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. But few made elegant wines to stand with some of Europe’s best, until now.
Wherever you may be on Tenerife, you’re never far from the sea. Even if you climb to the top of El Teide, at 12,000 feet, the highest point in Spain, the volcano is surrounded by a sea of clouds. The clouds approach and retreat from the peak in constant waves, driven by the Alisios winds and the cold waters descending from the North Atlantic.
Those trade winds and currents brought viticulture to these islands, arriving in the sweep of conquest by Europeans on their way to the New World. It’s not clear when this volcanic archipelago was first settled—perhaps, around 1,000 BC, though some researchers suggest the fourth century BC, almost two thousand years before the Spanish and Portuguese arrived.
The Guanches, the aboriginal people of the islands, are genetically related to North African Berbers. Their traditional farming focused on grains, toasting and grinding them into gofio, which is still a staple of the local diet. The Europeans reimagined the hills of Tenerife as a place for vines, which missionaries carried on to the New World, and bananas, which traders brought back. The steep hills above the coast are now covered in banana plantations and vineyards, including an eclectic mix of more than 80 varieties Europeans brought to the islands.
There is no phylloxera in the volcanic soils, and, even if many of those vines produce rustic wines, there are plenty of European tourists eager to drink them. So, with little pressure for change, the Canaries remain an untapped viticultural gold mine: a diverse mix of vines on their own roots at a wide range of altitudes, from sea level to thousands of feet above and still within view of the sea. When you consider the potential of this place, it is breathtaking.
—Juan Jesús Méndez
On Tenerife, the frequent volcanic activity has generated enough basalt to build an island over the course of seven million years (the age of the oldest rock found on the island). That basalt formed a range of peaks at the center of the island, with El Teide rising the highest. Those mountains block the Saharan winds, creating a desert climate on the south side. In contrast, the north side, awash in arctic currents, looks a bit like northern Portugal and Spain’s Galicia: lush and green. But nowhere on the islands do the vines see a cold freeze—you have to head high into the hills for snow, the white peak of El Teide clearly visible from other islands in winter. Meanwhile, people are swimming in the south and the vines on the north are resting dormant through a mild off-season.
In his latest book, Volcanic Wine, John Szabo, MS, describes the research Juan Jesús Méndez has spearheaded on local varities. After a brief correspondence with Méndez regarding listán prieto and listán negro—the subject of a DNA study Méndez had undertaken with the Universidad Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona—I arrived at his Jardín des Variedades Canarias, outside the conical stone building he designed as his winery, Viñátigo. Intent on determining whether it was, in fact, listán prieto or listán negro that traveled to the New World to become país (mission), I peppered him with questions.
I lost interest in deciphering his DNA satellite analyses when Méndez headed down the circular stairs of his cellar, past the first floor where he presses his grapes and stores his white wine, down to the second level into the hillside, where two clay amphorae from Catalonia stand sentinel over a collection of vats and barrels: a mad scientist’s cave. And Méndez does have the facts-are-facts demeanor of a scientist, even if he is also one of the most intuitive winegrowers on the island, farming vines up and down its hills and recombining the grapes in fascinating ways.
He makes one of his most delicious whites from marmajuelo, a variety Méndez grows at sea level and makes into a firmly structured wine with salty mineral acidity and the yellow citrus fruit flavor of Buddha’s hand. (Sarah Tracey, the wine buyer at Rouge Tomate Chelsea in New York City, was so taken by this wine on her recent visit to Viñátigo that she has started Marmajuelo Mondays at the restaurant.)
Among his reds, the wine that caught my attention was Ancestrales, a blend of red varieties Méndez started making in 2014. He ferments it in open wooden vats with whole clusters and with yeasts selected at 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, a variety that produces a light, brisk red in the granite soils of Portugal’s Dão. It has a completely different character in Tenerife, still floral but significantly fuller.
The other half is tintilla (which may be a synonym of bastardo in Portugal and Spain, and trousseau in Jura), grown at 2,460 feet. He finds the vines at this high altitude reliably mature the wood in their grape stems while the grapes are still fresh. So he includes the stems in the fermentation, giving tintilla a primary structural role in the blend. 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. Finesse is not a word I have often associated with Canary Island wines of the past, but this wine has it, with a flavor that lasts for minutes.
LA GUANCHA, WHERE MÉNDEZ IS BASED, IS DIRECTLY NORTH OF THE PICO DEL TEIDE. If you head east along the coast, you would arrive in the Orotava Valley, formed by a landslide some 600,000 years ago, likely caused by the ground collapsing around a volcanic caldera. Today, the green hills and cliffs are blanketed with vines, many of them woven into long, parallel braids, as if they were cornrows on the head of a giant. Jonatan García, who farms a patchwork of vineyards here, describes these braided vines as trenzado, and explains that many date back to the 19th century; he shows off the trunks of some of the older beasts that split in four or five directions. While García has trained most of his newer plantings to a double cordon trellis, his old vines, with bunches of canes lashed together in twisted masses, seem to determine their own fate, growing up to 75 feet long.
