Canary Island wine – background

Tameran winery on a sunny day in the Canary Islands

A thorough primer to the wines of the Canary Islands. See also Ferran's tasting notes on 100 wines from these islands.

With its delicate profile, characteristic salinity and that note that we invariably describe as ‘volcanic’, Canary wine has been arousing great interest in Spain and the rest of the world for some time now. I can say now with total conviction that there is no major wine list in Spain in which the Canary Islands are not represented.

Last September, I had the great luck to take part in a blind tasting at Bevir, a restaurant in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria run by Rogelio Tenorio, who kindly provided a quiet room reserved for the tasting. About 100 wines were selected and prepared by Benito Troya, one of the best sommeliers in the Canary Islands and currently wine ambassador of the Galaco Group, the main food wholesaler on the islands.

This is one of the tastings I am most excited to write about. It is the same sort of excitement I feel every time I fly the three hours from Barcelona to the islands. It is the time I need to transport myself to another planet and its extra-terrestrial landscape. And yet I never feel like an outsider nor an invader from far away: its people always give a wonderful and sincere welcome. You can go to the beach all year round, and its cuisine is a melting pot of flavours that, because of its strategic location on the Atlantic, came from Spain, Portugal, Great Britain and North Africa. Coriander, watercress, paprika, cayenne, cumin, bay leaves and a thousand other ingredients and spices. You couldn't ask for more.

Moreover, for wine lovers the islands of the Canary archipelago have a combination of elements that make them unique in the wine world:

  • they have never been attacked by phylloxera, so all the vines remain ungrafted
  • their volcanic soils are young and very diverse in their mineral content
  • the climate is subtropical and influenced by
    • a mountainous relief where each island resembles a cone, its elevation dependent on its age
    • its proximity to the Sahara Desert
    • the trade winds
  • a catalogue of varieties from different parts of the Mediterranean are cultivated alongside many local varieties, too – all of them well adapted to these geological and climatic characteristics.

An overview

To help contextualise this wine region, I’ve gathered some facts from the Canary Islands Wine Growers and Wineries Association (AVIBO), an initiative started in 2011 to promote the DO Islas Canarias, a Protected Designation of Origin which covers all the land across the seven main islands: Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro. There are:

  • 6,750 ha (16,680 acres) of vines in total; over three-quarters of the vineyard area is divided between Tenerife and Lanzarote
  • 242 bottling wineries
  • 8,000 winegrowers – this means an average of less than 1 hectare per winegrower
  • total annual production of 5.5–6 million litres (1.45–1.59 million US gallons).

In addition to the DO Islas Canarias, the islands of Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro each have their own DOs, and Tenerife is segmented into five DOs. (The creation of an overarching DO Tenerife is awaiting approval; the work is already well advanced and there is even a Pliego de Condiciones, the official document detailing the DO’s specifications.)

Within the DO Islas Canarias, there is a quality pyramid that defines wines as Regional (blended from multiple islands); Islas (single-island wine); and, at the top, Pueblo (village) and Parcela (single vineyard). This hierarchy is not found in any other of the Canary Islands’ DOs. Though some producers have been reluctant to adopt the initiative, I believe this it is fantastic and worth getting to know better – there are a couple of free, well-designed digital books with a great deal of information here.

Some historical notes

In Tenerife – island of wine (and historic) discoveries, I made a historical review of the wines of the Canary Islands. But I would like to add some news.

If we accept the ‘New World’ as the expansion of viticulture outside the boundaries of the Mediterranean and Europe since the Age of Exploration in the 15th century, then, in my opinion, the Canary Islands are the first New World lands. At least I think so, because the Canary archipelago was the first area beyond the seas to be incorporated into European vine-growing plans.

It is true that the Romans already knew about them. Pliny the Elder speaks of the Fortunate Islands and an island – Canaria – so called because of the presence of large canis, large dogs. The Romans named all the islands and even built a factory for processing Tyrian purple, a dye extracted from snails, on the islet of Lobos (next to Fuerteventura). But the Roman adventure did not go much further, and the Fortunate Islands mostly disappeared from history until the end of the 14th century, when they were rediscovered by the Majorcans, Portuguese and Genoese, therefore reappearing on the maps of the moment.

