When you think of Spanish Wine, the Canary Islands may not the first growing region that comes to mind. Wine lovers are quick to name famous appellations like Cava, Rioja, and Rias Baixas, Spain is one of the most flourishing and dynamic wine producing countries in the world today, and wines from the Canary Islands are well worth exploring for their fascinating history and distinctive characteristics.
History of Canary Wine
Wine production on the Canary Islands is documented as far back as the 15th Century, not long after the archipelago came under Castillian rule. Wineries were established alongside other agricultural ventures, namely sugarcane, and “Canary Wine” rose to prominence in England and throughout the European royal courts, in particular, a sweet and aromatic wine called Malmsey, made from the Malvasia grape. The wine brought great wealth to the islands until the market stalled with the introduction of sweet and Port-style wines from Spain and Portugal, which came into favor in the 1800s.
But, i’ faith, you have drunk too much canaries ; and that ‘s a marvellous searching wine, and it perfumes the bloods ere one can say, — What ‘s this?Henry IV Part II, Act II, Scent IVWilliam Shakespeare
While wine production waned on the other islands, Lanzarote persisted in the production sweet and aromatic Malvasia, as well as dry, young Malvasia wines. Eventually the other Islands began experimenting with indigenous grapes and a variety of styles as well. Today, the Canaries produce everything including sweet and dry red white, and rosé wines whites and even classic method sparkling wines. The 1980s saw a resurgence of Canary Island wine production, with 11 growing areas receiving official DO status during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Old Vines. Deep Roots.
When the Phylloxera aphid scourge wiped out the majority of Europe’s ancient vineyards during the mid-19th Century, most continental vineyards were replanted with new American rootstock which was discovered to be resistant to the aphid infestations. The Canary Islands, however, were spared. Some vineyards boast vines as old as 100 years old.
While the age of the roots does not affect the quality of the wines, old vines do impart a more complex aroma, flavor, finish and even texture. Centuries-old grape vines, with their deep, meandering roots not only benefit from hydrating and temperature-regulating effects of diverse, layered soil types, they also produce distinctive mineral notes in the wine.
The Seven Main Islands
They say you can experience a year of weather all in one day on Tenerife. The north and sides of the sides of the island have radically different microclimates, and peaks reach 4000 meters above sea level. Tenerife is also home to the oldest Denominación de Origin of the Canary Islands, Tacoronte-Acentejo, where the vineyards are planted in terraces at altitudes of between 100 and 1,000 meters above sea level. Tenerife is also home to DO Valle de Güímar, which has been experimenting with international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz along with traditional varieties.
Wines here are produced under the Denominación de Origin Islas Canarias, a DO that covers the entirely of the archipelago and allows a selection of indigenous and international grapes.
DO Gran Canaria comprises the entire island. Most of the wines are made from red grapes, and come out light in style with a twist of smoke and minerality. Malvasia is the main white grape, mostly used for light, dry, semi-aromatic wines.
The easternmost island with the most extremely arid weather, D.O. Lanzarote produces mostly white wines, made from Malvasía, Listán Blanco Diego, and Moscatel, as well as some reds. DO Lanzrote is divided in to three subzones, including La Geria, most notable for its distinctive landscape, where a layer of black solidified lava, called Lapilli blankets the earth, and vines are planted in singular bushes and protected by crescent-shaped rock walls. Lanzarote wines are noted for their balance of intense minerality and striking acidity.
DO La Palma covers the entire island. Altitude ranges from 200-1200 meters above sea level, and soil is generally fertile and rich with volcanic sediment.
DO La Gomera comprises the entire, mountainous island of La Gomera, which is notable for vines trained on trellises along steep mountain terraces.
D.O. El Hierro comprises the entire island, and is the smallest, westernmost, and driest wine growing areas in the Canary Islands. Wines have been produced there since the 17th century, when they were predominately used for sweet and distilled wines destined for export to Europe, South American and the Caribbean.
Canary Island GRAPE VARIETIES
- Malvasia Volcánica, Malvasia Aromática – The most pervasive white variety in the Canary Islands, Malvasia is made in a range of dry, minerally versions to sweeter and more oxidized ones.
- Diego – Produces bright, crisp herbaceous and pale fruit notes.
- Listán Blanco (Palomino) – A common Sherry grape, it tends to oxidize quickly but is known to birght acidity and floral aromas.
- Moscatel – An aromatic grape in Moscato/Muscat family that produces intense fruit and floral aromas.
- Listán Negro – A quintessential Canary Islands grape, it produces a complex array of red fruits, pepper, purple tones like licorice and anice, with a juicy palate and spicy finish.
- Baboso Negro – A Portuguese variety known for its opaque , rich color and dark and plummy qualities and cocoa notes.
- Tintilla (Trousseau) – This wine produces unique spicy, ashy, dark fruit aromas.
