Mallorca, an island where vines have been cultivated for at least 2,000 years, hosts a wine culture still in search of itself. I mean that in the best possible way. No wine without history behind it expresses much of value, but wines too beholden to habit make a boring fetish of the past. I like Mallorcan wines because they seem to wrestle fruitfully with that distinction.

Not that I’ve drunk a lot of Mallorcan wines. Since precious few make it to this country, I’d have to travel to Mallorca to do that. The largest of Spain’s Balearic islands in the western Mediterranean, Mallorca is a favorite vacation spot for Europeans, especially Germans and Britons, so I’m guessing those sending countries import a broad variety. Where I live, my options are limited.

Luckily, what they’re limited to is terrific. As far as I know, the only Mallorcan wines in Maine are those from Ànima Negra or Biniagual, though the latter can be hard to find. In them all, the combination of expressive indigenous grape varietals, challenging and varied soils, and conscientious farm and cellar practices yield wines of remarkable variety and intrigue.

Mallorca’s tension between tradition and innovation is real, and invigorating. The wines have grapes you’ve never heard of, blended with those you have. White or red, they taste simultaneously like something very old and Continental, but also innovative and fresh. The flavors are earthy and soulful one moment, marine and feisty the next.

These oscillations are the unique gift of island wines. Island cultures grow up apart, shielded to some extent from the incessant flow and interaction of mainland life. Whatever’s there stays there, whatever’s not there can’t just slide in. Of course this was especially so in pre-industrial times, when options for transportation and communication were more limited. It was then that native grapes such as manto negro, callet and fogoneu developed on Mallorca.

But in a busy international waterway like the Mediterranean, islands don’t stay isolated for long; they occupy an opposite function as well, as a crossroads for nations and peoples. The list of who has lived on Mallorca, not to mention who has ruled it, fought for it, died for it, is long indeed.

As is the list of wine styles, of reportedly diverse quality. But in 1994, two natives of the island, Pere Ignasi Obrador and Miquelàngel Cerdà, bought some local grapes intending to dramatically raise the caliber of wine on Mallorca as a whole. That they set out to do this using purchased fruit is noteworthy, because it suggests that their primary focus would be on altering vinification, rather than viticulture, practices.

Eventually they would improve both. But Cerdà told me that Mallorcan wine is “always a work in progress, and we are still experimenting with how and where the varietals work best.” Buying fruit was a way of controlling the initial experiments. Now, the winery that Cerdà and Obrador started, Ànima Negra, is one of Mallorca’s most successful, precisely because it brings its proprietors’ long familiarity with and love for the island and its native viticulture together with extensive modern-day, university-educated understanding of genetics and chemistry.

Ànima Negra (“black spirit”) now owns or controls 200 acres of vineyards in the island’s southeast, surrounding a 13th-century building that serves as the winery. Many of those acres used to produce wine strictly for local consumption, and were appropriately unambitious. But Cerdà and Obrador saw potential in the limestone-based soils and, most of all, in the old vines, the majority of which are from 50 to 85 years old.

Interspersed among these are some vines of syrah. Other quality-minded producers on Mallorca grow cabernet sauvignon and merlot as well. Biniagual’s Sant Gall 2010 (originally around $22 but now probably available for a significant discount since the supplier is hoping to move past this older vintage) is one of these, blending 50 percent manto negro with the other half a cab/syrah blend.

Ordinarily I’m nonplussed by such fusions, since they so often come across as attempts to disguise perceived insufficiencies in the native grapes’ potential to produce a wine acceptable to “the market.” My usual response is, why bother to make a wine there at all if you’re willing to disregard the history of original grapes from that place?

The Mallorcan wines that use international varietals, however, show me the nativist prejudice at the heart of this blinkered perspective. For, remember, Mediterranean islands are crossroads. They bring together diverse populations and influences. The supportive, almost humble roles the syrah and cabernet play in good Mallorcan wines parallel islands’ historical role as haven, writ large.

At Ànima Negra, the unique temperaments of the wines are highlighted by the winemakers’ respectful approach to the raw materials at hand. Many Mallorcan modernizers embraced irrigation, but Ànima Negra dry-farms this hot area without fertilizer, to keep yields low and flavor compounds high. Chemical killers (insecticides and herbicides) are forsworn; many biodynamic practices are used. All the grapes are harvested by hand, and only yeasts indigenous to the grapes and vineyards are used for fermentation. Aging is mostly in concrete and used oak.

I was most immediately taken with Ànima Negra’s white-ish wine, the Quibia 2013 ($16-17). I say “white-ish” because it’s a blend of 40 percent premsal and muscat-girò with 60 percent callet, a red-wine grape present in all Ànima Negra’s wines. The skins are separated immediately after pressing so that none of the callet’s color tints the must, but the finished liquid holds the lusciousness of a red wine’s body within the overall package of a dry, fresh white.

The other factor in the Quibia’s surprising, red-winelike breadth is long contact with the lees as the wine ferments in large stainless steel tanks. This helps impart a waxy, almost resinous quality to the wine’s texture, which supports overtly floral aromas and varied flavors balanced between fresh and earthy. It is an exceptionally distinctive white wine, ideal for substantial meals in colder months.

The Àn/2 2013 ($22-25) blends manto negro, fogoneu and 15 percent syrah with a majority of callet, the latter this time fermented as a red wine grape. It’s an exciting wine to drink, with tremendous acidity and flavors of shiitakes, kelp, sea salt, walnuts, but I get some strange, anthropomorphized sense that it’s an exciting wine to be as well, so alive and alert is its character. The wine ages for roughly a year in mostly used French and American oak barrels, but only after fermenting in large, temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks. This treatment lends extraordinary vibrancy to the finished wine.

The Àn 2010 ($42) is the winery’s flagship, a refined, dignified wine with laserlike focus and memorable staying power. A scant 5 percent of manto negro and fogoneu are included with the remainder callet from distinctive, poor-soil vineyard sites, providing a vivid snapshot of that latter grape’s essence. Here are the clarity and suppleness of pinot noir joined to the earthiness and silkiness of syrah, yet the wine transcends any non-Mallorca analogies.

The Àn shows dramatically less acidity than the Àn/2 (though the actual numbers are very close, 5.0 g/L to the Àn/2’s 5.1), with luxurious seamlessness and poise. Fermentation takes place in large cement and wooden vats, followed by malolactic conversion in oak barrels and cement, before aging for a year and a half in new French oak barrels. You definitely notice the oak influence in this wine, but much less as a taste than as something like emotional support. It is complete, and gorgeous, and like all great wines it employs Mallorca’s talent for yoking the present moment to the eternal.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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