The growers on an archipelago west of Africa’s Moroccan coast are just beginning to understand their quirky inheritance: A seemingly random mix of vines brought to the islands centuries ago. Wayfarers from Europe, mostly but not only from Spain and Portugal, left those plants on their way to the New World, or settled on the Canaries to grow them. There has been plenty of friendly, rustic plonk from the islands, but few growers made elegant wines to stand with some of Europe’s best, until now. Finesse is not a word I have often associated with Canary Island wines of the past: These wines have it, with haunting flavors that bring you back for more.
Isora Marmajuelo Juan Jesús Méndez makes one of his most delicious whites from marmajuelo. He grows the vines at sea level, producing a firmly structured wine with salty mineral acidity and the yellow-citrus flavor of Buddha’s hand ($25; David Bowler Wines, NY)
El Ciruelo Listán Negro García grows El Ciruelo at his parcel of 100-year-old listán negro vines slightly higher up the hill from El Esquilón. The vine rows run north to south, an orientation he prefers over the east-west rows at El Esquilón. He makes the wine with whole bunches, foot trodden, in the same way as El Esquilón, but El Ciruelo is more intense in structure, its power delivered without any sense of weight. It’s gamey and savory, a fragrant young wine with the grace to live for decades, or so it would seem at this early moment in its life. ($48; Eric Solomon Selections/European Cellars, Charlotte, NC)
Ancestrales, a blend Méndez started making in 2014, ferments in open wooden vats with whole clusters and with yeasts selected from each vineyard parcel. Once the fermentation is complete, he covers the vat and leaves the wine to age for a year. Half of the blend is baboso negro (a synonym for alfrocheiro), the other half, grown at 2,460 feet, is tintilla (which may be a synonym for bastardo in Portugal and Spain, and trousseau in Jura). Baboso provides the floral scents of violets while tintilla gives black fruit and dark chocolate tones. It’s a combination of spice and intensity, with gentleness to the volcanic minerality that sets it apart. ($60; David Bowler Wines, NY)
Jonatan García produces El Esquilón from listán negro at an estate vineyard between 1,475 and 1,640 feet—high enough to allow you to see the sea in the distance. And the flavors have the brisk freshness and salinity of a coastal wine. What sets it apart is the purity of the fruit, the fresh raspberry scent unhindered by rustic tannins. Instead, the tannins are spicy in their youthful power, gripping in their dark earthiness, supporting the fruit without masking it. ($40; Eric Solomon Selections/European Cellars, Charlotte, NC)
Roberto Santana coferments this blend, combining red varieties (mostly negramoll, with a significant contribution from listán negro and small amounts of baboso, malvasia negra and listán gacho) with ten to fifteen percent of white varieties (mostly listán blanco). He harvests them all on the same day, works with all the stems (trodden by foot) and lets the temperatures go where they will. Aged in neutral barrels, the wine is elegant and precise. ($50; Jose Pastor Selections/Vinos and Gourmet, Richmond, CA)