Extreme viticulture in Taganana

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.

A sample from a cask of 1697 Malvasia recovered from the cellar of a house in Tenerife. Although like crude oil in consistency, it is still aromatic, with notes like molasses, dried apricots, and figs. Courtesy of Viñátigo.

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.

Mount Teide from the south, with the mar de nubes behind.

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.

Vineyards in the north trained in the traditional parral bajo: “This vineyard was old even when I was a boy.”

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.

Roberto Santana of Envínate explaining their Tenerife projects.

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.

Zacharias Diamantakis in his element.

The first advanced civilization of Europe, the Minoans, were already making wine on Crete four thousand years ago. In the second century, Crete was known in Rome and beyond for a sweet wine called protropos. In the Middle Ages, under the Venetians, the sweet Malvasia di Candia (as Crete was then known) was traded far and wide.

Wine production went into decline under the Ottomans, and, until recently, Crete was mostly known for bulk wine. Still today, the island accounts for around a fifth of Greece’s total area under vine. Phylloxera came late, from 1974, and many of the old vines that were lost were replaced with olives or international varieties such as Chardonnay and Syrah. Happily, in recent years a new generation of winemakers have been busy reviving ancient indigenous varieties, and their wines are starting to make a mark on the palate if not yet on the wallet.

Crete is the largest island of Greece, forming the southern boundary of the Aegean Sea. It is about 260 km long and from 15 to 60km wide. The capital Heraklion, on the central northern coast, is more southerly than Tunis, but soaring mountains along the length of the island make for cooler, wetter conditions than might be expected, especially in the western Chania [pronounced ‘Hania’] region. In fact, Crete is a powerhouse of agriculture as well as tourism, and one of the richest regions of Greece.

Most of the vineyards are on the northern side of the mountains, where they are sheltered from the hot Libyan winds and exposed to cooling Aegean and mountain breezes. Unusually for Europe, they tend to face north, like the Cretans themselves, who are strongly attached to Mother Greece. The green and rolling foothills behind Heraklion (pictured) account for over 85% of total production, and include the PDOs of Dafnes, Peza, and Archanes—although, with Crete, it is wise not to get too embroiled with appellations. There is also some quality production in Chania and around Sitia in the east. Soils are predominantly limestone-rich calcareous clay, quite unlike in nearby and volcanic Santorini.

The varieties that are attracting the most interest and enthusiasm are Vidiano and Liatiko, which might be thought of, respectively, as the Cretan Viognier (or Roussanne) and the Cretan Pinot Noir. Vidiano is beginning to eclipse the serviceable Vilana, which had once been encouraged. Liatiko is light and pale and liable to bronzing, but also fresh and floral and haunting. In my limited experience, both Vidiano and Liatiko seem to benefit from a bit of bottle age. The two other notable red varieties, Mandilari and Kotsifali, are often blended, with Kotsifali playing Merlot to Mandilari’s Cabernet Sauvignon—although the wines themselves are more redolent of Northern Rhône crus than of Bordeaux. Indigenous varieties are often blended with international varieties, which is a shame insofar as it obscures their Cretan identity. Another notable variety, native to Chania, is Moscato Spinas, a thin-skinned clone of Muscat Blanc that makes for fresh and elegant wines.

Leading producers include Diamantakis, Doulofakis, Idaia, and Lyrarakis in the centre, Manousakis in the Chania region, and the iconic and idiosyncratic Yiannis Economou near Sitia. Lyrarakis is credited with rescuing three ancient indigenous varieties: Dafni, Plyto, and Melissaki. Dafni, like Portugal’s Loureiro, means ‘laurel’: it is bright and fresh with notes of bayleaf, sage, pine, ginger, quinine, and citrus fruits. Plyto on the other hand seemed to be more about length, structure, and minerality, with high acidity and a saline finish. Lyrarakis’ Voila Assyrtiko, from Sitia, is the best Assyrtiko from outside Santorini and Tinos that I have tasted, and a real bargain to boot.

I look forward to following these wines.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Extreme viticulture in Madeira. The famous Sercial from Seixal (‘Saychal’) on the cooler, wilder northern coast.

Madeira is definitely one of the great wines of the world, but much less known than others. Here’s the low-down.

The volcanic archipelago of Madeira lies about 600km off the coast of Morocco. Discovered in 1419 by sailors in the service of Henry the Navigator (the son of John I of Portugal and nephew of Henry IV of England), the main island of Madeira became a regular port of call for ships bound for Africa, the Indies, and the Americas. Agriculture prospered, principally sugarcane, but also wheat, and, of course, the vine.

