More about the wines of the Canary Islands, in Foods & Wines from Spain

More about Canarian wines, at Foods Wines from Spain. Article by Harold Heckle, which also refers to Bodegas Viñátigo.

Volcanic Survivors

Author: Harold Heckle/©ICEX

The Canary Islands offer a range of unique and truly inspiring wines

Spain’s Canary Islands form a volcanic archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean at some 1300 km southwest of the mainland. Precisely thanks to its relative insularity, it remains one of the world’s richest treasure troves for vines, featuring unique varieties growing naturally on their own ungrafted roots. This peculiarity is a priceless legacy that, so says the British wine writer Oz Clarke, needs to be taken very seriously. In the past, Canary wine was famous enough to be praised by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and was served at many an illustrious table; today over thirty grape varieties, most of them native, regale the nose and palate. All seven major islands in the archipelago make wine, but thanks to groundbreaking work by pioneering oenologists and viticulturists, some truly stand out.

This story begins 20 million years ago when a massive telluric collision between the Africa and Eurasia continental plates caused a tear in the earth’s mantle and produced explosions of lava to erupt through the Atlantic Ocean forming islands like scar tissue on the Earth’s surface.

But the history that makes these islands so special for wine is more recent. Clinging onto ash black soils, atop hillsides windswept by trade winds on these rocky volcanic specks in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, you find vines that maintain a living link with an ancient viticulture from even before our era. Indeed Canary Islands grapevines are the rare and precious survivors from an ecological disaster that forever changed the nature of global winemaking: they were miraculously spared the devastation Phylloxera brought about in most of Europe at the end of the 19th century. Thanks to the dedicated and painstaking tending of vines, often against the odds, today the islands offer a range of unique and truly inspiring wines.

Lanzarote, vines set in black obsidian

In 1730 and again in 1824, Lanzarote was once more convulsed by eruptions. To survive, farmers dug large holes in the ashes and planted vines capable of finding water. To avoid silting up the resulting cones, little stone windbreaks were built on each vine’s windward (northeastern) side. The system, still fully practised, makes for a stunning highly peculiar landscape, which was awarded the prestigious Architecture without Architects prize.

Family-owned since 1775, Bodega El Grifo, is the oldest on the islands and one of the ten oldest wineries in Spain. It holds a museum and a library of over 3,000 volumes. Within its vineyards, there are Muscatel vines so old they could have been planted just after the last eruption. Especially interesting is their Canari, an heir to the 17th c. Canary wines. It is a surprisingly lively coupage of sweet 100% Malvasia from their stock of different solera-aged vintages (1956, 1970 and 1997). Yet they also feature a complete line of modern-day wines, including a Malvasía Brut and a Listán Negro Brut Rosé.

Bodega Los Bermejos was founded in 2001. They supplement their 20 ha (49 acres) of organically cultivated vines with 250 ha (618 acres) owned by 200 small growers, producing an interesting assortment of DO Lanzarote wines of the four main varieties namely Malvasia (dry white, brut nature sparkling, barrel-fermented dry white, semi-sweet and natural sweet), Diego (dry white), Muscatel (natural sweet), and Listán Negro (rosé, brut nature sparkling rosé, carbonic and traditionally macerated reds). What springs out especially are their clean streamlined bottles labelled only around the neck. But not only that, camels imported centuries ago help carry harvested grapes from the vineyards to the winery, conjuring one of the European winemaking’s most evocative images.

Bodega La Geria is strategically situated in the homonymous nature reserve and receives no less 300,000 visitors annually, each being offered wine to taste. What stands out in their full line of dry, semi-sweet and sweet wines, is the refreshing, herbal Manto dry white from Malvasía Volcánica and the rosé and carbon macerated red from Listán Negra.

La Palma, the pretty island

The seductive beauty of La Palma, the most verdant of the islands, was celebrated by Madonna in her song “La Isla Bonita” (The Pretty Island). A devastating fire, followed by landslide-provoking floods, lashed the island in August 2009 and Bodegas Carballo lost the few Engaja vines they had been propagating. Only one bottle of 2006 survived. The variety was often used to naturally correct acidity without having to rely on tartaric acid. Carballo’s DO La Palma star wine is a traditional Malvasía, of the type Shakespeare would have relished. There are photographs of bills of lading dating from the 16th century. But they didn’t stop here. Today they also offer a line of joyous varietal based wines such as their dry white Listán Blanco and Bujariego and red and rosé Negramoll.

