The ethereal volcanic Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco have a long and unique viticultural heritage, although the majority of the world still undoubtedly associates the Canary Islands with tourism and winter-sun, rather than high-quality wine production! Yet, perhaps unbeknown to most of us, the Canary Island’s winemakers can boast vines which have never known Phylloxera and have a respected history of making distinctive sweet whites from low, windswept old bush vines.
For centuries, a heavy, sweet, alcoholic wine was produced in the Canary Islands from the Malvasia or Malmsey grape variety also found in Madeira. At their height, in the 17th century, they were the darling of the European aristocracy and the wealthy. Sadly, in the 18th-century demand plummeted as connoisseurs found a new love in the wines of France and Portugal. In a few decades, the entire wine-producing industry declined and most of the vineyards were pulled up as demand dried up.
However, pockets of production did survive on the islands of Tenerife, Lanzarote and La Palma. A few bodegas (wineries) continued to make classic Malmsey wines in the traditional way, distinguished by their powerful floral, lychee and apricot aromas. A few dry style wines are also being produced and are gaining in popularity as winemakers adapt to the prevailing trends that favor dry styles above all else. There are also exciting developments in red wine production, helping to raise awareness of the growing Canary Islands wine industry and put these wines firmly back on the international map.
Despite being over 700 miles from mainland Spain, the 7 Canary Islands have over 10 D.O.s (appellations) to their name, and Tenerife alone has 5 important wine producing zones. Only Fuerteventura is left out of the viticultural picture altogether. Some of the most exciting wines emanating from the Islands today are the zesty, citrus-infused dry whites from the Gual and Marmajuelo varieties, adding even more diversity to the Canary Island’s wine offerings to the world.
The most important D.O. in Tenerife – the largest and most populous of the Canary Islands – is Tacoronte-Acentejo, which has over 2,400 hectares under vine and over 50 wineries. Located in the Anaga Peninsula on the north-eastern coast of Tenerife, the ungrafted vineyards benefit from the cooling Atlantic mists and those planted on high altitude sites can yield impressive results in the hands of a talented winemaker. The unique terroir is predominantly a red, fertile soil rich in minerals which lays over the volcanic subsoil. It is planted with a variety of indigenous and international varieties: Listan Negro and Negramoll are the main red grapes; whites are produced from Listan Blanco, Malvasia, Moscatel and Verdello. The best examples show real class and ageing potential, although few traditional sweet wines are made here any longer.
The north-west coast of the island houses the D.O. Ycoden-Daute-Isora, a sub-region renowned for its aromatic white wines, although some reds are produced also. While the sweet wine trade remains minuscule, growers are understandably focusing on producing dry wines from the Malvasia and Listan Blanco varieties, planted on the slopes of the extinct volcano – Mount Teide. The volcanic ash terroir is ‘complimented’ by the hottest climate in Tenerife, with summer temperatures averaging 35-40C. However, average rainfall is relatively high on the western slopes and select sites offer cooler evening temperatures, perfect for growing slowly ripening, highly aromatic fruit.
Sandwiched between the two big appellations is the smaller Valle de la Orotava D.O. with over 400 hectares under vine. It is Tenerife’s oldest wine region, having been cultivated by the Spanish after they conquered the island in the 15th century, although today little remains of the once large area planted with vines. The volcanic/clay terroir on the slopes of Teide and the hot summer ripening season is moderated by those all important mists which enable good quality wine production to exist on the north of the island. Rounded, soft white wines and ripe, fruity reds are the mainstay here, the most popular varieties being Pedro Ximenez, Listan Negro, Negramoll and Tintilla. Interestingly, winemakers have not really bothered to experiment with established international varieties like Syrah, believing the terroir to be unsuitable.
The island’s south side can boast the two great D.O.s of Abona and Valle de Guimar. The Abona sub-zone lies on the southern coastline and can boast the highest mountain vineyards in Europe, up to 1,600 meters above sea level. The wines are consistently some of the best produced in Tenerife, thriving on the volcanic clay/limestone soils that enjoy various microclimates depending on the altitude of the vineyards. At higher levels temperatures are cooler and the variance in day/evening temperatures helps to preserve that all important acidity in the whites. So expect plenty of fresh whites and juicy reds.
Further north-east is the Valle de Guimar, which enjoys some of the mildest growing season weather on the islands. Its ancient vineyards ascend to a height approaching 1,500 meters, planted with a variety of white and to a lesser extent red varieties. However, mainly whites are produced here from the Listan Blanco grape, giving good fruit, balance and an elegant softness. It is also a small bastion of traditional, sweet Malvasia wines, although dry styles are increasing common. Modern temperature controlled vinification techniques in stainless steel are producing a wine completely unrelated to the Malvasia of old: stylish, aromatic dry whites that impress with their depth and elegance.