The earliest madeira wines were unfortified and in the habit of spoiling at sea. Sailors took to adding a small amount of distilled alcohol to stabilize the wines, a practice that had become routine by the mid-18th century. One day, a ship that had sailed out across the Equator returned to Madeira with some leftover wine. Producers tasted this wine and found that the intense heat and constant movement of the sea voyage had actually improved it. So-called vinho da roda [‘round-trip wine’] soon became very popular. To save on the phenomenal costs of shipping wine halfway around the world and back, producers began heating and ageing the wines on Madeira itself, either on trestles or in special rooms called estufas.

These were the halcyon years. But in 1852, the vineyards of Madeira were blighted by powdery mildew, and in 1872 by phylloxera. The industry had barely recovered when the Russian Revolution and American Prohibition cut off madeira’s two most important markets. American vines began to take over the vineyards and quality plummeted. The wine never recovered the prestige that it had enjoyed in the late eighteenth century, when it was poured to toast the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence. Much as Marsala, it came to be regarded as ‘cooking wine’.

Founded in 1979 to drive up quality, the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira (IVM) decreed that thenceforth madeira could only be made from Vitis vinifera. In 2006, the IVM merged to become the Instituto do Vinho, do Bordado e do Artesanato da Madeira (IVBAM), and continues to promote and incentivize the replanting of traditional varieties. Some of its other remits are to fix harvest dates, control quality, and promote madeira.

The lie of the land

The archipelago of Madeira consists of the inhabited islands of Madeira and Porto Santo and the uninhabited islands of Ilhas Desertas and Ilhas Selvagens. At 55 by 22km, Madeira is by far the largest island, with rugged, mountainous terrain and a peak altitude of 1,861m. The climate is subtropical with a mean temperature of 19°C, mild winters, hot summers, and high rainfall and humidity. When Winston Churchill visited the island in 1950, he came in a hydroplane because there was not enough flat land on which to build a runway.

Vineyards are mostly planted on man-made terraces of red and basaltic bedrock called poios and irrigated from historical irrigation channels called levadas. Given the high temperatures and humidity, rot is a constant threat, and vine canopies are frequently raised off the ground on trellises called latadas. There are ~2000 growers cultivating ~490ha (cf. Bordeaux 120,000ha), with rows of vines often interspersed with market vegetables and even bananas. Every year, growers hope for a wintery spell, without which the vines won’t know when to flower or shoot. Global heating is, therefore, a major threat.

Grape varieties

The vineyards of Madeira hug the coasts, and certain villages such as Seixal [‘Saychal’] and Sao Vicente are particularly noted for the quality of their grapes. Madeira varieties are classified as either ‘permitted’ or ‘recommended’, with almost all madeira being made from the latter. Recommended varieties include Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia. Sercial and Verdelho do best at higher altitudes, and Bual and Malvasia at lower altitudes. Terrantez and Bastardo (which, in contrast to the other five, is a black variety) are both very rare because so difficult to cultivate. All six are varieties of V. vinifera. Broadly speaking, Sercial is dry, Verdelho off-dry or medium-dry, Bual medium-rich, and Malmsey rich.

Since 1993, a bottle labelled with any one variety must contain at least 85% of that variety. Madeira that does not bear a variety on the label, or that predates 1993, is likely to have been made mostly or entirely from Tinta Negra (formerly Tinta Negra Mole), a black variety that is often described as the workhorse of Madeira. After phylloxera hit in the nineteenth century, producers turned to Tinta Negra for its disease resistance and prolific yields, and it still accounts for over half of total production. It is a chameleon that, at best, can imitate if not quite match the quality of the other, noble varieties. But small growers, for whom viticulture is but a sideline, tend to favour it over more demanding, lower yielding varieties.


The harvest is mostly manual, with Malvasia picked first and Verdelho and Sercial last. The grapes are crushed, pressed, and fermented in stainless steel tanks and oak casks. Malvasia and Bual are traditionally fermented on their skins to extract more phenols and balance the high residual sugar. As with port, fermentation is interrupted with 95% grape spirit. The precise timing of interruption depends on the amount of residual sugar desired, so, for example, very early for Malmsey and very late for Sercial.

Next comes the idiosyncratic estufagem process that seeks to replicate the effects of a long, tropical sea voyage. The fortified wine is entered into a stainless steel container or lined concrete vat. It is then gently heated to 45–55°C and maintained at this temperature for at least three months. After a rest period of three more months, it is entered into oak casks and aged oxidatively for 3–15 years. Finally, the individual wines are blended, often across several vintages, to produce a consistent and harmonious house style. Unlike with port, the indicated age pertains to the youngest wine in the blend.

