Friday, May 02, 2014

Primitive Means Sophistication: Pollensa's wine fair

"From the sour earth is grown the plant which gives the fruit to make fine wine."

This is the legend that accompanies the eleventh Pollensa wine fair - the Fira del Vi - which takes place this weekend in the Sant Domingo cloister in the old town. For one weekend at any rate, Pollensa becomes Mallorca's wine capital, home to 34 bodegas, more than 200 wines, over 500 representatives from the island's wine trade and some 4,000 visitors. It is a fair that features better-known bodegas, such as José Luis Ferrer, and less well-known, boutique-style bodegas.

The fair is a collaboration between Pollensa town hall and the Asociación Vi Primitiu, which literally means what it looks as though it should mean - primitive wine - but the "primitive" is supposed to convey a sense of simplicity as opposed to a lack of sophistication. It was proposed by one of Pollensa's more famous sons, the poet, journalist and dramatist, Miquel Bota Totxo, who died in January 2005. He had lived to experience only one wine fair - the first in 2004.

The association was in fact formed in 1999 and was based at the Club Pollença, a centre for the town's culture of which Bota Totxo had once been the president. The group of friends who shared a passion for wines, wine-making and, as importantly, promoting Mallorcan wines (and not just those in the immediate vicinity of Pollensa) included the president of the association, Josep Bibiloni, who I first met five years ago, when he told me about the background to the association, to the fair and to wine-making on the island.

One thing he stressed was the "character" of the island's wines. This is a character which can be said to stretch back into antiquity, certainly to pre-Roman times on the island. By the time the Romans had become established, Pliny The Younger was able to say of Mallorca's wines that they compared with the best that Italy could produce.

Mallorca as a centre of wine production has existed ever since those ancient times. Even the period of Muslim occupation didn't bring it to a halt, though it did mean that production was reduced. It was during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the cultivation of vines increased significantly. They were generally more profitable than other crops, and there was a further boom in the later part of nineteenth century. Though the total land area devoted to wine production had in fact fallen by around 20% during the first half of that century, it picked up again for two reasons - a significant rise in the rural population and so the overall farming community and the devastation of vines in France caused by phylloxera. For a period of around twenty-five years, Mallorca's wine trade had never had it so good, as it helped to fill the void created by the plague in France.

The two main grape-growing areas were those around Binissalem and Felanitx. It was the former which produced the bulk of the table wine; the soil around Felanitx was more suited to the production of spirits and industrial alcohol. But then, in 1891, phylloxera arrived in Mallorca. It wasn't perhaps as devastating as has been thought, but nevertheless it caused a great deal of harm. It badly affected the rural population, which had risen over the preceding two to three decades, and contributed to the large-scale emigration to South America and Algeria which occurred in the last years of the nineteenth century. It also, quite obviously, severely disrupted wine production. Alternative crops were planted - almonds, most notably - and though vines began to recover, the Civil War and then the arrival of mass tourism, which caused a movement away from the land and from agricultural work,  curbed wine production. It was only from the 1980s that Mallorcan wine began to re-assume its one-time importance.

So, despite the ancient tradition of wine-making, the trade, in its current guise, is relatively young. But this has proved to be something of an advantage. It has inspired innovation not just with the wines themselves but also with labelling. It has created quality wines which certainly belie the notion that "primitive" means a lack of sophistication. It is a trade that benefits from strong support from the local retail and restaurant sectors and also from export; the German market is particularly important.

And it is a trade that is on display in the fine surroundings of the Sant Domingo cloister. The fair is on from 10am till 8.30pm on Saturday and from 10am to 2pm on Sunday. Entrance costs ten euros.

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