Stunning, austere, desolate Lanzarote will haunt you. I still dream of it, six months later. The terrain was like nothing I’d seen before, the entire landscape a uniform gunmetal gray—hard and shiny like onyx in some places, fragmented and ashy in others. The buildings were equally invariable. Small, geometric, and painted stark white, they clustered together into townships as if huddling for warmth. Viewed in full sun, the contrast they struck against the ebony earth seared my eyes. For hours after leaving the island, I could still see their cubic forms projected on the inside of my closed lids.
Lanzarote’s almost total lack of vegetation was startling. As was the wind. Thick palm trees bent like cooked noodles in what I was sure were hurricane force winds, but were mere breezes to the residents. Later, an attempt to play miniature golf proved laughable. Might as well have tried in zero gravity.
I quickly came to curse my attire. While a sundress seemed fitting for the temperature, it left too much exposed. My pale New England skin, which refuses to brown even after eight years in California, was soon buffed and scratched to a painful pink hue. Sunscreen was not the issue; what I needed was an exoskeleton. It turns out that the ash on Lanzarote is nothing like the lacy campfire snowflakes of my youth. Each particle, which whips about on the wind, more closely resembles a tiny meteorite, with craters and jagged, tooth-like edges.
The landscape in Lanzarote (Photo credit: Kelli White)
Lanzarote and the rest of the Canary Islands legally belong to Spain, and are therefore European. Yet the volcanic archipelago is far closer to Africa, situated only 100 kilometers (62 miles) off the Moroccan coast, one-tenth of its distance from Spain. This remote allegiance is a relic from the days of Colonial expansion, when the various powers of Europe were frantically planting flags across the far reaches of the globe. The Spanish crown first laid claim to the Canary Islands in 1402, though Portugal regularly challenged their dominion. As a result, today’s Canary Island culture is very much a mix of Spanish and Portuguese influence, with the latter reflected in a good proportion of the population’s surnames as well as many of the grape varieties, which were brought from the island of Madeira.
Credit: Food & Wines From Spain
Like Madeira, the Canary Islands are critically positioned and served as a useful stopping place for European ships bound for Asia, South America, or the West Coast of the United States. Early European settlers were quick to plant vines, and the resulting wines enjoyed significant international acclaim. The most popular of the early wines included a Sherry-style “sack,” a sweet fortified Malvasía, and vidueño, which is believed to have been produced from a combination of white and red varieties, most likely Listán Blanco, Listán Negro, and Listán Prieto. Ships bound for the Spanish colonies in the New World would commonly stock up on both wine and vine cuttings in the Canaries. In this way, Listán Prieto came to dominate the Americas, where it became known as Criolla in Argentina, País in Chile, and Mission in California.
The Canary Islands are located along the 28th parallel, closer to the equator than most fine wine regions. The climate is classified as subtropical, and conditions are fairly temperate year round. The balmy weather and striking beauty of the islands make them a huge draw for tourists, and more than 14 million visit each year (signage on Tenerife's northern airport is written in both Spanish and German). Luxury development is rampant, raising the value of real estate across all the islands, even in locations far from the coast. This is a source of frustration for producers like Envínate, whose desire to expand their vineyard holdings is regularly thwarted by growers holding out for “hotel money.”
Data from Food & Wines From Spain
The current wine culture of the Canary Islands is a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand, producers are turning out a flood of cheap and inoffensive resort wines, engineered to sate but not challenge the tourists. On the other, a small group of quality-minded winemakers are crafting some of the most exciting, individualistic, and buzzworthy wines of the day. This upward trajectory is a relatively recent phenomenon, and momentum is growing. According to Anthony Weytjens of Finca Vegas, “As early as 10 years ago, the majority of producers were focused only on quantity. This new generation of winemakers has formal training, international experience, and a passion for quality.” Such producers have worked hard to have their wines recognized. To do so, they not only had to educate buyers and consumers that were, for the most part, uninformed about Canary Island wines, but also had to set themselves apart from a local culture that does not necessarily embrace fine wine. While touring the Canary Islands, I was first bemused, then amused, at the repeated warnings I was issued against changing wines mid-meal. Multiple residents assured me that I would get a headache unless I drank only one type of wine with dinner. This mentality is part of the reason that top producers are focusing almost exclusively on exporting, rather than on cultivating their local market.
Even at the highest end, Canary Island wines are seriously inexpensive, which is either a good or bad thing depending on which side of the consumer line you stand. More than once I thought I was ordering a glass of something, only to discover the listed price was for a bottle. Roberto Santana of Envínate believes that the best wines can and should command more money, which will help build their international reputations. “We need to start making more expensive wines in the Canary Islands. Even charging 14 or 15 euros would help. We see wines for 3 euros on the shelf, and that is bad for us.” He is not the only frustrated producer. While the recent jumps in quality (and the resulting international recognition) have been encouraging, many feel that Canary Island wines still have a long way to go. Agustín García Farráis of Bodegas Tajinaste is in that camp, but sees limitless potential. “In the 16th and 17th centuries, Canary Islands wines were famous worldwide. We need to reclaim that reputation!”
