Mention Mallorca today and most people run shrieking for the nearest exit, haunted by visions of Sixties-built high-rise hotels, hen/stag parties, pubs and discos, Bratwurst, Full English Breakfasts and beaches packed with hordes of glistening northern Europeans flushed pink in the Mediterranean sun.
In truth there are two Mallorcas. One of them – the packaged version – seldom strays far from the coast. The other, more loosely wrapped, is to be found inland. And the twain, mostly, don’t meet (hooray).
This diminutive smudge of an island – about one quarter the size of Yorkshire with a population of around 800,000 people – receives around 6 million tourists each year. Most of these do indeed settle for the beach. Others head for the interior, where they discover a hushed world of dusty, golden stone villages, silvery olive groves and almond and apricot orchards bounded by dry stone walls and carpeted with wild flowers, medieval monasteries and churches, laidback hideaway hotels and casas rurales.
To the north of the island, rearing up like jagged vertebrae from southwest to northeast are the mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. At their feet and sprawling south into the plain are the vineyards.
Home-grown wines, in Mallorca? Until ten years ago – give it fifteen at the most – few visitors to the island were even aware of them and wouldn’t have bothered to seek them out whilst holidaying here (“I’ll have the Rioja”). As for visiting wineries to get to know them in situ, forget it.
But that’s all changing. James Hiscock, who hosted me at his two super-stylish country retreats deep in the Serra de Tramuntana (Finca Es Castell and Son Ametler) where the only noises off are birdsong and the tinny tinkling of sheep bells grazing beneath olive trees, confirms there’s been “a significant evolution of producers, varietals and wines over the last ten years”, and rejoices in the fact that he can now offer great local wines to guests.
But hang on a bit. we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Unless you’re arriving on the island under sail and mooring off Puerto Portals, the chances are your trip will start in Palma. Give the town a little consideration – a bit like the wines, it has enjoyed an impressive makeover in recent years. The cathedral, a soaring, golden Gothic delight with its famous flying buttresses akimbo, stands guard facing the sea. Just behind is a rabbit warren of streets pullulating with quirky shops, hole-in-the-wall wine and tapas bars, restaurants and exquisite patrician palacios that have recently evolved from dilapidated family homes to chic town hotels.
One such is Can Alomar, a newly opened 16-room boutique hotel in a superbly restored 19th-century palace in the heart of Palma’s old town, whose terrace restaurant overlooking the elegant Passeig del Born (pictured right) dishes up gorgeous Japanese-Peruvian fusion food.
Hardly have you exited Palma onto the motorway heading northeast and you’re already in the vineyards. You can embark on a winery tour almost anywhere – a plus point here is that distances are small and most bodegas within spitting distance of one another. A good start would be Bodegues Ribas in Consell, a grand old estate, the oldest on the island, established in 1711 and still owned and run by the Ribas family. They have made a point of nurturing their indigenous vines, including 60 year-old Premsal and Manto Negro rootstocks, and have rescued the almost extinct (and near-unpronounceable) Gorgollasa. Try the fragrant house white based on Premsal and a little Viognier, or Ribas negre (red) where the lightly pigmented Manto Negro contributes its velvety, red fruit aromas to an elegant blend stiffened by Syrah and Merlot.
Next up is Santa María del Camí, in the heart of DO Binissalem, one of the island’s two DOs (the other is DO Pla y Llevant, to the south). A good landmark is the little red train, which – unless on its rounds of the vineyards – will be parked outside Macià Batle, a large bodega founded in 1856 with a new winery built in 1996. There’s always a happy throng of fellow tasters in the shop and out in the courtyard quaffing Macia Batle blanc, a cheerful combination of local Premsal Blanc, Chardonnay and a little Moscatell, or one of the barrique-aged range of reds which blend the indigenous Manto Negro with Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot.
Also in Santa María, and about a tenth of the size with just 10 hectares, is Bodega Ramanyà, a new kid on the block established only in 2003. Here, self-effacing, self-taught Toni Ramanyà makes four wines, including – unusually for Mallorca – two cavas, both based on Manto Negro, one pink and the other a blanc de noirs. A visit takes in Ramanyá’s treasured collection of rural artefacts, including a perfectly restored, bone-shaking 19th-century horse-drawn carriage, of the kind described by George Sand in her dyspeptic memoir Winter in Majorca.
A touch north of Santa María, on the scenic road from Alaró to Lloseta with the twin peaks of Alaró in the background, is Castell Miquel, a bijou castle built in the ’60s for a sister-in-law of Franco. Now German-owned, the estate’s terraces and dry stone walls have been meticulously restored and planted with international varieties. There’s a modest charge for tastings, deducted from your purchases, which would do well to include the supple Shiraz Stairway to Heaven, named after the steep ‘staircase’ of vineyards above and below the castle.
Another dramatic drive (factor in 19 hairpin bends) – and a great day out from either Finca Es Castell or Son Ametler – takes you up to the monastery of Lluc, a pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages. Beware the cyclists, for whom this is a well-worn route, and try not to be distracted by the jagged limestone cliffs, vertiginous drops and glimpses of circling eagles and vultures. Afterwards you can continue the climb and look in on Vinyes Mortitx, the highest vineyard on the island with 15 hectares of Malvasia, Riesling, Chardonnay and Moscatell, plus Monastrell, Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot. They make a pretty, blush-pink rosé from Monastrell, Merlot and Cabernet, fine for summer drinking. For the cooler months, their Rodal Pla, a robust but tactfully oaked Syrah/Cabernet/Merlot blend, is a standout.
Another day, another landscape. “So much variety in such a small space,” marvels José Antonio de Haro, purveyor of niche wines to many of the island’s top hostelries and my guide for the day in the flatlands south of the Palma-Algaida axis, where rugged mountains and gnarled olive trees give way to wide, flat expanses of wheat interspersed with vines. Together we visit the brand-new cellar and tasting room at Bodegas Son Prim just outside Sencelles. Typical of the new generation of highly motivated wine makers, they’re appreciated for their original, value-for-money, Mediterranean-inflected wines (varietal and blended Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah with a little Manto Negro) – check out their characterful, full-bodied Merlot.
At Bodegas Can Majoral in Algaida, brothers Biel and Andreu completed their conversion to organics in 2007. They are firm believers in the potential of age-old Mallorcan varieties to produce quality wines, either as single varietals (aromatic Giró Blanc, stylish Gorgollasa) or in blends (low-acid Premsal boosted by Chardonnay and Parellada or rustic Callet with Syrah and Cabernet).
For a parting shot, visit Bodegas Mesquida Mora in Porreres for a taste of maverick Barbara Mesquida’s lively wines. One of a handful of women wine makers on the island, she recently struck out on her own with 20ha of vines, both local and international varieties. The biodynamic approach shines through, from descriptions of her vines and wine making through to the result in the bottle. Acrollam (Mallorca, spelt backwards), a Premsal-rich blend with Chardonnay, is a deep golden, mouthfilling white while Trispol, a dense ruby red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Callet with a label showing a mosaic of decorated floor tiles typical of Mallorca, is firmly grounded in the island. [A version of this article appeared in the August 2014 issue of Decanter] For more Decanter wine travel articles, click here.