However, it was the Normans, under the command of the nobleman Jean de Béthencourt, who began to plan for the conquest of the Canaries in 1401. Ironically, as was the case more than a thousand years earlier, it all began in a quest for the coveted Tyrian purple dye. Thanks to Béthencourts close relations with the Castilian court, he quickly organised the conquest of the islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and El Hierro. On the rest of the islands, the initiative came from other Castilian nobles. However, it was not a simple process because the Canary Islands were already inhabited by Amazigh people from the Maghreb. Some episodes were peaceful but others were quite violent, and the clashes in between escalated. In short, the Canary Islands would not be fully incorporated into the Crown of Castile until 1496 thanks to the impetus of the Catholic Monarchs, the last to do so being Gran Canaria, La Palma and Tenerife, consecutively.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Canaries became the most important point in the world in this era of transatlantic voyages: they were in a strategic place to take advantage of the winds beyond the known Atlantic. Although we might be tempted to introduce wine at this early point in the history, not yet. Wine was a product that passed through the Canary Islands, mainly loaded into the holds of Castilian ships, but what was grown on the islands was sugar cane. It wasn’t until the end of the 16th century – by which time the Americas had become the main source of sugar-cane – that viticulture began in the Canary Islands, especially in Tenerife and La Palma.

The Malvasía grape was queen, although, as was often the case, blended wines predominated, at least in Tenerife. These blends were known as vidueños. However, the most famous wine was Canary sack and it quickly became a favourite on the English market, but also in Flanders, France and, of course, America. Here we come back to the story already explained in my previous article. Now, allow me to recall the words of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV: ‘But to say I know more harm in him than in myself were to say more than I know ... If [Canary] sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked!’

We know that in the 16th and 17th centuries England was a great consumer of Canary sack. For example, in 1630, half of the Canary Malvasia made was sold in London. However, in 1668 the Hispanic Monarchy of the House of Austria lost the Crown of Portugal and its attached colonies such as Angola, Guinea, Cape Verde and Brazil during the Portuguese Restoration War. Canary Island wines destined for these territories had to find their way to London, to the point that in 1690 this market gobbled up two-thirds of the Canary Islands’ production. This situation forced the need to sell at any price, which was taken advantage of by English merchants who demanded a considerable reduction in the price of Canary Island wine. At the beginning of the 17th century, 20 million litres of wine were produced on the Canary Islands. The definitive collapse came in 1701 when the War of the Spanish Succession began and, as a result, the English market turned to importing Portuguese wines.

The two Canaries

We usually speak of the Canary Islands as if they were a single unit, but the truth is that they are administratively divided into two provinces. The eastern province is Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, encompassing the islands of Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote and the Chinijo Archipelago, a group of small islets that form the largest marine reserve in the European Union. The western province is Santa Cruz de Tenerife, including Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro.

This political division also has a very marked geographical logic which has a fundamental influence on the climate and topography. To begin with, the eastern and western parts are almost perfectly divided by a tectonic fault that separates the hypothetical Moroccan plate from the Nubian plate that encompasses almost the entire African continent.

The eastern part is much older in geological terms, with soils formed 14 to 25 million years ago. As a result, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, the easternmost islands, have low relief due to erosion.

The western part formed 1–12 million years ago. The lowest islands are the westernmost – El Hierro, La Palma and La Gomera – but not due to erosion. They are in the process of formation due to volcanic activity. In fact, these islands experience frequent volcanic activity warnings, unlike the rest, where most of the volcanoes are dormant or extinct. Finally, Tenerife and Gran Canaria are central islands, with quite high elevation because they have finished forming relatively recently (on a geological scale) and erosion has not yet had much time to act.

Basalt soils at Suertes in Tenerife
Basalt soils at Suertes del Marqués in Tenerife

This is important if we want to understand the differences in ‘volcanic soils’. This term is often used as if it describes a homogeneous soil type, but there are quite significant differences in terms of the composition and characteristics of the different strata, which end up making differences in the wines.

There are also climatic differences between the two provinces. The western islands are further from Africa and therefore cooler and wetter than the eastern islands. Superimposed on this east–west axis is a north–south axis. The northern part of the islands is affected by the trade winds of the Azores anticyclone, which bring humidity from the Atlantic and generate a series of low-altitude clouds, popularly known as the ‘donkey’s belly’, on the windward side of the mountains. Of course, this accumulation of humidity facilitates the formation of rain. In fact, 75% of the rain falls on the windward side. This mesoclimate makes the wines from this slope more acidic and fresher than those on the leeward side, which is much sunnier and drier.