Producers may complain that the wine culture of the Canary Islands seems to have stalled after such a propitious start, but it can be argued that this has been a good thing for the vineyards. Partly because of their remote location, and partly because of the often sandy, volcanic nature of the soil, phylloxera has never appeared in the Canaries. As such, the islands are home to many varieties, such as Listán Prieto, that were once prevalent in mainland Europe but have since disappeared. Ancient methods of trellising have also been preserved. One of the most distinct is the trenzado system, wherein vines are trained along the ground in braids that extend for 10 meters or more. Following fruit set, these long cordons are propped up on sticks to keep the clusters off the ground. After harvest, the arms were historically swung to the side so that potatoes, corn, and other crops could be cultivated during dormancy. Many vineyards feature vines that are a century (or two!) in age.
The trunk of a vine, with two trenzado braids extending in either direction (Photo credit: Kelli White)
Baboso Negro is one of the minor grapes of the Canary Islands. Producers find it difficult to grow, as it is sensitive to both moist conditions (it will rot) and high wind (it will desiccate), and it can easily get overripe. When produced on its own, the wine tends to be muscular, tannic, peppery, and smoky, with relatively high acidity.
Listán Blanco is the main variety of the Canary Islands. This is the same grape as Sherry’s Palomino Fino, and it was introduced to the islands in the late 15th century specifically for sack production. While it is generally considered to yield wines of middling quality, the ancient vines and volcanic terrain of the Canaries allow for the production of some dazzling wines. In general, varietal Listán Blanco wines tend to be low toned and semi-aromatic, with moderate alcohol and a nose evocative of white Burgundy.
Unlike Listán Blanco and Listán Prieto, which were imported from Spain, Listán Negro is indigenous to the Canary Islands—the result of a cross between Listán Blanco and Negramoll. This is the most important and widely planted red grape on the islands, and its best examples tend to come from the northern end of Tenerife. It is made using a range of methods, from carbonic maceration to more extractive practices, and generally produces elegant, soft, peppery, and perfumed wines.
Listán Prieto, which is known internationally as País, Mission, and Criolla, is not the most highly regarded of the Canary Islands’ red grapes. Though vigorous and drought tolerant, the wines tend to be low in both color and alcohol, with high, almost shrill acidity. Careful attention in the vineyard and cellar can result in some attractive, if simple, wines, and more and more quality producers are playing around with the variety.
There are two distinct grapes cultivated on the Canary Islands that go by the name Malvasía. The main variety is identical to Italy’s Malvasia di Lipari (though locally it is referred to simply as Malvasía), which is the same grape that informs Madeira’s Malmsey. This is a very floral and relatively high alcohol variety. Occasionally, a red-tinted strain can be found, which is known as Malvasía Rosada. Over on Lanzarote, what is called Malvasía Volcánica is a distinct variety, produced locally from a cross of Malvasia di Lipari and Marmajuelo. It is far less floral and blousy, and tends to produce earth-flecked, chalky whites.
As with Malvasía, Negramoll is an import from Portugal, where it is known as Tinta Negra Mole on the island of Madeira. It generally functions as a blending grape, but some producers bottle varietal versions. They tend to be soft, light-bodied, and lightly herbal—a kind of Canary Island Pinot Noir.
Though the grapes listed above dominate the plantings, there are many other local and imported varieties that play important roles in Canary Island wines. Diego is an interesting white on Lanzarote that makes for light and flinty wines; its red-skinned cousin Vijariego Negro yields dark, chalky, and tactile wines on the other islands. Albillo is another aromatic white, typically added to blends for its floral character, just as Verdello (same as Madeira’s Verdelho) is added for its herbaceous tone. Marmajuelo makes for broad, creamy whites and Muscat/Moscatel occasionally appears in dessert wines. Tintilla, Forastera Blanca, Gual (Madeira’s Bual), and Bastardo are also found. There are minimal plantings of international varieties in the Canaries, but what does exist tends to be clustered in the southern end of Tenerife.
The black lava and ash that coats Lanzarote like lacquer wasn’t always there. As recently as the first half of the 18th century, this island was as fertile as the rest of the Canaries, with thriving agriculture and livestock industries. But the volcano that originally formed Lanzarote woke up in 1730, initiating an eruption that lasted six years. By the time it finished, the island had been blacked out, all life redacted.
The eruption of 1730 effectively marked the beginning of Lanzarote’s viticultural history. While some trees such as figs and palms can be cultivated in select places, hardy weed-like vines were soon identified as best suited to survive the harsh conditions. But for the vines to take root, a pit must first be dug through the ash to reach the underlying subsoil. The resulting troughs, called hoyos, can be as large as 5 meters deep by 10 meters wide, and often contain only a single vine. Needless to say, this makes for some of the lowest density vineyards in the world, and even with Lanzarote’s typical high fruit load per vine, yields are extremely low. The ash, though lifeless and somewhat of an obstacle, is beneficial in that it absorbs and retains the little rain that falls and acts as a thermal insulator, regulating the temperature of the soil.