García took charge of winegrowing here in 2016, though he has run Suertes del Marqués since he and his father, Francisco Javier, established it in 2006. Up until 2016, he’d been running his family’s furniture factory, a business that had been successful enough to allow his father to start buying vineyards in 1986, and build the family home on a high hill in the midst of those vines.
García says his tastes have evolved since he started in the wine business, when he began to spend the better part of his paycheck buying Burgundy and German riesling, and lost interest in most of the local reds. One year in, he was already searching for a new winemaker when a young oenologist came to visit. Roberto Santana was born in Tenerife, but was making monastrell on the mainland in Jumilla. After seeing the García’s vineyards, he wrote to Francisco Javier, who suggested Jonatan call him in for an interview. They ended up working together for eight years, and soon drew the attention of José Pastor, an importer based in Fairfax, California, who was busy introducing the American market to Canary Islands wines. “Jonatan had sent me his wines in vinegar bottles, and I never responded to him,” Pastor told me, recalling a visit to Tenerife in 2010. “Then, the day I was leaving the island, a retailer told me to go visit there—that the winemaker, Roberto, is from Tenerife, and they are bottling by vineyard sites, using concrete, using stems.” Rather than catch his flight, he went to see Jonatan. “I was blown away by all these crazy old trenzado vineyards. And Roberto was talking about the position of the vineyards…about farming without chemicals. He was talking a language I hadn’t heard before on the Canary Islands.”
After the 2015 vintage, García and Santana parted ways. García hoped to make some changes in the Suertes del Marqués wines, and coaxed some help out of Luis Seabra, who had headed up the winemaking team at Niepoort in the Douro for ten years before striking out on his own. “I told him he was crazy,” Seabra recalls. “I would never take a plane to make wines. But he said, ‘Okay, just come and visit me.’ We spent two days seeing all those vineyards, more than a hundred years old…and I couldn’t resist.”
García explains that the 2016 El Esquilón is listán negro from a vineyard rising to 1,640 feet in altitude—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.
Then he pours a 2016 El Ciruelo, from a parcel of 100-year-old listán negro vines slightly higher up the hill. The vine rows run north to south, receiving sun on both sides, García says, an orientation he has come to prefer over the east-west rows at El Esquilón. He made 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.
Out of the range of wines from Suertes del Marqués, these latest vintages from the single parcels stand as some of the most profound wines you can find in Iberia.
Roberto Santana first discovered this vineyard through a friend, Santiago Yanes, a lawyer and local historian who pointed him toward Taganana as having been an important area for vines in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 2011, Yanes introduced Santana to José Angel Alonso, a grower with parcels in Margalagua. And once they began working together, Alonso introduced Santana to other growers.
At the time, Santana was still working with Suertes del Marqués, and had started a partnership with three young winemakers in other regions of Spain, all making wines together, near vineyards they could arrange to manage directly, and bottling them as Envínate. He made the first wine from Margalagua in 2012, in the cellars at Suertes del Marqués. By 2015, he and his Envínate team were managing close to 80 percent of the vines in Margalagua.
In his first vintages making wine from the vineyard, Santana controlled the temperature of the fermentation and did no extended maceration, believing that the iron in the red soils would give hard, rustic tannins. By 2015, he began to reconsider his strategy. “Talking with local people, they always used to make the wine as a blend of red and white varieties. So in 2015, we started to coferment the red varieties with ten to fifteen percent of white varieties (mostly listán blanco), all harvested on the same day, working with all the stems (trodden by foot, so there was no carbonic maceration), and working without any cooling. We just let the temperatures go. When we saw the results, that was the wine that we had in mind. With that terroir. When we tried the same vinification with terroir from black basalt, the wines were very fat.” The new wine caused Santana to reassess what he thought he knew.
Today, his Táganan Parcela Margalagua is a blend based on negramoll, with a significant contribution from listán negro and small amounts of baboso, malvasia negra and listán gacho (a pink mutation of the grape). It includes 15 percent white grapes in a cofermentation in concrete tanks; then Santana ages it in neutral 228-liter barrels. That 2017, tasted out of barrel, was the most elegant and precise wine I found on this first trip to Tenerife.
Later, when a group of us opened a magnum of the 2016 on our last night on the island, it only strengthened that impression—a wine that could stand in the company of great Burgundy, not to mimic it, but to share a profound sense of its own place.