Traditional winemaking on Ibiza

Next time you enjoy a glass of wine or two, pause to think that winemaking in Ibiza is as old as the island’s famous salt trade. In fact, wine was perhaps more important than salt to Ibiza’s first major known culture, the Phoenicians. Josep Lluis Joan Torres is an expert in Ibiza’s agricultural heritage. He works for the government to promote Ibiza’s historic and contemporary food culture and invited me to visit to a traditional wine-press. Our journey took us to an ancient family home in the countryside near Sant Antoni, and back several thousand years in time.

The Phoenicians, who settled Ibiza as long ago as 700BC, were vigorous seafaring people whose culture was based on trading. The island had two valuable commodities: salt and wine. At the time, wine was a luxury item to other Mediterranean cultures that didn’t know how to make it. So the Phoenicians turned Ibiza into a giant vineyard and winery. They dug trenches to break up the island’s thick clay soil and planted vineyards across a large part of the island. You can see some of the archaeological excavations of vineyards near the hippodrome in Sant Jordi.

After the Phoenicians were driven out various cultures gained dominance in Ibiza, among them Greek and Roman, who brought their own wine-making expertise and technology. The wine press Joan Torres took me to visit is part of a family farm whose buildings date back 1000 years. The press itself is Roman-era technology that has been used in Spain for centuries. It consists of an enormous wooden beam, perhaps 15 metres long and about one-metre square. There is a huge, hand-carved wooden corkscrew at one end, carved from a single piece of olive. Barrels of partially fermented grapes are placed beneath a press in the middle, the press is screwed down, and the juice flows out.

Joan Torres explained that in historic times Ibiza was divided into small districts, or neighbourhoods, of a couple of dozens or so local families. The grand house we visited would have been owned by the most powerful, prosperous family, and its wine-press and olive mill used communally. Neighbours from smaller houses would come to assist the big house with harvest, pressing and barrelling; they would also bring their own grapes and olives to be processed.

Once the grapes were pressed the wine was stored in barrels to ferment. We visited the long, low, cool barrel room, a sulphur-scented cave with sausages hanging from the ceiling to age. After a few months, when the wine was ready, the owner of the big house would, traditionally, invite all the neighbours for a feast. Everyone from the district would gather to drink the new wine, and enjoy the sausages, olive oil, and other foods they worked so hard to grow and prepare.

Ibiza has changed immeasurably in the course of 2500 years, but it’s always loved a party!

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