A hoyo in Lanzarote (Photo credit: Kelli White)
While this system of viticulture appears impractically elaborate, hoyos are efficient in that they also serve as wind shields. Lanzarote is the easternmost island in the Canary archipelago, and while it is not the hottest, it is by far the driest and windiest. These ferocious winds are known as vientos alisios and typically hail from the northeast. Occasionally, a hot Saharan wind will blow from Africa, which can burn the fruit and leaves. Shielding the vines from these gusts is paramount to their survival—so long as that protection is incomplete. According to Ignacio Valdera of Los Bermejos, “The wind is a problem but also an advantage, as it is the best natural fungicide available.” To control the influx of air, permeable rock cairns (abrigos, meaning “coats”) are constructed around the windward side of the hoyo. In more modern vineyards, these rock walls line long, straight trenches (zanjas), with the vines crouching in their lee. This method of cultivation results in a slightly higher vine density, but is only possible where the ash layer is shallow.
It is rare for wineries on Lanzarote to own vast tracts of vines. More commonly, vintners will purchase fruit from a range of small growers. Ignacio Valdera claims to work with over 250 different farmers, whose “vineyards” are often no larger than their backyard. As very few people can earn an income from farming, most growers have other jobs, typically in the tourism sector, Lanzarote’s main industry. Across the island, Malvasía Volcánica (an earthier, less floral Malvasía) is the dominant variety, with Listán Blanco, Diego, Moscatel, Pedro Ximénez, Listán Negro, and Negramoll found in lesser amounts. As phylloxera has never established itself in the Canary Islands, many of these vines are ancient, with root systems up to 300 years old. Sweet fortified wines are the traditional product of Lanzarote, but dry and sparkling Malvasía wines are among the most promising contemporary creations.
Notable Bodegas: Los Bermejos, Rubicón
Though its landscape is not quite as alien as Lanzarote’s, Tenerife is still profoundly exotic. Jungles, deserts, rocky coastline, and an at-times snowcapped mountain all coexist on a relatively small land mass. This diversity of terrain is reflected in the wines, which vary wildly in terms of both composition and style. And while viticulture is present on almost all the Canary Islands, it is especially prevalent on Tenerife. Tenerife also contains the highest concentration of producers, and many of the islands’ most profound and exciting wines hail from here.
Tenerife’s skyline is dominated by the noble Mount Teide, which at 3,718 meters is the tallest peak in Spain. This mountain and the smaller ones that surround it are what make the production of fine wine possible on Tenerife. Most of the island’s vines are planted on slopes, with the sweet spot seemingly between 400 and 900 meters. While vineyards do stretch as high as 1,600 meters (the highest in Europe!), ripening can be difficult at such altitudes. The cooler temperatures at these heights help keep the wines fresh. This is a good part of the reason why the top Canary Island wines tend to be light bodied and understated, despite the tropical conditions.
Mount Teide is large enough to impact weather patterns, and its presence effectively divides the island into two distinct subregions. Winds typically blow from north to south, and the clouds and precipitation get trapped by Teide. This makes the northern appellations cooler, more humid, and occasionally overcast, while the southern areas are far hotter, more arid, and still. The entire island is covered in rich fertile soil, but volcanic material is concentrated in the north and at higher elevations. Most of the vineyards are quite small—a holdover from the past, when families would cultivate a small plot of vines for home winemaking. These tiny parcels are known as suertes, and many are being abandoned, as the younger generations would rather grab a six-pack of beer than make their own wine. Many of Tenerife’s top producers cobble their production together from dozens, even hundreds, of suertes, buying the land when they can, and leasing or simply farming the vineyards when the owners won’t sell. Because of the small average parcel size and the often-steep slopes, yields are uniformly low and mechanization of any kind is virtually impossible. Indeed, for Envínate’s famous Táganan bottling, the remote vineyard can only be accessed via horse, which is used to carry small loads of fruit to a van, which navigates the narrow streets to a truck, which continues to the winery.
Small suertes, both bush vine and trenzado (Photo credit: Kelli White)
Viticulture on Tenerife began in the north, where there was an especially strong Portuguese presence. This side of the island is planted to a range of varieties, while white grapes dominate in the south. According to Weytjens, “By the time the south started [planting] grapes, the white wines of Tenerife were the most famous and easier to sell, so the growers went for Malvasía and Listán Blanco.” That said, a small amount of international varieties was planted in the south during the 1990s, but these vines are being slowly phased out in favor of local grapes.
All of the other wine-producing islands possess a single DO that encompasses their entire production. Tenerife has no such appellation; instead, it has been broken down into five distinct subregions. Though meaningful to producers, these areas and their complicated names don’t yet register with consumers. I personally found more differentiation between the northern and southern halves of the island, rather than between the individual DOs. In the north, Tenerife is carved into three pieces—Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de la Orotava, and Ycoden-Daute-Isora—while the south contains Abona and Valle de Güímar. Starting in the northeast corner with Tacoronte-Acentejo, we will move counterclockwise around the island and consider each DO.
