André Both and Clara Verheij take a stroll around the grounds of Bodegas Bentomiz. / JOSINEMATOGRAPHY

An award-winning winery in the hills of the Axarquía

Wine making. Dutch couple Clara Verheij and André Both had not planned to open a bodega when they decided to move to Spain in 1995

Jennie Rhodes
JENNIE RHODES

Clara Verheij and André Both from the company Bodegas Bentomiz were winners of the Sabor a Málaga prize at the recent Joan Hunt awards ceremony, which recognised the contribution of the foreign community in Malaga province.

It felt like the ideal time to speak to the owners of this successful Axarquía winery on receiving the award and their journey to being recognised as an important foreign business based in the province.

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Clara, 60, and André 58, are originally from the Dutch city of Utrecht and in 1995 and then in their early 30s, the couple were looking for a change of lifestyle and some adventure.

Having visited Portugal and different areas in Spain on holidays, Clara and André eventually decided to relocate to the Axarquía and were particularly drawn to the villages of Sayalonga and Cómpeta. "It wasn't too touristy but still had good sea views," explains Clara.

With backgrounds in civil and technical engineering (André) and cultural anthropology (Clara) they were hardly equipped to set up a wine-making business. However, after a few years of André running a construction business, which he continues to do today, and Clara a language academy and translation service in Cómpeta, the couple decided to revitalise the abandoned vineyards that came with the finca they had bought. "We had no plans to make wine when we came," laughs Clara.

"We liked the idea of reviving the vineyards and local people came to help us and taught us a lot about the process," Clara says, adding, "For about six or seven years we did it as a hobby."

However, what started off as a pastime when they weren't working gradually developed into a major operation, with the purchase of laboratory equipment in 2003 and André constucted them purpose-built premises in 2005. The first wine; an unfortified sweet muscatel, was an instant success and Bodegas Bentomiz was born.

Recognition

Spain's financial crisis, which really took hold in 2009, hit the couple hard. The country's construction industry all but dried up and Clara admits that they were "very hard times".

However, like with most stories, there was a silver lining and a lack of building work allowed André to turn his hand to another passion - cooking. Eight years ago he built a kitchen at Bodegas Bentomiz and they have been running a restaurant there ever since.

In 2011 Bodegas Bentomiz was recognised by the 'Sabor a Málaga' brand, which was established in the same year, with a view to promoting food and drink from the province locally, nationally and internationally. "It's a very good initiative," says Clara.

This is also how she describes the Joan Hunt awards, named after the late founder of Cudeca and promoted by both the foundation and Malaga province's authority, La Diputación. The ceremony was held for the first time in July 2022.

"I think it's fantastic that they value what Joan did in Malaga. She was a brave woman and her contribution was very important," says Clara, who said that the news that they had won the award "came as a surprise".

While Clara says that she and André didn't ever meet Joan, they did experience what Cudeca does when a close friend was admitted to one of its palliative care centres. Clara also reveals that she's a regular at the foundation's charity shops and that the couple will continue to follow and support Cudeca's work in the future. "It's really good that Joan's legacy is continuing," Clara adds.

As for the bodega, the couple continue to sell their wines at the winery itself as well as nationally and internationally. They now have a range of 10 wines, red, white, rosé, sparkling and sweet, and produce 10,000 bottles per year. The restaurant is open from Wednesday to Sunday for wine tasting and lunch.

And as well as the award ceremony, there was another celebration in July as the couple "finally got round" to getting married after 37 years together!