In deciding on a title for this piece on Canary Island wines, their name just seems to beg for alliteration somehow. Kelli White, at GuildSomm, came up with the most appropriate title, Considering the Canaries and wrote the most thorough piece on Canary Island Wines that I have come across. I highly recommend going to the link and reading it. She visited the archipelago and goes into great detail on her trip, the grapes, the islands, the 11 DO’s and the producers. For those who like more of an executive summary, Jon Bonné at PUNCH wrote a monthly crib sheet on them, May 2016, Why the Canary Island Remain the Perfect Storm of Wine Cool.
I was recently introduced to these wines at a Spring Wine tasting in Chicago sponsored by 2 Illinois distributor/importers, H2Vino and Robert Houde Wines. H2Vino held a presentation on Canary Islands wines given by Beth Kacich of David Bowler Wines, the importer. Beth had 3 producers at the event to talk about their wines, Ana de León of Bermejos, Juan Jesús Mendez (Dr. Grape) and Elaina Batista Viñátago, and Augustin Garcia Farrais, Tajinaste.
My wine geek radar went up right away because 1) the history and geography of the Canary Islands (they are off the coast of Africa) 2) the fact that they are both “island wines” and “volcanic wines” with the volcanic being the most important (John Szabo, MS covered them thoroughly in his recent book, “Volcanic Wines, Salt, Grit and Power” and that 3) that the Canary Islands are one of the few regions in the world exempt from phylloxera so all the vineyards are ungrafted and original rootstock which is a very rare thing in the wine world.
Geographically they are part of the Macaronesia ecoregion: the Azores (Portugal), the Canary Islands (Spain), Madeira (Portugal) and the country, Cape Verde.
The Canaries were a major stop in the day where shipping ruled the world because it was the only form of transport across the oceans. The 16th and 17th centuries were their golden age of wine. Canary wines were as highly prized and made in a similar style to Madeira. But like many things, as transportation changed, the industrial revolution took place and the wines fell out of favor and focus. But since the end of the 20th century, producers have started to focus on craft and quality. The 3 winemakers that presented at this talk were also mentioned in detail in John Szabo’s book.
The Canaries are composed of 7 islands from largest to smallest, Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Geneva and El Hierro and are 60 miles off the coast of Morocco and have volcanic underpinnings. Climate-wise they benefit from ocean currents and winds. The Canaries are the Florida for most northern Europeans and a popular tourist destination for those seeking out the islands for a dose of sun and warmth.
Volcanic wines have started to have their moment and deservedly so. There was a recent conference on Volcanic Wines in New York. Several years ago when I took the Italian Wine Specialist Course with Diego Meraveglia, he made a huge distinction about the volcanic wines of Italy and their textural signature. In his book, Szabo describes the Canaries as being over a volcanic plume hotspot and being part of the African plate. They were formed over 19mm years ago. The islands have hundreds of volcanic cones with the biggest being El Teide, 12,000 ft high, on Tenerife. It erupted in 1706 and covered the island in lava and Lanzarote had a volcanic eruption as well that devastated the island. Beth explained in her talk, that the volcanic soil of the island has caused the winemakers to grow grapes in creative ways in response to these harsh conditions.
Described on David Bowler’s site, the producer, Los Bermejos is on Lanzarote, owned and run by winemaker Ignacio Valdera. A volcanic explosion that lasted from 1730-1736 covered the entire island in lava and ash 3-5 meters deep. Consequently, each vine must be planted in a hole or hoyo that breaks through that infertile volcanic crust of petrified lava to the organic matter that can nourish it. The ash acts like mulch. The wind, which acts as a natural fungicide, is so ferocious that each hoyo is surrounded by rock walls for protection. The flora on Lanzarote – including the vines – cannot grow up very high; there are not enough nutrients in the soil to support sprawling greenery.
Finally, this fact that phylloxera is not present in the islands, so all the grapes are on original rootstock is intriguing. The question of a rootstock’s affect on the grape is a large and debatable one. But it is really interesting that the Canary’s present a window into ungrafted rootsock. The islands harbor what John Szabo calls “antique grapes”, grapes that existed in Europe but don’t any longer. No one knows more about the grapes in the islands from what I have read in John’s book and what Beth presented than Juan Jesus Mendez of Vintago. I could have listened to him speak all morning with Beth interjecting and translating at times. Szabo calls him Dr. Grape and the Bodegas vinifies 17 different varieties.
From Bowler’s site, “Juan Jesus is a proud native of Tenerife and the fourth generation of growers. During the 25 years that he’s overseen Bodegas Viñátigo, he has considerably increased its holdings, planting varieties that he and his team recuperated. During these years he has also juggled the classes he teaches as a professor of viticulture and enology at the Ciclo Superior de Vitivinicultura. His wife Elena Batista works alongside him and is responsible for the production: for tracking what’s happening in the vineyards — which they do plot by plot and patch by patch — to ensure that harvest takes place at the right time in terms of maturity. She manages wine-making and –aging, and -bottling. They do this work collaboratively, constantly exchanging ideas and viewpoints. Her Master’s degree is in viticulture and oenology from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.
”The Canary Islands is the only region in the world entirely exempt from the terrible phylloxera plague. As a result, all of the vineyards are ungrafted, allowing for a complete interaction between plant and soil, which in part, explains the marked minerality of the Canarian wines.”
We tasted the Bermejos Listan Negro Rosado Lanzarote and I was happy to see that Craig Perman at Perman Wines has it on his new Spring arrivals list. Listán Negro is the classic varietal of the island, and the Rosé, a very pale pink has fruit, incredible vibrancy and acidity, and an almost salt characteristic. It is not cheap, at $25 but Perman’s motto is “Life is too short to drink average wine.” Knowing the winegrowing fortitude that went into this wine and the handcraftedness, I am looking forward to buying a bottle. The other wines we tried was a Diego Seco and a Malvasia Seco. The Diego seemed to be a big hit with the people standing around me. With Juan we tried the Vinatigo Gual (similar to Madeira Bual) from Tenerife, the Listan Blanco and the Vijariego Blanco which almost reminded me of an orange wine, this one was aged in oak but had tons of texture and color. With Tajinaste we tried the Listan Blanco and I believe the Passage de las Islas at this point things were speeding up sadly because the bigger tasting was about to start.
These are all wines that I would love to revisit. I am buying the rose from Perman. But these wines typify some of the fun of “Traveling By the Glass”, they represent a place, grapes that you won’t find everyday and are made authentically and crafted carefully. Some of the restaurants in Chicago have these on their list but I think as the younger generations get more wine curious, wines like the Canaries that are not outrageous price points but represent quality, a story and a place will continue to replace some of the ho hum everyday wines that you see on lists that are more expensive. This is a very brief summary of what Beth presented and the wines we tasted but some of the links I included have a ton more information. Jon Bonné put it best, drink with curiosity!
Sources: John Szabo’s book, David Bowler website, Kelli White piece on Guildsomm and Beth’s presentation