If Tenerife is shaped like a goose, Tacoronte-Acentejo is the neck and head. This is the largest DO of the island, and the first to be granted, in 1992. It is a striking appellation, with dramatic valleys and ravines, and steeply terraced hillsides that overlook the Atlantic. It has always been fairly well developed and today possesses the highest number of bodegas. Tacoronte-Acentejo was historically considered the best location for red wines in Tenerife, and toward that end, over 90% of its vineyards are dedicated to red varieties. Here the primary grapes are Negramoll and Listán Negro, but Tintilla, Moscatel Negro, Malvasía Rosada, and Listán Prieto are also found. Most vineyards are planted between 100 and 1,000 meters in rich loam over volcanic bedrock, which becomes far more meager at higher elevations.
Notable Bodega: Monje
Notable Vineyard: Táganan
Situated to the west of Tacoronte-Acentejo is the lush and verdant Valle de la Orotava. This is one of the first areas to be planted following the Spanish occupation of the early 1400s. Most vineyards are planted along the terraced foothills of Mount Teide, from roughly 200 to 800 meters in elevation, in a north-facing valley. Here the traditional trenzado cultivation is especially prevalent. Of all the appellations, this one possesses the highest concentration of clay (along with sand and black volcanic basalt), which tends to result in richer, more fruit-forward wines. While many varieties are cultivated, Listán Blanco and Listán Negro account for roughly 90% of the vineyards. Other varieties include Gual, Malvasía, Verdello, Vijariego, Malvasía Rosada, and Negramoll. Quality is high in both white and red wines.
Notable Bodegas: Suertes del Marqués, Tajinaste
Ycoden-Daute-Isora, named for the ancient tribes of the indigenous Guanches people that once occupied the islands, covers the northwest corner of Tenerife. This is one of the more humid parts of the island, and the soils are sandy clay over volcanic bedrock. Vineyards range from more beach-like, coastal areas to volcanic slopes at over 1,000 meters in elevation. The dominant grape is Listán Blanco, which covers roughly 70% of the vineyard land and is highly regarded for its quality. Listán Negro and Negramoll are the next most important varieties, and there are a handful of others as well. Several ancient vineyards exist on the mountain slopes, some of them accessible only by horse, donkey, or foot.
Notable Bodegas: Envínate, Ignios, Viñátigo
Abona is a large DO that covers much of the south of the island. This appellation is especially influenced by Mount Teide, and its vineyards are the highest on Tenerife, stretching upwards of 1,600 meters. At such an elevation, the growing conditions are quite cool and snow is not uncommon. This is an extremely dry area, and the soils tend to feature sand, fractured rock, chalk, and clay. Here, 70% of production is dedicated to white wine, primarily Listán Blanco and the Malvasías, although Albillo and Verdello also perform well. For red grapes, the area is planted to Bastardo Negro, Listán Negro, Malvasía Rosada, and Tintilla. Though many vineyards are quite old, there have been some extensive recent cultivations, though these vines are still a few years away from producing fruit.
Notable Bodegas: Altos de Trevejos, Finca Vegas
The Valle de Güímar is, true to its name, a valley that stretches high up on the mountain slopes, and runs down almost to the coast. This is a small appellation for wine but an important region for agriculture, specifically bananas. As it is one of the hottest and driest parts of Tenerife, elevation is key for fine wine, and the best sites are located between 800 and 1,400 meters. Soils are largely volcanic in origin, with more sand on the lower slopes and clay up high. Both wineries and vineyards tend to be quite small, and white wines make up 65% of production. The main grapes of the appellation are Listán Blanco, Malvasía, Moscatel, Gual, Vijariego, Listán Negro, Negramoll, and Tintilla.
Though Tenerife and Lanzarote are the most significant in terms of production, a handful of the other islands boast interesting historical traditions, old vine vineyards, and—perhaps most importantly—a largely untapped but serious potential for quality.
La Palma lies in the northwest corner of the Canary archipelago. Due to its higher-than-average rainfall and bevy of natural springs, it is by far the most lush and green of the islands. Banana plantations and jungle groves intersect with sharply rising mountains and broad beaches, earning La Palma the nickname la isla bonita, or “the beautiful island.” Vines can be found up to 1,100 meters in elevation, challenging Tenerife’s claim of highest vineyards in Europe. Like much of the Canaries, the soils are volcanic in origin, with black ash concentrated in the south.
La Palma is mostly known for its traditional Vinos de Tea, a rancio-style wine aged in pine barrels, which tastes like a cross between Retsina and Oloroso Sherry. This wine cannot be labeled as DO, and most is consumed locally. Malvasía is also important, and is produced in both dry and sweet, fortified styles. According to Spanish wine importer José Pastor, La Palma has great potential that few are exploiting. “A handful of people are making interesting wines, but they tend to be too small in scale to be commercially viable. Mostly by farmers. In general, you see a lot of abandoned vineyards on La Palma, as the younger generations don’t want to do the farming.”