- Tinta Negra (Negramoll) A Madeira grape with dark, rich fruit aromas and a thinner body, highly resistant in the vineyard and an integral blending grape.
Canary Island Climate
Its southerly position (approximately 80 miles west of Morocco, for reference), and subtropical climate means long hot summers and mild winters. Temperatures rarely drop below 60 degrees F (15 C).
The islands are of volcanic origin and quite mountainous. High winds and blazing sun create arid conditions along with cooler, greener areas where a variety of plant-life is able to thrive, depending on the altitude and position of the island with respect to trade winds and ocean currents. Each island has its own microclimate, or series of microclimates.
El Hierro, La Palma and La Gomera are situated to the west and enjoy cooling winds and more farm-friendly climate. Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, the islands farthest to the east and closest to Africa are dry and desert-like. Tenerife and Gran Canaria are completely varied. Tenerife rises in some peaks to 4,000 meters above sea level where forests thrive in cool, rainy conditions. It’s no wonder Tenerife produces the majority of Canary Island wines and cultivates a greater variety of grapes.
Winegrowing and Vineyard Techniques in the Canary Islands
The subtropical conditions would not seem adept for high quality wine making, but a few unique factors come into play.
High altitude, stone-terraced vineyards experience temperature fluctuations and cool nights that help preserve acidity.
While wine can be also be damaging to the plants, it also prevents moisture from collecting inside the grape bunches, therefore reducing the risk of mold and bacteria.
The volcanic soil provides drainage for the roots of the wines and also imparts striking mineral and salty quality to the wines.
Local Grape Varieties
Canary island wines are produced almost exclusively with local, indigenous grapes which have adapted to the climate over centuries.
Grapes are grown in terraced carved into steep mountainsides.
In Lanzarote, which is the easternmost island, and therefore the driest, a growing technique developed, most notably in the La Geria area, that makes use of their particular soil type, composed of pumice stone known as lapili, that showers the vineyards during volcanic eruptions, and cools down rapidly at night. This promotes dew, which hydrates the soil throughout the hot sunny day. In addition, farmers build crescent-shaped rock walls around each wine to protect from high winds. When observed from above, Modo Lanzaroteño appears almost extraterrestrial, with the black, cratered terrain and semi-circles of stone.
5 Wines From the Canary Islands To Try Right Now
If you haven’t heard much about Canary Islands Wines, you aren’t alone. There’s a reason they aren’t exported to the extent as Spanish wines from other regions.
For one thing, due to their arid soil and incredibly hot and windy growing conditions, the plant yields are low, resulting in a much smaller production. Most of the wine never leaves the island, thanks to a vibrant tourism industry and visitors eager for local flavor, including and traditional food and wine. Luckily, a few of them have made it Stateside. Ask your local wine shop or Spanish wine restaurant if they’ve got these, or anything else from Las Canarias.
1) Frontón de Oro, Tinto (2017)
A small family estate in operation as a farm since the 1970s, and only recently on the market with their DO Gran Canaria wines. The vineyards are extremely high-elevation, over 1,000 meters above sea level. This piquant blend of Listán Negro and Tintilla is aged in older oak barrels for a short time. It is juicy, spicy, and smoky on the finish.
2) Bodegas Los Bermejos, Lanzarote Diego Seco (2018)
Lanzarote leader, Los Bermejos has conquered the extreme conditions of the island and farms sustainably. They are most known for an extremely dry and mineral-driven Malvasia. The Diego offers similar crispness and minerality with lovely, herbaceous, green apple and citrus notes.
3) Bodegas Tajinaste, Paisaje de las Islas Forastera Gomera (2017)
Tajinaste is a small family-owned winery situated on the north side of Tenerife, where they enjoy a milder climate thanks to the trade winds. In operation for nearly a century, they culticate a variety of grapes. This Forastera Gomera is dry, yet creamy and floral, complex and luxurious on the palate with dry, mineral finish.
4) Dolores Cabrera Fernández, La Araucaria Tinto – Paraje La Perdoma (2017)
Winery owner Dolores Cabrera is passionate about terroir and organic sustainable farming. Grown on the northern slopes of Tenerife, her wines a true expression of grape (Listán Negro) and place, and much of it comes from 50 to 100 year-old vines. This tinto is fresh and vibrant with notes of red fruit, pepper and smoky minerality.
5) Matias i Torres, La Palma Negramoll (2017)
Now in its fifth-generation of family ownership, Victoria Torres Pecis heads up this La Palma winery in a very hands-off manner. They crush red with their feet and stick to wild, indigenous yeast and only very old oak barrels. Minimal filtration means a very powerful taste of traditional Canary Islands red wine.
Wines from the Canary Islands are as diverse as they are unique and fascinating. Few places in the the wine world come through so strikingly in the glass. In fact, our recent Wine Spectator Video Contest entry made the finals with our take on the transportive quality of DO Lanzarote, Diego Seco. Watch it here!