Close your eyes. Imagine standing on one of the world’s largest volcanoes, wiggling its black volcanic sand between your toes and looking out over the expanse of blue ocean before you… all while tasting wine from grapes that are planted nowhere else in the world, all grown on 100% Pie Franco rootstocks. Where on earth could such a fantastical vignette take place? There’s only one place: the Canary Islands.
Known to Homer as Elysium and to the explorers of the Age of Exploration as the last place to put their feet on solid ground before crossing the Atlantic for the Americas, the Canary Islands and their viticulture are inimitable. And until recently no one knew just how indispensible their wines were to the Americas during this time. It is said that the toast on July 4th, 1776 between our Founding Fathers was likely done with a glass of Canary Island wine.
The vineyards of these majestic islands are planted mostly to Listán Negro (known as Mission in California and País in Chile), Listán Blanco (Palomino on mainland Spain) and Malvasia for their sweet wine that was heavily traded centuries ago and only the best producers carry on the tradition. However, there are a growing percentage of wines from the native grapes: Bujariego, Marmajuelo, Baboso, Tintilla, Malvasía Aromatica, the list goes on. They are remnants of the 16th Century trade route that was populated mostly by the Portuguese, Spanish, and English who planted their vine cuttings, and whose vineyards have never been touched by Phylloxera which devastated European vineyards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The results are beautiful wines laden with flinty, ashy, and smoky minerality, salinity from the salty Atlantic air and gorgeous, delicate tannin. The wines are not overripe or too high in alcohol due to the cool growing season. They call the islands the “Land of Eternal Springtime.” And it’s true. The average temperature here is around 70-75 degrees.
Wine country is pastoral by nature and often dramatic. The Andes are breathtaking with their vineyards bordered by rocky snow peaks. France runs the gamut with the flatlands of Champagne, the river valley of the Loire, the gentle hills of the Cote D’Or, the Mistral winds down south, the mountains of Alsace and the whitewashed outcroppings of Provence. Spain seems to have it all with its green coastline in the north to its high desert like interior and mountains of pure slate in the south. And Germany does extreme like no other. (Where else in the world does one have to wear a harness and repel down a vineyard?!) But the Canaries is otherworldly. Parts of it are like being on Mars – with a large ocean, of course while other parts are like being in heaven. It is truly a unique treasure on this planet — one that I hope everyone will come to enjoy.
If you can’t get there in person, you can rely on their wines to transport you, if only for a little while.
In mid July a small group of reps, distributors, retailers and restaurateurs from New York and California spent a week in this most amazing geological and viticutural phenomenon. Here is a glimpse of what we saw.
Los Bermejos, Lanzarote – This has to be the most Martian looking island of them all with no dirt to speak of, no trees (except the one we ate under) and not much vegetation. And the labor to create these wines doesn’t quite seem to line up with the pricing. Each hoyo dug out by hand, 3-5 meters deep and about the same size across. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before – not even the windy isles of Greece can top that. Ignacio, in my mind, is a genius.
Matias i Torres, La Palma – Lanzarote and La Palma were polar opposites – one hot, dry and exposed. The other green, cool and lush with a very recent volcanic explosion that left its fiery trail in the vineyards and along the coast. Winemaker Victoria Torres makes some of the most traditional wines of the group. The Negramoll is foot trodden, I think Fred Flintstone used her press. The whites are charming and dripping with minerality, and the dessert wine has got to be one of my absolute favorites. This was a great visit and her wines are every bit as charming as she is!
Viñatigo, Ycoden-Daute Isora on Tenerife – If it wasn’t for winemaker Juan Jesus, there would be little Canary Island wine to celebrate. The old vine stocks of Listán Blanco and Listan Negro would still be there of course, but the likes of Marmajuelo, Gual, Baboso, Vijariego and all the other varietals that are making my spell-check go crazy, would not be in our wine glasses, nor would they be there to make the Canary Island story so great to tell. His whites are stellar across the board, the rose is stunning, the joven red is one of our best deals, his Vijariego Red is one of my favorite expressions of that varietal, and the sweet and semi-sweet Malvasia transported me to a field of oranges in blossom and tea pots brewing with earl grey.
Ignios, Ycoden Daute Isora on Tenerife – The difference in style between Ignios and Vinatigo is striking. Borja Gonzalez Perez’s who works with Listan Blanco, Listan Negro and Baboso makes wines are very expressive and serious, which is surprising considering he is only 29. He’s very committed to working naturally and I was so impressed with all of the rehabilitation work that he’d done in his vjariego vineyards.
Monje, Tacorante-Acentejo, Tenerife – When it comes to Felipe Monje’s wines, their tradition shines through – he has 200+ year old vines (and Cuban Rum barrels) and he is also the oldest winery on Tenerife and among the oldest in all of the islands. Not even Lopez can claim to go back that far! HIs 2003 Listán Blanco can’t be beat; and their fresh and fruity Hollera and Tradicional (blended with 5-10% Listán Blanco) are great expressions of the Atlantic influence.
Crater, Tacorante-Acentejo, Tenerife – The Crater Winery is the one responsible for putting Canary wines on the map. They are still considered the benchmark producer for Canary Island wines even if their style is a bit more Bordelaise. They are one of the few Vin de Guarde on the islands. You can tell by the 2008 Magma cuvee we had there–which was singing on our last night there! They make very little wine – about 1,200 cases total on average. It’s truly a labor of love and they are one of the few that’s been around long enough to show the amazing potential of this region.
Fronton de Oro, Gran Canaria – Pedro, like his wines, is unassuming, unpretentious and humble. I’ve never seen a winemaker’s personality come through in his wines quite as much as I have with his. It was like an Eden up there with every kind of flower and fruit. Talk about biodiversity. There’s little need to ever leave that place. It was also the first time I tried his whites and I’d like to bring them in over time. His Tinto is my house wine (yes, that’s why it keeps selling out), and there is basically not a wine that he makes that I don’t love entirely.
Tajinaste, Valle de Oratava, Tenerife – Another stellar young winemaker and one to keep an eye on. Agustin’s wines are honest with a strong sense of pride. They are not boastful, but they are proud of being Canarian and it’s apparent that his studies in Bordeaux have taught him to make wines with finesse that can cellar for many years. The structure, acid, fruit, and balance are all there and they have the potential to also be considered benchmark wines of Valle de Orotava.
By Sarah Gallaher, Spanish Brand Manager. Photos by Hadley Foss