Notable Bodegas: Matias í Torres
Gran Canaria is one of the newest Canary Island DOs, established in 2000. It is an island-wide appellation that includes and replaces the former sub-appellation of Monte Lentiscal, which was granted in 1997. Gran Canaria is a sizable island with the second highest population after Tenerife. It is mostly known as a tourist destination, and the few interesting wines that are produced tend to be consumed locally. The landscape is dominated by a central, volcanic mountain which, like Teide on Tenerife, splits the island roughly in half. The southern end is quite warm and few quality wines are produced. The cooler north is more suited to fine wine, especially in the higher elevations, where vines are found up to 1,300 meters. The soils are a combination of volcanic material and chalk, with more sand along the lower slopes and more clay at altitude.
The island is most famous for its classic sweet wines made from Moscatel and Malvasía, but the dry wines are more interesting. Though rarely exported, it is sometimes possible to find the wines of Frontón de Oro, which produces a range of bouncy, fresh, and lightly oaked reds—both a varietal Listán Negro and a charming blend of Listán Prieto, Negro, and Tintilla. Listán Blanco is the most important white variety on the island, along with Marmajuelo and Malvasía.
Notable Bodega: Frontón de Oro
La Gomera is not particularly viticulturally significant. It is a steeply mountainous and windy island that is difficult to cultivate. Because of the challenging conditions, many of the vineyards that exist have been abandoned, as on La Palma. The most important variety is La Forastera, a white grape rarely seen on the other islands. Tajinaste makes a bright and melon-toned wine from this variety, which it brings by boat to the winery on Tenerife. Beyond this, La Gomera’s production is dominated by the local co-op, which tends to vinify late-harvested red and white grapes together to produce a high alcohol dry wine. Albillo, Listán Negro, and both Malvasías are also planted.
As with La Palma and La Gomera, El Hierro’s wine production declines slightly each year, as young people turn away from farming or island life all together. This is a shame, as José Pastor sees a good deal of potential in El Hierro. “El Hierro was historically known for dessert wine. A small group of vintners is working to save the vineyards, and some interesting wines are being produced, but on a small scale. So far, the local cooperative dominates production.”
El Hierro is the smallest of the Canary Islands and the least mountainous. Its gentle slopes (up to 700 meters) are terraced and tend to feature volcanic, rocky, sometimes sandy soil. Over half of the island’s production is white—typically Vijariego or Listán Blanco—and a small amount of dessert wines are produced from Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel. The reds and rosés tend to be fresh and fruity and rely mostly on Baboso Negro, Listán Negro, and Negramoll. The wines are rarely seen off island.
The following are brief descriptions of the producers I visited in June 2017. It is not a complete listing of quality bodegas.
Envínate (Tenerife) is one of the most outstanding producers in all of Spain, not just the Canary Islands. This unusual operation is run in tandem by four winemakers (Roberto Santana, Alfonso Torrente, Laura Ramos, and José Martínez) who make wine from various corners of Spain: Extremadura, Galicia, and Tenerife. They hunt out singular, individualistic vineyards and create characterful wines that tend to be low in extraction but rich in personality and energy. Roberto Santana mans the helm at the Canary outpost; until 2015 he served double-duty as winemaker for the equally excellent Suertes del Marqués.
Envínate produces a range of wines, all vinified using native yeast and minimal sulfur, in concrete or neutral oak. The brand’s Canary production averages just under 6,000 cases a year—roughly half of their total, multi-regional output. The flagship wines are those in the Táganan series. These hail from an extremely remote vineyard in the DO Tacoronte-Acentejo that features vines well over 100 years old. They craft four bottlings from this parcel: a Blanco, a Tinto, and two block-specific wines, Parcela Amogoje and Parcela Margalagua (both white). The basic Blanco is a field blend of Albillo Criollo, Marmajuelo, Gual, and Malvasía that is kept on its skins for 12 days before pressing. The resulting wine is typically waxy, salty, and lemony with a bright chalky texture and long, tangy finish. The Tinto (Listán Negro, Listán Gaucho, Malvasía Negra, etc.) tends to be bright and fresh, with a spicy, peppery nose and a mouth full of raspberries. Because the vineyard is in a separate DO than the winery, Envínate labels the Táganans as “Vinos Atlánticos,” bypassing the catch-all Canary Islands DO.
They also produce a Blanco and Tinto Benje from DO Ycoden-Daute-Isora. The red (95% Listán Prieto with 5% Tintilla) is focused and deep, with lifted, pure red fruit, a floral nose, and a chiseled finish. The white (Listán Blanco) is harvested from an isolated plot and subject to a 14-day skin contact. Sulfur is kept to a minimum, and the wine tends to be rich and exuberant, with creamy, slightly oxidized fruit, bright acid, and a saline, slightly tannic finish. A new product for them is the Vidueño de Santiago del Teide, which also hails from DO Ycoden-Daute-Isora. This is a light red produced by harvested and co-fermenting a field blend of Listán Prieto, Blanco and a little Tintilla. Both the wine’s process and its name is a nod to the historic blends of the Canary Islands’ early days in wine. The 2016 looked like a dark and hazy rosé, with a sweaty berry nose, moderate alcohol, and a light, bright body.
