A visit to the Canary Islands will twist your head with surprise. So too, will its vines and wines.
Millions of liters of Canary Islands wine were shipped to London in the 15th century, and in the 16th century William Shakespeare mentioned Canary Islands wine in three of his plays. These include Henry IV, where a character refers to it as a ‘marvelous searching wine.’ In the 18th century, George Washington penned a letter to his friend Sarah Fairfax where he complained of stomach ailments and requested that she send Canary Islands wine so he could enjoy a beneficial daily dose. In the 19th century, President Thomas Jefferson ordered this island wine from Tenerife for his own cellaring and personal consumption.
Seven Canary Islands, part of Spain, sit in the Atlantic ocean at 28 degrees latitude (similar to, say, the location between Corpus Christi and Houston, Texas, or New Delhi in India) a scant 80 miles—at the closest point—west of the Sahara Desert. The climate of these islands is generally temperate; daily temperatures roam between 56 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit (13 and 29 degrees Celsius) throughout the year. The topography soars from sea level to the summit of Mount Teide (highest peak in Spain) at 12,198 feet (3,718 meters) above sea level.
During an April visit to two islands—Lanzarote and Tenerife—I visited bizarre and beautiful vineyards before sampling unusually elegant vintages.
Lanzarote is the easternmost Canary Island. Located dozens of miles offshore from the blistering heat of the Sahara, this island lacked a steady supply of freshwater until newly constructed desalination plants turned on their pumps a few decades ago. The hilly and often mist coated topography includes the same brown and khaki colors of an Irish bogland. The landscape was transformed by a volcanic explosion that began on September 1st, 1730, and which lasted six years. This fiery brew wiped out 20 villages, coated a third of the island in molten lava and dusted the remaining terrain in a hefty layer of picón, or ash.
Volcanic landscape on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands
No residents died from the slow moving magma flow. Instead they packed up scant belongings (likely on camels and goats) and moseyed away from this spewing cauldron to fresh regions such as Haría Valley—‘the valley of a thousand palms’—where they continued to farm. Today, stone houses on Lanzarote are painted white, but include brilliant green trim around doors and windows (there is now a bright paint color named ‘Lanzarote green’).
It took years before farmers realized that ash was a blessing for vineyards on arid Lanzarote. Its coating over earth retains moisture, protects buried soils from erosion, inhibits evaporation, and traps solar input before re-radiating it as heat to adjacent vegetation.
Locals dug through this picón a few yards to find the original soil. They then planted vines and built semicircular walls (constructed from plentiful basalt rock) to protect saplings from prevalent winds. They dug these holes over centuries, establishing the bizarrely black and beautiful vineyards of Lanzarote. Partially ringed by almond shaped stone walls on tar dark soils, these vine arrays appear hauntingly gorgeous.
Part of the island’s volcanic landforms are included within Timanfaya National Park in the southwest, where a single asphalt road weaves like thread across gnarled undulations. The alluring pastel colors of vegetation and soils resemble those from Craters of The Moon National Monument in Idaho in the U.S. These rugged landscapes have attracted directors for films such as One Million Years B.C. (a Raquel Welch classic) and Ron Howard's In The Heart of The Sea.
Winemaker Jonaton García Lima of Suertes de Marqués on Tenerife
Three islands to the west of Lanzarote is Tenerife, largest of the Canary Islands and shaped like a meandering duck. During past centuries, locals—unhindered by volcanic wrath—established their own signature viticultural presence by creating a system of horizontal braided grapevines, each known as ‘el cordon trenzado’ (‘braided cord’). At least one such ‘cord’ stretches 80 feet (25 meters) horizontally, and includes a few vines as thick as a child’s wrist. Because fruit only emerges from the end of such braids, these vines were historically useful because they could be picked up and partially relocated, making room for planting crops such as potatoes.
Although these island vineyards resemble scenes from a Dune sequel or some Tolkien landscape, they also produce unique fruit due to history and climate. The phylloxera disease that ravaged grapes in Europe (beginning in the mid-nineteenth century) never took root on the Canaries. The result is that many island vines are centuries old. Some of the types of grapes that were decimated and never re-planted with any emphasis on the European continent still grow in the Canaries, such as the whites Gual and Marmajuelo and the reds Listán Negro and Vijariego Negro.
Many of the planet's optimal vineyards thrive close to the 40th parallels (in the northern and southern hemispheres), while these islands sit at 28 degrees latitude. Yet their climate is generally salubrious. Blast furnace temperatures from the African continent are tempered by the Gulf Stream. This warm oceanic current that flows across the Atlantic and bumps into Ireland, England and western Europe (delivering a balmy climate at the same latitude where Labrador locks up in ice) then circulates south to moderate the climate of these isles.
Centuries old Listán Negro vines, trained with the 'braided cord’ method on Tenerife
The island of Tenerife includes abundant microclimates, partially due to the altitude difference between Mount Teide and sea level. In a distance of some eight miles (13 kilometers) there is a 25% slope running through portions of vineyards, offering a wealth of environments favorable to planting different grapes. This contributes to why Tenerife has five separate wine appellations (the other five grape producing isles each have one).
Predominant grapes on these islands include the following.
Whites: (Many light bodied white wines on the islands match well with local goat cheese and seafood.)
Malvasîa Volcánica and Malvasîa Aromática. The first is found primarily on Lanzarote, while the second predominates on the islands of La Palma and Tenerife. These include citric and floral aromas.
Listán Blanco (Palomino). Relatively high in alcohol and not very aromatic. Round, full and citric.
Muscatel. Found on all Canary islands that produce wines; sweet and floral.
Diego. This hardy wine includes very mild aromas of apple and florals. Acidity adds complexity and helps allow the wine to age well.
Listán Negro. Similar to the Mission grape planted in the Americas after the arrival of settlers. Sometimes used with carbonic maceration. Aromas include red and black fruit, pepper and licorice.
Baboso Negro. Aromatic and intense with cocoa, balsamic and dark fruit flavors.
Vijariego Negro. Blackberry and meaty flavors, rounded tannins.
Tintilla (also known as Trousseau). Spicy with chocolate and dark fruit aromas.
Negramoll (also known as Tinta Negra). Black and red fruit aromas; somewhat wild with low tannins. (This is also is a dominant grape on the island of Madeira.)
Credit: Tom Mullen
Winemaker and owner of Las Bodegas Monje on Tenerife - Felipe Monje
Whites are predominant in the Canaries and are often opulent and full, sometimes with a citric precision. Reds often have a Burgundian heft of pepper and complex darkness—leather, mocha, black fruit, caramel and even diesel. Some reds are eye opening for their beautiful smoky dark power. When you consider the low density of planted vines, the difficulties of excavating through ash or weaving vines to establish vineyards, these vintages—purchased locally—are generally a bargain.
The natural beauty of these islands and conviviality of locals enhances any visit. Take a wander around the town of Teguise on Lanzarote where you can likely join a spontaneous porch side bar party, or catch a cable car up Mount Teide on Tenerife to look out at a surreal ‘sea of clouds’ below.
There are also excellent foods here—sumptuous and salty, honeyed and harmonious with local wines. These include sous vide succulent moist duck, and salads brimming with local octopus, shrimp, fig and cilantro. The historical lack of freshwater on Lanzarote meant that small local potatoes had to be boiled in saltwater with skins on. Today these make a delicious and savory dish named papas arrugadas, served with red sauce called mojo rojo.