A more expensive alternative to estufagem is canteiro, a gentler process that results in less caramelization and more freshness and fruitiness. The fortified wine is entered into 480l pipes or casks that are then placed on a beam, or canteiro, in a south-facing attic room (or equivalent) for 20–100+ years. Five years of canteiro is equivalent to only three months of estufa, so canteiro is used only for the finer wines. In Madeira, wineries have attics rather than cellars, and their cellars are a kind of terroir, with no two casks maturing in quite the same way.

There are nine attics at the historic Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal, each with different temperature and humidity conditions.


Madeira must be made from V. vinifera varieties, which account for just over half of plantings on Madeira. Of these, Tinta Negra is the most commonly cultivated, and is often an important component of a brand name such as Blandy’s Duke of Clarence. Plantings of the four noble varieties remain small, and madeira labelled with one of the noble varieties is relatively expensive. 

Sercial is pale in colour with aromas of almonds and citrus peel, razor sharp acidity, and a dry, salty finish. It is very easy to pair with food, classically, on Madeira, with limpets, the snails of the sea. In comparison, Verdelho is less dry and more rounded, with a smoky complexity and aromas of dried fruits and honey. I usually get herbs and anise on Verdelho, but not everyone does. Bual is still darker, fuller, and sweeter, with aromas such as dried fruits, pecan, orange peel, passion fruit, banana, and molasses. The luscious Malvasia (Malmsey) is, perhaps unexpectedly, lighter in colour than Bual, with notes of baked orange peel, cloves, and Christmas cake. In a blind tasting, it can be distinguished from PX sherry (see later) by its high and balancing acidity, which is the hallmark of all quality madeira. The off-dry Terrantez, my favourite, is nuanced, floral, and spicy, with an almost delicate texture and notes of pepper and ginger. Bastardo is in fact Trousseau from the Jura, which long ago made its way down into Portugal and thence Madeira. The Portuguese called it Bastardo because it is so hard to cultivate, leaving Madeirans to speak of ‘the great Bastardo vintages of old’. Sadly, I’ve never tasted a Bastardo madeira.

The age of a madeira is indicated on the label: three years (Finest), five years (Reserve), 10 years (Old Reserve), 15 years (Extra Reserve), or more than 20 years (Vintage). Despite its name, Finest, which accounts for ~61% of production, is usually destined for cooking. Madeira with one of the noble varieties on the label must be aged for at least five years (to Reserve), often without any artificial heating. Vintage [Frasqueira] is made from exceptional grapes and must be aged for at least 20 years followed by a further two years in bottle. A more recent style is Harvest [Colheita], which is vintage-dated madeira that has been aged for at least five years (or, in the case of Sercial, seven years) versus 20 years for Vintage. Unlike with port, there are no declared or mythical vintages. What ends up in the glass depends not just on the vintage conditions but on the variety, the village, the shipper, the cask, the bottling date… leading to many surprises and much mystique. One might, for example, speak of Blandy’s 1977 Terrantez, or Barbeito’s 1993 Sercial. With increasing age, the appearance of madeira tends towards mahogany with a yellow-green rim, which, together with the high acidity, helps to set it apart it from other fortified wines.

Tasting frasqueiras with Luis d’Oliveira.

Here are a couple of pointers which also apply to tawny port and other oxidatively aged wines:

  • Once in bottle, vintage madeira improves much more slowly—so always check the bottling date, which must now, by law, feature on the back label. More recent bottling also avoids problems with the cork and with excess sediment. 
  • One on the great things about madeira is how stable (and long-lived) it is. You can invest in a fine bottle and taste from it for a month or even six. Wine bars and restaurants take note: this makes vintage Madeira ideal for wine by the glass—the major problem with Madeira being that very few people have tasted of what it is capable at the top end.


Each year, ~80% of the ~3.3m litres of madeira produced are exported. The largest national markets are France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US, although much of the madeira exported to France is of the cooking variety. The largest shipper of madeira is Justino’s, but the most famous is The Madeira Wine Company (MWC), a wrapper for Blandy, Cossart Gordon, Leacock, Miles, and others. In 1989, the Symington family acquired a controlling stake in the MWC and set about modernizing operations. In 2011, it sold most of this stake back to the Blandy Group, which thereby regained overall control. Beyond that, there are only a small handful of madeira shippers, most notably Barbeito, Pereira d’Oliveira, HM Borges, and Henriques & Henriques. The visionary Ricardo Diogo Freitas of Barbeito aims for freshness and elegance, and some of his bottlings are achieving icon status. Since 1850, the d’Oliveira family has been selling only a small fraction of production and is now sitting on large reserves of very old vintages—only releasing their 1899 Terrantez in 2020! HM Borges offers excellent value for money across the range, as does Henriques & Henriques.