Suertes del Marqués (Tenerife) started out as a grower, and the Lima family has been slowly amassing vineyards for the past 30 years. For decades, they sold all their fruit, but they made the jump to production in 2006. Since that time, they have established themselves as one of the top producers in the Canary Islands, if not all of Spain. Their main estate is in the heart of the DO Valle de la Orotava, a deathly steep and striking property planted in the ancient trenzado system. The winery makes just over 8,000 cases a year, the production of which is just as fragmented as their vineyard sources. The very name Suertes is a reference to the historically tiny backyard vineyards of Tenerife; and while the winery has managed to buy or lease 11 hectares of these minute vineyards, they purchase fruit from another 17 hectares of suertes.
The view from Suertes del Marqués (Photo credit: Kelli White)
It was their 2011 Vidonia that first turned me onto Canary Island wines. Several years ago, a small group of wine professionals were blinded on this wine. We were all very, very sure that it was a high quality white Burgundy. Imagine our surprise upon discovering it was a Canary Island wine made from over 100-year-old, own-rooted Listán Blanco vines! The 2016 I tried at the estate was just as compelling—rocky and rich with a piercing acidity and a slightly flinty nose of oyster shells and yellow apples. Their Trenzado is a field blend of 95% Listán Blanco with Marmajuelo, Gual, Vijariego Blanco (aka Diego), Verdello, Pero Ximénez, and Baboso Blanco. The wine is fermented in a variety of vessels, with some skin contact, and a good amount of time on the lees. The result is a rich and yeasty, if slightly reduced, wine with a complex savory nose and mouth-watering acidity.
Most of Suertes’ production, however, is dedicated to red wine. One of their priorities is to showcase the unique terroir of different vineyards in the Valle de la Orotava, and to that end they bottle five varietal Listán Negros: Candio, El Chibirique, Medianías, Ciruelo, and La Solana. For the 2016 vintage at least, the Medianías was medium-bodied and pale ruby in hue. The nose was bright and berry-laden, tinged with sweat and leather. The Candio was both spicy and elegant, with a leaner build and a nose of black pepper, strawberries, and mint. The Ciruelo was extremely aromatic, with aromas of bramble fruit, underbrush, strawberries, oolong, and oyster mushrooms. On the palate, it was high in both acid and tannin, with contained fruit and a chalky finish. El Chibirique, by contrast, was the most fruit forward, juicy, and herb flecked, though it also boasted noticeable tannins.
Beyond Listán Negro, Suertes makes several red blends. El Esquilón is made from 70% whole-cluster Listán Negro with 30% destemmed Tintilla. The two vintages I tried (2015, 2016) were similar in that they were quite tannic, with the stems apparent on the nose. Los Pasitos is a varietal bottling of Baboso Negro, also made using whole cluster. The 2015 was gorgeous—an elegant, lifted wine that offered a mouth of crunchy red fruit and an herb-kissed floral nose. The 2016 was harvested quite a bit earlier and seemed a touch underripe, with a vegetal nose and a tart, tannic palate that recalled pomegranates. The 7 Fuentes, meaning “seven places,” is mostly Listán Negro with 10% Tintilla. The wine is a lovely but brooding thing, very dusty and tactile with a sweaty, red-berried nose and a touch of blood. Finally, their El Lance 7 Fuentes is a field blend of Vijariego Negro, Tintilla, Listán Negro, Baboso Negro, and Malvasía Rosada. The wine was pungent, meaty, with a dense wild strawberry core, significant tannin, and a moderate but perfectly balanced amount of acid.
Altos de Trevejos (Tenerife) is a venerable Canary Islands establishment. From high up in the Abona DO, the Alfonso family made wine (often employing camels) from the 1880s until 1970. In 1970, they returned to simply selling grapes, but in 2013, Enrique Alfonso García resuscitated the winery. In a very short time, this brand has emerged as a quality leader on Tenerife. Their vineyards are located at around 1,300 meters in elevation, one of the coolest spots on the island. They work with several hectares of 120- to 150-year-old vines but have also begun aggressively expanding their holdings, converting former cereal fields to vineyards, complete with modern trellising. As they are the closest wine region to Mount Teide’s peak, they are in the process of developing a hospitality center and tasting room. Their hope is to capture some of the tourists on their way up or down from the peak. While this is hardly a radical idea, it is very forward-looking for the Canary Islands, where wine tourism has been slow to develop.
