Agriculture and local wisdom join forces with research and technology, yielding some of the world’s most unique wines.
The Viñátigo winery turns 25 in 2015, and it does so proud to be a force behind research into endemic –though not necessarily native– grape varieties from the Canary Islands. A chat with Juan Méndez, the winery’s owner and enologist, is enough to transport me to the vineyards, which are located along slopes to the north of Mount Teide on the island of Tenerife.
A trained chemist, Juan Méndez took over the reigns of his family business 25 years ago. At the time, this group of small wine growers made around 5,000 liters of wine a year for neighborhood consumption. Juan, who originally didn’t think of this as way of life with a long-term future, discovered what he refers to as an, “impressive heritage”. He still brims with the excitement and emotion that he must have felt upon wandering through a vineyard riddled with plants he couldn’t identify. “I contacted respected Spanish technicians from Madrid’s Universidad Politécnica, Gerona’s Rovira i Virgili, the Universidad de Zaragoza… If we hadn’t had help from them, this wouldn’t have been possible”. The plan was to combine the research with “recovering the local knowledge of the older generation, even respecting the names that they used for the different plants. They told us if a plant worked better facing one way or another, in drier or wetter years, etc.”
Stage one: Identifying the varieties
Upon coming into all this heritage, Juan began the process of identifying the varieties endemic to the Canary Islands. “The conquest of the Canary Islands by Castile began in 1402 and the Crown financed this adventure with money from its subjects. In exchange, they were offered land in the islands with the obligation of bringing vine cuttings from the peninsula to assure the food supply”. This is where the vineyards in the Canary Islands come from, and today the remains of those vine cuttings brought here from the peninsula still endure, “although they’re not originally from here, we believe that the majority of these forgotten varieties only exist here.” What’s more, the nineteenth-century phylloxera plague was powerless in the face of the islands’ porous, volcanic soils, meaning that the vineyards have been able to retain their original natural characteristics.
Therefore, the first step undertaken by the Viñátigo team was the identification of the species. “In addition to the knowledge provided by local wine growers, we of course carried out scientific research. With the help of the Universidad Rovira i Virgili, we have been able to identify the different grape varieties by their DNA. To date we have catalogued 82 varieties from the area, although we only commercialize 15 of them”.
Stage two: What will the wines be like?
After identifying the species, Juan began to make single-variety wines using these unknown varieties. “I started out producing these wines almost blindly, without knowing what to expect. I would make them and send samples to Juan Cacho at the University of Zaragoza, who heads what I consider to be the world’s best aroma laboratory –the Laboratorio de Análisis del Aroma y Enología (LAAE), which is part of the Instituto de Investigación en Ingeniería de Aragón (Engineering Research Institute of Aragón) of the Universidad de Zaragoza. This is how we have gone about characterizing the aromatic profile of each variety.”
Of course each wine’s profile isn’t exclusively derived from the variety. Part of its character comes from the soil, the climate, the orientation of the vineyard and other natural factors. “The vineyards found in the Island of Tenerife’s interior are traditionally grown on terraces. Also the trade winds –winds from the northeast– are very important in this area. They are stopped by Mount Teide, which maintains the humidity that we don’t have on the island’s southern part. The soil is volcanic and very poor. At Viñátigo, our goal is to facilitate the wines, not manipulate them. We want to express what the terroir lends to the glass. Each wine has a story of its own”.
Viñátigo currently sells nine single-variety wines under DO Ycoden-Daute-Isora and DO Islas Canarias designations. The chosen white varieties are Marmajuelo (which Juan Méndez brought to Tenerife from the island of El Hierro), Gual, Vijariego Blanco and Malvasía Aromática (of which there is a semi-dry and a classic sweet version); while the reds comprise Negramoll (which is completely different from the variety of the same name that is found on the mainland), Vijariego Negro, Tintilla and Baboso. Each variety has its own unique qualities, but I am personally drawn to the Gual which, despite not having had any contact with wood, has markedly toasted aromas and a very pleasant and creamy palate. In spite of Juan’s insistence, I found it hard to believe that this wine had had zero contact with wood.
He finally explained, “Gual is the only variety that we know of that is capable of synthesizing whisky lactone. This is one of its characteristics”. I would also call attention to the mineral notes found in Vijariego Blanca, which has a noticeable and interesting aroma of gunpowder. And among the reds, the impression made by Baboso Negro particularly stands out. Grown in El Hierro, the grapes are transported in refrigerated containers to the winery in Tenerife. The resulting wine is very floral, with marked notes of roses and, above all, violets (violet candy), accompanied by aromas of black plum, a very balanced structure and refreshing crispness on the palate.
Stage three: the best of every family
“And we have finally come to what I really want to do with the wines: my Ensamblajes (blends)“. After all of this research into the vineyards and in the winery, Juan’s objective as a winemaker is to make a wine that can express a unique viticulture using singular grape varieties. “Each variety contributes something different”, Juan explains. “Each variety is harvested, made into wine and aged separately. The blending is done before bottling, but the resulting wine is made in the vineyards, by thinking about what each plot of land and each grape contributes.”
The 2012 vintage of Ensamblaje Blanco (white blend), which Juan defines as “a blend of Canarian grape varieties”, boasts a very complex bouquet, with herbal notes, laurel (bay) and hints of something tropical, accompanied by delicate toasted aromas. The wines noticeable acidity suggests a wine with a future and a possible evolution whose outcome is yet to be defined.
The Ensamblaje Tinto (red blend) was one of the wines chosen along with important international wines by Master of Wine Pedro Ballesteros for the tasting “Masters of Coupage”, given in Madrid in December of 2014. At that event I had the opportunity to taste the 2012 vintage, a very aromatically complex wine (with notes of violets, black fruit, chocolate and spices over an undercurrent of tobacco and mineral notes reminiscent of coal) that was both structured and intense on the palate with fine tannins and excellent acidity, giving the wine a marvelous elegance and lasting finish. The 2013 vintage, which I tasted with Juan, also boasts a tremendously complex bouquet, but on the palate it is obvious that the wine’s bold tannins and elevated acidity still need time in the bottle to fully integrate.
Viñátigo exports 60% of its small production (approximately 200,000 bottles a year) to different countries. “We have set our sights more on the international market because our wines are perhaps somewhat excessive. They aren’t wines that are understood easily in the local market. In reality we are looking for a more specialized public all over the world. We are mainly positioned in high level restaurants and specialty wine stores that are looking to feature a different product in their portfolio. I personally go and train wine store merchants and sommeliers, explaining the origin of the wines to them.”
In a market that avidly seeks out new proposals, Viñátigo has found success by offering the originality of singular grape varieties that, when blended, create wines that convey their point of origin and are capable of synthesizing the black volcanic soil of the Canary Islands in a bottle. “We sell quality, but we also sell the name Spain, a culture and a gastronomy.”
Production: 200,000 bottles/year
Export quota: 60%
Principal markets: Belgium, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Sweden and United States.
Author: Almudena Martín Rueda/©ICEX.
Translation: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX