Serious Eats: Drinks
The Storied Volcanic Wines of the Canary Islands
Editor's Note: Pack your bags; wine expert Talia Baiocchi is taking us exploring. She'll be our guide to the vast world of wine, giving us the dirt on lesser-known regions that we should all know about.
The Canary Islands sit off the coast of northern Africa like discarded postcards from the earth before time. This collection of sci-fi landscapes is far from the first place people think of when they think of Spanish wine. However, these storied volcanic islands can trace their winemaking history back to the 15th century, and many of the islands' 30-some-odd indigenous grape varieties have flourished there—untouched by Phylloxera—for centuries.
But while the islands have managed to elude the vineyard louse that destroyed most of the vines in Western Europe in the mid 1800s, they fell victim to plagues of powdery mildew that haunted their vineyards for nearly a century. As a result, Canary wines—which once counted Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, and Shakespeare among their groupies—were, until a few decades ago, virtually unknown to the modern world.
But now, with plagues and pesky volcanic eruptions behind them, the islands have once again captured the imagination of the international market.
Each of the seven main islands in the archipelago—Lanzarote, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma, Canary, El Hierro, and Fuerteventura—boast a stunning array of microclimates, elevations, and mineral-rich volcanic soils that are capable of producing a wide range of wines.
Lanzarote, the farthest east of the seven main islands, is home to the most challenging—and evocative—terroir in the chain. A history of volcanic eruptions have blanketed a quarter of the island in volcanic ash, and northeasterly winds make the island excellent for windsurfing, though terrible for grape growing. To combat the apocalyptic winds, each vine is planted in a tiny hoyo (hole) and surrounded by a foot-high stone wall; hundreds of these mini bunkers dot the obsidian soil like craters on a filthy moon. Camels—which were imported to Lanzarote centuries ago—help carry harvested grapes to the winery, creating a scene that even Dali couldn't have imagined. The best wines from the island come from white varietals like Malvasia (the most widely planted here) and the up-and-coming Diego, the loveliest of which expresses the minerality of the soil with transparency and uncanny purity.
Just to the west lies the island of Tenerife, ground zero for the Canary Islands wine movement and the largest of the seven islands. It's home to five of the islands' eleven D.O.s (denominacions de origen, a classification used to signify and protect Spain's most important terroirs), including the oldest and most developed: Tacaronte-Acentejo.
The vineyards here rise up to around 1000 meters above sea level and are terraced into steep hillsides that allow the vines to lasso the Atlantic tradewinds. On Tenerife, the red wines take center stage and can range in style from juicy and aromatic to bold and structured. The islands' main grape—Listan Negro—often headlines those wines that fit into the juicy category, though the grape is often blended with Tintilla and Negramoll to add more brood and herbaceousness. Baboso, considered to be one of the rising star varietals of this region, fits firmly in the latter camp, birthing wines of great intensity, plummy dark fruit, and formidable structure.
Though most of the wines from the Canaries brought to the United States by Jose Pastor—the one and only modern ambassador of the wine of the Canary Islands in the US—hail from Lanzarote or Tenerife, the other five islands are sure to become a larger part of this renaissance.
La Palma and El Hierro are perhaps the most interesting among them. La Palma is the second highest in altitude behind Tenerife, and its rugged terrain incubates the most drastic microclimatic stratifications in the chain; a hailstorm could be pummeling one side of the island while a heat wave bakes the other. The island's main production is made up of sweet wines—made from Malvasia or a blend that may include Listan Blanco, Verdello, or a number of other native varieties—that still resemble the "Canary" or "Canary Sack" that the explorers and traders who purchased the islands' wines during the 15th through 18th centuries would have drunk.
The island of El Hierro, meaning the "the iron," is named for the element that stains the soils of the island red. Here, two of the chain's most interesting varieties, Vijariego, and again, Baboso—both of which have red and white clones—find particularly unique expressions in the iron-rich soils.
So while many of the islands' landscapes appear to be stolen from the brain of a science fiction cinematographer, the varying terroirs of the Canary Islands and the wines that express them are very real. As it stands, around 250 producers make wine in the Canary Islands, and only 11 make it into the US through one importer. Already the wines have created a buzz and in the years to come, they're sure to claim their rightful place among Spain's most inimitable wines.
Los Bermejos Malvasia Seco 2009
Floral, and intensely mineral driven. Like licking a volcano. ($24, find this wine)
Los Bermejos Lanzarote Rosado 2009
Vinified from 100% Listan Negro. One of the most stunning expressions of this volcanic terroir. Full of bright, juicy fruit, herbs, and more volcano. ($20, find this wine)
Monje Tacoronte-Acentejo Tinto Tradicional 2008
Peppery, floral, and earthy. Rustic and lean on the palate. Wholly unique. ($18, find this wine)
Tajinaste Tinto 'Valle de la Orotava' 2008
Ripe, forward expression of Listan that brings itself down to earth with refreshing bit of irony minerality. ($20, find this wine)
Carballo Listan Blanco 2007
Small, organic producer putting out some of the best white wines in the Canaries. Bright, citrusy, and intensely mineral-driven. ($18, find this wine)
About the Author: Talia Baiocchiis a wine writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the founding editor of WineChap.com in the U.S., and writes a weekly series demystifying New York's restaurant wine lists on Eater.com. She contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. In her former life she worked as a dressage trainer for unicorns.