The high altitude vines of Altos de Trevejos (Photo credit: Kelli White)
So far, their production remains small, but they plan to grow. As of 2017 they make around 5,000 cases divided between seven wines: two sparkling wines, two whites, two reds, and a dessert wine. Their blanc Brut Nature is made via the traditional method using Listán Blanco. This wine spends one year on its lees, and the result is floral, crisp, and lightly autolytic. The rosé, which is made from Listán Prieto (also via the traditional method), is pale pink and slightly rustic. Its nose offers a combination of wild strawberries and sweat, and the palate is fruity but bone dry. Their Cepas Viejas Mountain White is an unoaked blend of 75% Listán Blanco with Malvasía. This is a lightly floral and zippy wine with notes of golden apple and cashews. The Altos de Trevejos Blanco is a thrilling 50/50 blend of Albillo and Verdello. This was an especially aromatic creation, more tropical and exotic than overtly floral. On the palate, it was broad and fleshy, but with great energy. The Trevejos Baboso Negro was one of the more modern and extracted reds I tried on the Canaries, though it still retained some freshness and character. Dark and concentrated, the wine offered significant tannins and a nose of cassis, licorice, white pepper, and tar. The Vijariego Negro was dark, smooth, and modern, with an exotic nose of brown spices and red flowers, and a soft dusting of tannin. The dessert wine, called Aromas, comes in what looks like a perfume bottle. This wine was produced by freezing and therefore concentrating Malvasía must, which was then fermented naturally to around 16% alcohol with 100 grams of residual sugar. While unctuous and floral, it was clean rather than cloying, with a nose of dried apricots and a cleansing acidity.
Tajinaste (Tenerife) is run by winemaker Agustín García Farráis, a third-generation Canary Island vintner. Unlike most Tenerife winemakers, Farráis trained in Bordeaux. Perhaps because of this, his bodega and its wines are more international in feel, with a rather modern tasting room and wine shop, rows of stainless steel tanks, and clean, precise wines. They are also one of the larger wineries on the island, producing over 16,000 cases per year.
Among their many wines, a few stand out. The Blanco is a delightful mixture of 90% Listán Blanco with Albillo Criollo. Following a 45-hour skin contact, the wine is fermented in steel but kept on its lees to build texture. The result is lemon-fresh and easy to drink, with a nose redolent of chamomile. The Paisaje de las Islas Malvasía Aromática y Marmajuelo is sourced from a vineyard in the Abona DO. Half of the Malvasía was fermented and aged in large, two- to three-year-old barrels, while the Marmajuelo saw only steel. The nose is rather floral and the wine is rich, with a medium acidity. The oak sticks out a bit at the moment, but that may resolve with more bottle age. Their most interesting white was the La Forastera Blanca, shipped over from La Gomera. This wine was broad and creamy, with an exotic nose of golden kiwi, marzipan, banana, and passionfruit.
The Tajinaste Traditional red is made of Listán Negro from the Valle de la Orotava. A portion of this wine was aged in French and American oak for three months, and the result is dense and fruit-forward. The Vendimia Seleccionada also comes from the Valle de la Orotava. The grapes for this wine are harvested in several passes, with only the ripest fruit selected. This is one of their most modern wines, fermented in stainless steel and aged in French oak for seven months. The wine is rich in body but with a tart acidity and a nose of white pepper, sandalwood, and strawberry jam. Their CAN, a 50/50 blend of Listán Negro and Vijariego Negro was similarly modern in feel, with a concentrated, tannic palate and a nose of ripe blackberries. As Tajinaste sources fruit from many appellations, most of their wines are bottled under the Canary Islands DO.
Ignios Orígenes (Tenerife) and its sister brand Artífice were established in 2011 and 2014, respectively. They are the dominion of Borja Perez, who is a fourth-generation Canary Island winemaker. Ignios is produced from estate fruit, while Artífice is made from a combination of estate and purchased fruit. The total annual production is around 2,500 cases. Perez utilizes a natural approach to winemaking, with his only addition being a small amount of sulfur at bottling.
I barrel-sampled the 2016s. The Listán Blanco, which was fermented in concrete after six days on its skin, was a wild, expressive wine with a nose of green tomatoes, golden apples, and cider. The palate was vibrant and tangy, with a creamy mid-palate and long salty finish. His two complex white blends were in an odd place at the time of tasting, but the varietal Marmajuelo was very nice. It offered a nose of white flowers, clove, and banana, with a light and fruity body. The reds were far more consistent. The Artífice Listán Negro was charming and light on its feet, with a floral, spicy nose of quince, red apples, and iron. The Baboso was playful and tart, a mouthful of fleshy cherry hard candy.
Monje (Tenerife) is an important brand to the people of Tenerife. It is one of the oldest wineries (in operation since 1750), a fairly large producer, and one of the few to place considerable emphasis on attracting tourists and engaging the local community. Toward this end, current proprietor Felipe Monje has launched several eyebrow-raising initiatives such as “Wine & Sex,” a risqué but ultimately harmless party wherein aphrodisiacs are paired to their wines.
