16 degrees of natural alcohol. The word "natural" must be emphasised because this high degree is obtained solely and exclusively from the sugar in the grapes, which is not the case for other fortified wines such as Jerez. Yes, the alcohol content of Sherry is added. This singularity is just one of the elements that distinguish the two most renowned sweet peninsular wines.
Let's return to the ageing of our Fondillon to tackle the decisive stage in its development: ageing in solera or "perpetual reserve". We could summarise the procedure in which the wine is left to age in barrels for years - the Alicante D.O. stipulates in its manual that the ageing period must be at least ten years.
There are those who claim that the name of the wine, Fondillon or Fondellol, is given precisely by the fact that the barrels or casks used to make it are usually located at the bottom of the cellars. However, the RAE's definition of the term "fondilón" does not refer to the location of the barrels but to what gives this wine its meaning. It reads: "Fondillon: asiento y madre de la cuba cuando, después de la mediada, se vuelve a llenar" (Base and mother of a vat when, after racking, it is filled again). Here we find another of the keys to this wine, the process by which the lineage is perpetuated in each barrel: special barrels, huge ones at that, made of thicker wood to hold at least 500 litres, a quantity rare in other ageing systems. There are wineries where they have established very particular volumes for the capacity of the barrel, expressed in Cànters, a medieval unit used before the decimal metric system which measured 11.55 litres in Alicante. The most common casks in the past were 150 Cànters, although 125, 90 (norantens), 80 (vuitantens) and even 60 (seixantens) Cànters were also made. Thus, the wineries most faithful to the tradition use barrels of 1,732.50 litres (150 Cànters) for their Fondillon.
How is it produced?
Let's start at the beginning: the winegrowers harvest the so-called blets (overripe) grapes to obtain more sugar and the particular sultana aftertaste of Fondillon. Thus, they make wine from pansied grapes. The must is put into large barrels in which the wine is aged for at least five years. After this, a decisive tasting is carried out, during which the oenologists decide whether it is suitable for making Fondillon. If it is, it will remain there for at least five more years, usually between 20 and 25 years.
The barrel containing the original, oldest wine is placed on the floor, and barrels containing later vintages are placed on top. It must be full. When the wine is left to rest, day after day, month after month and year after year, voids are created by the oxidative process of the wine, and by the "saca", the racking to bottle it. To complement the original cask, the younger wines in the barrels above are used. There are also those who use wines from the same vintage as the original but from a different barrel. This is the solera! The result is that the older wine bonds with the younger ones - which must be at least five years old - sharing with them all their wisdom. A magic is thus born that transforms the grape juice into a wine known as "rancio" with a taste of spices, ripe fruit and an intense amber hue.
When you discover the bottle, particular and characteristic, round, generous, welcoming like a mother's breast, you already know that you are going to drink a special wine. The question is: how not to go back?
Las Provincias newspaper blog
Villa Viniteca blog
Casa Torre Juana
Cata del Vino
Regulatory Council D.O. Alicante
La Vanguardia newspaper
Diario de Cádiz
Fondillón Luis XIV
MG Wine Group
Magazine of the Autonomous University of Madrid
Vicent Torres Banuls