After centuries of absence, Canary wines are back at the top table.
Canary Wharf, in London, got its name from the landing dock for fruit from the Canary Islands. The name is apt in that the Spanish named the Canaries after the large dogs [Latin, canes] that they found there, and Canary Wharf is on the Isle of Dogs. In 1479, Castille and Portugal ratified the Treaty of Alcáçovas, ceding the Canaries to Castille, and, to Portugal, Madeira, the Azores, and Cape Verde. However, the indigenous Guanches put up a good fight, and it is not until 1496 that Castille, now united with Aragon as Spain, achieved undisputed dominion over the islands.
The Canaries were a necessary port of call in the European settlement of the Americas. As there were then no vineyards on the other side of the Atlantic, large quantities of wine went with the settlers. Many grape varieties in the Canaries were brought from Madeira, and in turn sent to the Americas. Listán Prieto, which has disappeared from Spain, is still cultivated in the Canaries, and corresponds to Pais in Chile, Criolla Chica in Argentina, and Mission in North America. Of the early wines, the most renowned was a sweet, fortified Malvasia known in Elizabethan England as ‘Canary’. Thus, Shakespeare in Henry IV (1598): ‘But, in faith, you have drunk too much canaries, and that’s a marvellous searching wine, and it perfumes the blood…’ When Anglo-Spanish relations soured, so did exports, and the Canaries fell back on dry wines made from other varieties, or Vidueños—which, however, never achieved the same fame. Today, the people of the Canaries tend to overlook the local wines, and many still prefer to drink fruity, semi-sweet vinos afrutados or even Rioja from mainland Spain. The islands churn out a lot of bulk wine for the millions of mainly British and German sunseekers who visit every year. Things began to change from 2006 with the foundation of Suertes del Marqués in Tenerife, which, by adopting a ‘Burgundian’ approach, showed what could be achieved in these fortunate isles. After centuries of absence, Canary wines, albeit in another incarnation, are back at the top table in Britain and America.
The Canaries are a volcanic archipelago that is much closer to the Moroccan coast than to Spain. Situated 500km further south of Madeira, on the 28th parallel, the islands are nearer to the Equator than other fine wine regions, but the cool Canary current, which forms the descending limb of the North Atlantic gyre, moderates temperatures and limits any Saharan influence. Tenerife, the largest of the seven main islands, is surmounted by Mount Teide, which, at 3715m, is the highest peak in Spain, and the third highest active volcano in the world after Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Although a mere 2,000 square kilometres in area, Tenerife is like a continent, with the prevailing north-easterly alisios trade winds obstructed by the Teide so that the north of the island, under the ‘sea of clouds’, or mar de nubes, is lush and temperate while the sunny south is semi-desertic. The Teide, which in winter is capped in snow, also creates a large diversity of mesoclimates, and, during a late November stay, I drove from the lunar landscape of the Teide National Park (6 degrees) to the banana plantations of La Orotava (20 degrees) well within the hour.
It gets even more interesting because phylloxera does not seem to take to the Canary Islands. Almost all the vines, some of which are three times centenarian, are ungrafted, and still propagated by layering, leading to a ‘Jurassic Park’ of grape varieties that have largely or entirely disappeared from Europe, and that have begun, in the Canaries, to give rise to indigenous varieties such as Listán Negro, which is a crossing between Listán Blanco and Negramoll. Following years of meticulous research and study, Juan Jesús Méndez of Bodega Viñátigo has led the way in rehabilitating ancestral grape varieties and traditional wine styles. Today, the dominant varieties are Listán Blanco (Palomino Fino) and Listán Negro; other notable varieties include Malvasía Aromática (Malvasía di Lipari), Marmajuelo, Albillo Criollo, and Verdello (Verdelho) for the whites, and Negramoll (Tinta Negra Mole), Vijariego Negro, Baboso Negro (Alfrocheiro), and Listán Prieto for the reds. Across the island, arable land is scarce and expensive, and vineyards, or suertes, are small, rugged, and difficult to work, owing, not least, to traditional training methods such as cordon trenzado, prevalent in Valle de la Orotava, which involves long braids of up to 20m long. Following fruit set, the braids are propped up to keep the grape clusters off the ground, or, alternatively, remain propped up year-round to save on labour. Historically, after the harvest, the braids were swung around to make room for a winter crop of potatoes. Wineries in Tenerife typically buy a lot of their grapes from an ageing population of small growers, and, as their numbers dwindle, many suertes and entire systems of terraces are being abandoned. In total, there are around 3,500ha under vine, spread across 5 DOs (Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de la Orotava, Ycoden-Daute-Isora, Valle de Güímar, and Abona), although the distinction between north and south, and producer style, is much more important than that between DOs. There is also a newer Islas Canarias DO (2012) that permits blending across all the islands and strongly divides opinion. Is a DO for marketing, or for saying something significant about a wine? Los Frontones, in the southern DO of Abona, is, at 1700m, the highest vineyard in Europe.
The trio of producers that did most to put Tenerife onto the world wine map are Suertes del Marqués, Envínate, and Borja Perez, which all three emphasise vineyard work against interventionist winemaking to deliver elegant, terroir-driven, ‘volcanic’ wines characterized by low alcohol, structured multiform acidity, and salty minerality. Envínate has four projects on Tenerife: its flagship wines are the Taganan series from old vines in Taganana in the far north of the island (first picture), a place that reminded me a lot of Seixal in Madeira. The vineyards in Taganana are so rugged and remote that the harvest has to be taken out by horse. Other notable wineries include Viñátigo, Tajinaste, and the up-and-coming Tierra Fundida. Altos de Trevejos stands apart for being in the south of the island, working with often very old vines at altitudes of 1300m. With its complex volcanic soils, historical grape varieties, and old ungrafted vines, Tenerife is a paradise for wine lovers as well as sunseekers—although the best wines can be hard to find, especially on the island’s own wine lists.
Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.