The cellar looks its age, full of old foudres, blackened with time, and ancient stone walls. Monje produces a wide range of wines and while quality is a bit uneven and rustic, there were a few highlights. My three favorites were all reds: the Tradicional, a peppery, punchy blend of Listán Negro and Negramoll; the Tintilla, a somewhat funky wine with midweight black fruit and chewy tannins; and a well-cellared 2008 Vijariego Negro, which was soft and fruity with a prune-like nose and a savory finish.
Finca Vegas (Tenerife) was started by winemaker Anthony Weytjens in 2016. Weytjens, who grew up on the Canary Islands, recently returned home after years of working in Bordeaux (Petrus) and Napa Valley (Dominus, Hyde de Villaine, Atlas, Rudd, Tramuntana). His family owns a small bodega at around 600 meters in elevation in the Abona DO that is planted to Baboso Negro, Tintilla, and Syrah. Weytjens started small in 2016 with a rosé of Syrah and Tintilla. This was produced very much in the Provençal style: pale salmon in hue with delicate strawberry fruit and mouth-watering acidity. In 2017, he added barrel-aged Malvasía Volcánica, a Baboso Blanco (an extremely rare indigenous variety), and a Baboso Negro, which he handles gently à la Pinot Noir. Weytjens plans to grow both the rosé and Malvasía programs, and to continue seeking out unusual and exciting varieties and vineyards for his small lot series. Undoubtedly, his extensive international training and enthusiasm for the native varieties of his youth will yield some exciting wines.
Los Bermejos (Lanzarote) is the largest producer on the island of Lanzarote (37,500 cases per year), and makes a range of high quality wines, 80% of which are white. The winery was founded by Ignacio Valdera roughly 25 years ago and has grown to become an impressively modern operation, which contrasts the island’s archaic farming practices. They craft an average of 13 different wines per year, but most of their production is dedicated to Malvasía. The Malvasía Seco is their largest volume wine, and they make both a “regular” and an organic version. The 2016s were creamy but not heavy, with vibrant acidity, and citric, floral noses (the organic Malvasía was a touch reduced, less aromatic, and longer). The sparkling Malvasía was made via the traditional method and kept on its lees for three years. The result was a charming and irresistible wine, with a yeasty, floral nose, fine bead, and bone dry but fruity palate. I personally didn’t love the oak-aged Malvasía as the wood imprint was to strong, but the dessert wine, Malvasía Naturalmente, was terrific. Deep gold in hue, this late harvest wine was aged in a solera and was tropical (peach, pineapple), salty, and rich.
In the white wine category, Los Bermejos also produces two Diegos, which are fermented and aged for four months in oak. The 2015 was more overtly oaky, but the 2016 was gorgeous. It was broad in the mouth but also chalky, with a nose of yeast, kiwi, and green apple. The rosé program is a real strength of the house, and they produce a traditional method sparkling and a still, both from Listán Negro. The still rosé is especially fine. It is made from dedicated clusters of early-harvested fruit, is very pale pink in hue, and offers a subtle combination of fruit, flowers, and earth. Their second dessert wine, the multi-vintage Moscatel Naturalmente Dulce, is produced from late-harvested fruit and manages to convey richness without feeling heavy. The color wine’s color was vibrant gold, and the nose evoked dried roses, honey, and champagne mango.
Los Bermejos’ red wines are all composed of Listán Negro. One standout was fermented via carbonic maceration, and the result was redolent of a fruity Loire Valley Cabernet Franc. The 2016 vintage matched a pop of bright red fruit with an herbal, spicy, floral nose, a lean body, and chalky tannins. The more conventionally produced 2015 spent four months in barrel. It too was a touch green on the nose and concluded with an aggressive, tannic finish that was like biting into an underripe pear.
Rubicón (Lanzarote) is a fascinating estate. This is one of the oldest wineries on Lanzarote, established in 1770, shortly after the eruption. The current owner, Don Germán López Figueras, purchased Rubicón in 1979. He is in his 90s, but shuffled from hoyo to hoyo as if a teenager. In total, the winery produces nearly 17,000 cases, divided across eight bottlings. Of the wines, the Malvasía Seco was a standout. Lemon-scented, clean, and bright, it represents most of their production. The sweet Moscatel was also lovely, if a bit simple. As with Trevejos on Lanzarote, Rubicón freezes and concentrates the must prior to fermenting. They typically reserve this wine, adding drops here and there to enhance their dry wines, but in 2016 decided to bottle it on its own.
Don Germán López Figueras holding "the other Rubicon" (Photo credit: Kelli White)
Grandes Places Selections distributes 9 Canary Island Producers in California, 6 of which are in your article, all imported by David Bowler. Great Article, Thank you.
in depth article and found it very educational. The adventures of Kelli White continues.....
Simply wow! I am lucky to list quite a few of the wines you describe in the wine list at my restaurant and when I was reading this it felt like I was actually tasting them. Such a nice article and very well written. Thanks a lot.
I sold/tasted some Canary Island wine at a shop called The Station in San Luis Obispo (thanks Jenna Congdon). Thanks for this write-up, absolutely fascinating!