Vines were introduced to the region by the Greeks around 600BC, meaning it has a long history of winemaking. Malaga was hugely productive and its heyday was in the 17th, 18th and early 19th Centuries, when it was Spain's second-largest wine region. Its wines, known as Mountain, were very popular in Great Britain and North America until two successive infestations of powdery mildew and phylloxera crippled production. The wine industry never really recovered, and it has been tourism that has injected much-needed life back into Malaga.
The Malaga DO, Spain's first such designation, was established in 1933. Its Consejo Regulador (wine authority) also manages the Sierras de Malaga DO (introduced in 2001) and Pasas de Malaga DO (raisins of Malaga). Malaga and Sierras de Malaga are often referred to together.
Malaga's climate, in general, is heavily influenced by the Mediterranean Sea as well as by the hot and dry conditions that prevail inland. Pedro Ximenez is a popular variety here, grown mainly on the warmer sites, whereas Moscatel does well in cooler, hilly areas. That said, Malaga is divided into five sub-zones – Serrania de Ronda, Manilva, Norte, Montes de Malaga and Axarquia – each with its own distinctive climate and soils.
The name Malaga has been traditionally associated with sweet wines made from grapes dried on grass mats under the region's intense sun. Now the wines are produced by different methods, the most common of which involves stopping fermentation with grape spirit to retain natural sweetness. According to the local wine laws, the Malaga DO can be used for:
- Fortified wines with alcohol levels of between 15 and 22%.
- Unfortified wines with at least 13% alcohol, produced from overripe grapes or dried grapes, with no artificial alcohol added.
In addition, there are various styles that define the region's versatility. Sixteen are permitted, the most common of which are:
- Pedro Ximenez: Wines made exclusively from this grape variety, also referred to as PX.
- Moscatel: Made from the Muscat of Alexandria grape variety. These are the most aromatic of all Malaga wines.
- Vinos de Lágrima: Made from the Pedro Ximenez grape variety. The name lágrima ('tears' in English) signifies that the juice used for this style is not pressed but is free run, obtained after drying the grapes briefly for one or two days.
- Solera: A regional specialty borrowed from the Jerez region. More than a wine style, it is a maturation process where the wines are aged in oak barrels using fractional blending from different vintages, so that the end product is a consistent mix of wines from different years.