Because of the mountains, the effect of the trade winds is more evident on Tenerife and Gran Canaria than on the islands at both ends, which have a lower relief. In the case of Lanzarote, being so flat, the winds are intense to the point of being a problem for crops.

Elevation plays a fundamental role in the climate of the Canaries, too. Five of the islands rise above 1,400 m (4,600 ft): La Palma at 2,046 m, El Hierro at 1,500 m, La Gomera at 1,487 m, Tenerife at 3,718 m and Gran Canaria at 1,949 m. Fuerteventura (807 m) and Lanzarote (607 m) are much lower. While at the lower elevations the temperature is quite stable throughout the year (20–22 °C/68–72 °F), as Juan Jesús Méndez, chemist, oenologist and driving spirit behind Bodegas Viñátigo explains, ‘with every 400 m of elevation we notice a significant change in the climate. The vineyards located between 0 and 300 m [980 ft] have a clear subtropical climate; those between 300 and 700 m [980–2,300 ft] are temperate; and above 700 m we find a great contrast, with a very marked difference between day and night temperatures’. This makes it possible for the heterogeneity of varieties and styles per square metre of surface area to be so high. It also means that the Canary Islands have the longest grape harvest in the world, with the first grapes harvested in July and the last in November.

These climatic variations cause unusual situations. For example, it can happen that, depending on the area, Listán Blanco is harvested after the Listán Negro. Even on the same island, it can happen that one area is in bloom while others are already in veraison. The situation is so variable that it is difficult to make generalisations.

Is there such a thing as volcanic flavour?

One of the attributes most associated with Canary wines is their volcanic character. There has been a lot of talk about what volcanic character is, and John Szabo MS has even created some conferences around wines from volcanic soils.

I am still not very clear about what exactly volcanic character is, but I do believe that Canary wines share some unique characteristics. To begin with, a saline rather than citric acidity, very delicate and attractive. They are also, in general, light-bodied wines, more perfumed than textured. The tannin level tends to be low, with the exception of some varieties such as Baboso. In aroma they often have an ash-like character, or austerity.

This last point is perhaps the most contentious because I believe that this touch of ash, which you will see repeatedly in many of my tasting notes, is due more to reductive vinification (in which wine is protected from contact with oxygen) than to a direct link with a volcanic origin. (See the first part of Julias article on flinty/funky Chardonnay for an explanation of the terms reductive, reduction and reduced.)

On the subject of reduction I talked to Jonatan García Lima, the person behind Suertes del Marqués, Tenerife’s most renowned winery at the moment. His area of influence is the Orotava Valley. There the soils have a rather low pH, around 4. As a result, the vines have some problems in the absorption of magnesium, phosphorous and potassium. According to García, ‘these imbalances are reflected in musts in the form of less nutrition, which stresses the yeast and enhances this [characteristic related to reduction]’. This nutritional deficiency could be a cause of the notes of gunflint, farmyard, ashes and earthy flavours often found in Canary wines – the notes often associated with volcanic character. García Lima, in 2016, after an exhaustive analysis of his soils and observing high plant mortality, began to apply lime to the soil to raise its pH. By raising it, the absorption of nutrients increased, and, he reports, ‘even practising the same oenology, you got cleaner wines, with more fruit definition and no reduction’. García is also in charge of Bodegas Tamerán (pictured at the top of this article), which is in the centre of Gran Canaria where the soils have a pH of around 6.5, which, he says, ‘translates into wine with fewer characteristics of reduction’.

Another oenological detail that can affect this type of character (technically referred to as reduced because it is the result of reduction) is fermentation of musts that have been only lightly settled, leaving the must slightly turbid. This generates a faster fermentation, but at the cost of developing less clean and pure fruity notes. Besides, the combination of nutritional deficiency and rapid fermentation activity induces more stress in yeasts that seek nutrients wherever they can, usually in sulphur compounds whose transformation might contribute to this reduced character.

Descriptions such as reduction, leather, phosphorus or ash in my notes can be favourable or unfavourable depending on the balance of the wine. For example, if the aforementioned phosphorus aroma does not dissipate after aerating the wine, and covers the fruity aromas, for me it is unfavourable. But if this touch of phosphorus is combined with fruity notes and, moreover, fades with the passage of time in the glass, then for me it is a positive reduction that makes the wine more attractive.

For reviews of the wines that formed the basis of this article, please see Canary Islands – the tasting notes.