Although it has only one D.O., the island of Lanzarote has a spectacular and totally unique viticultural landscape of volcanic black lava, in addition to one of the driest and warmest climates of the Canary Islands. And despite the fact that hardly anything can grow in these harsh conditions, over 2000 hectares of vines are planted in addition to select species of fruit trees on the island. Around the edges of the lava mass, vines are planted at the base of 1-meter craters, protected from the strong trade winds by lava walls. These craters allow the vine roots access to the soil beneath the lapilli, a dark-colored volcanic ash which lies beneath the lava fields and releases moisture at night, vital for the vines to survive. Without the Lapilli, fine wine production or indeed any wine production would be impossible here.
The island is planted with predominately white varieties with a smattering of reds: Listan Blanco, Malvasia – which dominates – and Diego are complimented by small amounts of Listan Negro. The sweet wines of Lanzarote are made through-out the islands’ four sub-regions – La Geria, San Bartolome, Tinajo and Haria-Ye -and are regarded as some of the finest in the region – refined, luscious, complex and long. Some notable dry styles are also being produced, although the levels of success have yet to match the best examples from Tenerife and La Palma.
This tiny volcanic island, famous for its fresh seafood and laid back surfing lifestyle, received its wine appellation status in 2003 despite the fact that vines were brought here from mainland Spain in the 1300s. Quality winemaking on the island is still developing but improving all the time and there are a handful of cellars making local wines, particularly whites with the Forastera grape.
The beautiful island of La Palma has, unsurprisingly just one D.O., simply named after the island itself. There are currently about 800 hectares under vine, planted along the Atlantic coastline at varying altitudes – anything from 300 to 1,500 meters above sea level. Naturally, the higher altitude sites produce the best results, moderating the sub-tropical climate. Again, rich soils lie over the organic rock meaning that vine vigor can sometimes be a problem, the growers must work hard to ensure that over-production does not become a problem in these conditions.
Under the La Palma D.O., three sub-zones exist across the island: Hoyo de Mazo, Fuencaliente and Norte de La Palma. Light, dry table wines are produced from the Listan Blanco and Bukariego grapes, and heavier, more tannic examples abound from the ubiquitous Negramoll and Listan Negro varieties. Mazo in particular is renowned for its heavy, powerful Negramoll wines. In addition, La Palma is one of the last bastions of the classic, sweet Malvasia style dessert wines that fell out of favor in the last century. Some wonderfully pure, rich but not cloying examples can be found on the island, in addition to dryer examples in deference to modern trends!
The Gran Canaria D.O. is perhaps the least exalted of the Canary Islands wine growing regions, although plenty of very drinkable and affordable wines are produced here! The appellation is very young, having been legally recognized in 2003 and today covers about 220 hectares of vineyards and 60 wineries/growers. The high altitude sites can reach a height of 1,500 meters, again giving that all-important moderation of the often balmy summer temperatures. The main white varieties are Malvasia, Gual and Listan Blanco, with a smattering of Negra Moll and Listan Negro. The majority of the Malvasias tend to be fermented dry, although a few traditional styles are still made.
Naturally, great variances in wine quality and style exist but in general, the dry whites of Gran Canaria are light, fragrant and for very early drinking. The young wines of Negramoll and Listan Negro also tend to be light, pale, sweet reds, perfect for a warm summer’s evening. The sub-region Monte de Lentiscal is reserved for superior vineyards located on the Tarifa natural reserve at the base of the Pico de Bandama crater. These very fertile, rich volcanic soils are mainly planted with Listan Negro and Blanco varieties, yielding good, fruit driven wines. Over 90% of the output is red and wines are rarely oaked, giving them an attractive, straightforward fruity characteristic.
Despite being the smallest – and driest – of the Canary Islands, El Hierro has a long and proud winemaking tradition dating back to the 17th century. Over 450 hectares are under vine, covered by the single El Hierro D.O. that was recognized in 1994. The person first credited with planting vines on this beautiful island is actually an Englishman, John Hill, who in the 17th century founded an estate concerned with the distillation of spirits from the base wine produced. His spirits were in great demand and traded in markets as far away as South America and Cuba. Today, the island proudly boasts twelve varieties, planted on very heterogeneous soils that range from clay, marl, sand and some volcanic ash. Unlike some of the neighboring islands, the soils on El Hierro tend to be infertile and poor in nutrients, exactly the right conditions for quality wine growing. As with the other island regions, altitude and sites vary greatly. The climate is generally temperate, becoming more humid with higher altitudes, where the all-important sea breezes are vital.
Among the white varieties, Pedro Ximenez, Verdello and Malvasia dominate, again some sweet styles remain but the fashion is to currently ferment Malvasia bone-dry. Of the reds the rediscovered grape Baboso Negro is causing a stir with winemakers, as in the right hands, it is capable of producing dense, powerful reds of real aging potential. Traditionally, grapes like Baboso would have been blended but younger winemakers are increasingly pioneering varietal wines of Listan Negro and Baboso – yet another example of the Canary Island’s winemakers refusing to rest on their laurels!