La Gomera, a feisty, promising comeback

At the heart of La Gomera are the ancient woodlands of Garajonay National Park, intact survivors from the Tertiary Period (65-1.8 million years ago). Skirting it, in valleys and slopes all around the island, are steeply terraced vineyards, a testament to the hardy determination of resident Gomeros. Many have fallen in disuse, but thanks to DO La Gomera’s resoluteness, new life is being injected into production. Bodega Insular in Vallehermoso receives grapes from many small growers on the island. Their barrique-fermented Cumbres de Garajonay clearly projects the quality of the autochthonous white Forastera Blanca variety.

But there is a whole new generation of oenologists here, at least as stubborn as their forebears. At Arure, they have turned three ancestral caves into a modern bodega. Their Viña Cheo blends 60% Listán Negro with 40% Ruby Cabernet. Another producer, Vinos Roque Cano, makes Los Roquillos with 90% Listán Negro and equal measures of Tintilla, Ruby and Castellana (a Canary grape, despite its name). Montoro by C.B. Montoro, is an ambitious blend of Forastera Blanca, Listán Blanco, and small portions of Muscatel, Pedro Ximénez and Malvasía. Aceviñón by Bodega Antonio Arteaga Santos, combines Listán Negro (85%) with 10%, Tempranillo and 5% Merlot. Quite a medley!

Tenerife, the driving force

At La Guancha we find Viñátigo, producing DO Ycoden Daute Isora wines. It is a technologically advanced winery where satellite links are used to track vineyard developments to the finest detail. Each wine can be traced back to its vines. They use gravity or, at worst, peristaltic pumps. Even greater meticulousness can be observed in the vineyards, where year after year vine performance is painstakingly compared to terroir characteristics. They obtain astonishing results and thereby honour their viticultural heritage with an impressive line of single varietal wines all under the Viñátigo label: Marmajuelo, Gual, Vijariego, Malvasia, Negramoll, Listan, Tintilla and Babosa, as well as a white and red blend of these local varieties.

The full potential of reds in the Canaries is being widely explored. Bodegas Arca de Vitis-Contiempo, a DO Valle de Güímar company has invested heavily in local grape varieties and is making excellent multi-varietal wines, but also a special edition of a 100% Malvasia dry white.

Bodegas Cráter of DO Tacoronte-Acentejo is run by highly motivated and internationally schooled oenologists and applies biodynamic practices. They produce two appropriately named wines: Cráter from Listán Negro and Negramoll and the more complex high-end Magma of Negramoll and Syrah. Bodegas Monje, at La Hollera in El Sauzal was built around a farmhouse handed down at least five generations. Today it houses a modern winery producing an extensive array of styles as well as a specially designed wine appreciation centre, which also serves as a musical and artistic venue. They produce a wide range of wines including special editions, like their Oscar Dominguez Reserva 2000 from Listán Blanco and Negro and Negramoll, which goes for well over €100. And certainly, a place to turn to in DO Tacoronte-Acentejo is the impressive co-op Bodegas Insulares which has a great range of wines. Special mention merits their Humboldt Vendimia Tardía, a mouth-filling sweet Listán Blanco and the port-like Humboldt made from Listán Negro having spent 18 months in American oak.

Tajinaste of DO Valle de La Orotava, farms six ha (15 acres) of immaculately tended local varieties. They look for mineral nuances to shine through the purity of clean fruit and produce all single varietal wines going from a crisp white Listan Blanco, through carbon macerated Listán Negro to a special old-vine wine of the same kind.

El Hierro: Strong as iron

Hierro means iron and the island’s reddish topsoil, full of ferruginous mineral and ash content, nourishes some of Spain’s most fascinating grape varieties: the fruity Vijariego and the more potent and far less prolific Baboso. Both have red and white clones, with tintos (reds) taking the plaudits. Tanajara, a fairly recent and expertly run winery of DO El Hierro, produces only two single varietal wines that have quickly become a legend among top restaurateurs and wine buffs: Tanajara Vijariego Tinto is corpulent and fruity and Tanajara Baboso Negro, aged in new Allier oak, is more concentrated, dark and mineral. In the wake of success, they have expanded into new plots with different solar orientations and often opt for masal selection from the very best vines.

With its unique Phylloxera-free condition, its wide variety of autochthonous varietals, the volcanic mineral-infused flavours and aromas, and the firm contribution of inspired winemakers, the Canary Islands are starring truly mould-breaking wines. So, do as the Bard of Avon, but your choice will be much wider and far more exciting.

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