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Question: where are the highest vineyards in Europe? Switzerland, eat your heart out. In fact, they are on the slopes of the highest mountain in Spain, El Teide, the active volcano that dominates the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
Here’s another one: how many wine appellations are there in the Canary Islands?
No fewer than 10, one for each island – Lanzarote, La Palma, Gran Canaria, El Hierro, La Gomera – except for Tenerife, which has been divided into five. These do not exactly trip off the tongue: Tacoronte-Acentejo, Abona (home to the highest vineyards at 1,600m), Ycoden-Daute-Isora, Valle de la Orotava and Valle de Güímar.
More fascinating facts about Canary wines. They were hugely popular in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries – witness Sir Toby Belch’s call for “a cup of canary” in Twelfth Night. The phylloxera aphid is yet to invade the island’s vineyards so, most unusually, all vines grow on their own roots rather than being grafted on to phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.
And, to reprise last week’s topic of obscure grape varieties, part of these wines’ growing appeal, in markets from the US to Korea, is that there is barely a Chardonnay or Cabernet vine on the islands. Instead, their vines bear witness to the history and geography of islands that were important staging posts on trading routes and were Spain’s last acquisition, with a considerable Portuguese population and many an expatriate link nowadays to Cuba and South America.
The predominant variety when the Canaries were major wine exporters was called Malvasia, and this is still the main vine grown in La Palma and buried in hollows in the extraordinary black lava of Lanzarote to protect them from the wind. Malvasias are still made in a wide variety of styles, with some of the sweeter ones just too heavy and syrupy to be worth exporting, I would have thought, but others can be rather intriguingly and attractively marmaladey. Malvasia de Lanzarote was recently identified as genetically distinct from Malvasia de Tenerife (which is the same as the Malvasia found on the island of Lipari off Sicily and, in the old days, the Portuguese island of Madeira). On Tenerife, they say ruefully that the Malvasia crop came to be replaced by bananas, before being supplanted as the island’s chief money-spinner by hotels and tourism.
Today, the other principal white wine grape in the islands’ combined total of more than 10,000ha of vineyard is called Listán Blanco, the sherry grape Palomino Fino. But it is supplemented by a wide range of others such as Vijariego, Marmajuelo, two sorts of Albillo (found in central Spain), Sobra (probably Portugal’s Siria) and Verdello and Gual, respectively local names for the Verdelho and Boal of Madeira. The principal red wine grape, known as Listán Negro, is quite a different kettle of fish. (The fish here is top-notch – straight out of the crashing Atlantic.) It’s a variety that seems to be indigenous and can make particularly fruity, peppery wine with fashionable freshness. Some producers have been experimenting successfully with carbonic maceration, a fruit-enhancing technique, for this grape. Also grown are Negramoll (which, as Tinta Negra Mole, is the main grape grown on Madeira), Baboso Negro (Portugal’s Alfrocheiro) and Tintilla, which seems to be the Jura’s Trousseau.
But it’s not just the grapes from ungrafted and often extremely senior vines that make Canary wines so intriguing. Many of the soils are volcanic, even if clay and sand predominate close to the rocky coast, and the wines are marked by the tang and vibrancy that seem to characterise the wines of that other volcanic Atlantic island, Madeira. Alcohol levels are moderate.
Thanks to government and EU subsidies designed to upgrade production, there is now a real will to put the islands’ wines on the map, with sophisticated packaging and labelling designed to showcase thoroughly modern winemaking – even if the vineyards look almost medieval. I know from holidaymakers on other islands that remnants of a less glorious winemaking past certainly persist but I was agreeably surprised by the quality and character of most of the (many) bottles that mysteriously found their way to my hotel room in Tenerife when I was there at New Year. (I liked the labels that promised me a “volcanic experience”, though I was slightly disconcerted by one that seemed to be proffering ammonia – until I saw that it was “armonía”, harmony, that was promised.)
But most interesting was a visit to the painstakingly assembled 9ha of Suertes del Marqués vineyards on a long westward slope down towards the Atlantic with the snowcapped El Teide lurking above. Surrounded by the suburbs of Puerto de la Cruz, this stretch of contiguous plots has taken Jonatan Garcia Lima and his father a quarter of a century to assemble. “Suertes” refers to the little lots of land individually owned by local families (who are often widely dispersed around the world and difficult to negotiate with).
The unique trenzado (plaited) training system – once traditional for Malvasia, which fruits only at the end of the canes – is spectacular. Some of these ancient multi-stranded tendrils stretch 10m up and down the hillside from the main trunk – very odd. The Envinate winemaking team (who also make wine in Ribeira Sacra and Ribera del Guadiana on the mainland) are aware that this is a distinctive selling point, even if they have to chop off half the grapes from these potentially over-productive vines. The name of their introductory white wine has been changed from Blanco Barrica (so 1990s!) to Trenzado.
Suertes del Marqués wines are imported into the US by Eric Solomon and into the UK by Indigo Wine. Tajinaste wines are well distributed in the US and will soon be imported into the UK by Caves de Pyrène. Maar Wines represent about 15 Canaries wineries in the UK.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Stockists from wine-searcher.com
Favourite cups of canary
● Bermejo, Malvasia Seco 2013 Lanzarote
● Envinate, Táganan Parcela Amogoje Vinos Atlanticos 2011 Spain
● El Penitente, Arautava Seco 2012 Valle de la Orotava
● Suertes del Marqués, Trenzado 2012 Valle de la Orotava
● Suertes del Marqués, Blanco Barrica 2010/11 Valle de la Orotava
● Suertes del Marqués, Vidonia 2011/12 Valle de la Orotava
● Tajinaste, CAN Listán Negro/Vijariego 2012 Valle de la Orotava
● Aguere, Blessed Red Barrica NV Las Islas Canarias
● Envinate, Táganan Parcela Margalagua Vinos Atlanticos 2011 Spain
● Any Suertes del Marqués 2011 Valle de la Orotava