● “In the midst of the dull monotony of current wines, typically good, but relatively alike, a different and seductive microcosm has arisen on the Canary Islands”
■ Trade wind wines
Por JOSÉ PEÑÍN
Founder of ‘Guía Peñín: The Best Wines of Spain’
If we look at the map, the latitude of the Canary Islands seems not to favor wine production. On the one hand, it is the most southerly vineyard in the northern hemisphere, and, on the other, it is exposed to the anticyclones and desert effects of the Sahara, neither of which elements tends to suggest that it could be a suitable climate for vine cultivation, and, certainly not for quality wines. So what accounts for the miraculous splendor of its vines? Why are Canary wines closer to the European Atlantic style than the ones from the Spanish Peninsula? The anomaly behind it is called the trade winds, a strange meteorological phenomenon produced when the cold flow of deep ocean waters strikes land in Africa, generating domestic clouds that provide constant humidity and fresh breezes which turn these volcanic islands with little precipitation into a blossoming oasis, where vines grow under the best conditions for the plant: humidity and temperatures below 30°.
In the midst of the dull monotony of current wines, typically good, but relatively alike, a different and seductive microcosm has arisen on the Canary Islands. The difficult accommodation of a nature that must survive amidst the pressures of tourism and an agriculture with very special cycles takes place on the islands. Its climate alone makes it almost paradise on earth, and over the course of its history, many different cyclical cultivations arose and declined, from cane sugar and bananas to the vines, which, nowadays have vigorously resurfaced in the footprint of the Canary wines of the 18th century. Today we see a viticulture that is more closely attuned to human rhythms than to the pressure of the former colonial market. And even more uniquely, the Canary Islands grape harvest starts well before anywhere else in Europe, as early as July.
While traveling the winegrowing landscape of the Canary Islands, we discover the Mediterranean and sylvan character of Anaga, the arid zone of Abona, the alpine altitudes of Vilaflor in Tenerife, and the Atlantic climate of Tacoronte-Acentejo or of Valle de la Orotava. The Güímar valley is in-between Atlantic and Mediterranean, as is the Ycoden-Daute-Ysora valley. On Gran Canaria, we find the same contrasts as in Tenerife, except for the fact that the quality of its wine is a little less developed in comparison to the latter’s. As far as Lanzarote is concerned, we come upon another strange and unique phenomenon: the survival of vines whose only water supply is dew, given that it barely rains and the trades are humid winds in a cloudless sky. On La Palma, humidity and altitude create a more sylvan character, but its wines are no less attractive. El Hierro has yet to produce its great wines, but it adumbrates a future of mineral and even more exotic casts, whereas La Gomera is a trip into the past, with wines that are still rural and almost untouched by the passage of time, similar to those I found nearly everywhere in the seventies of the last century.
The volcanic constitution of soils mixing sands from the Saharan winds with its own clays prescribe unique terroir diversity. There are the reddish clays of Gran Canaria, Tacoronte and Valle de la Orotava; chalk, clay and volcanic ash soils like the ones in El Hierro, the altitudes of Güímar and La Palma, the “jable,” a whitish sand that occurs in some crags of Abona and the “lapilli” (volcanic ash) of Lanzarote. The vineyards are another differentiating factor. They are mainly pre-phylloxeral, the only place in Europe which, generally speaking, avoided the phylloxera epidemic that devastated the European vineyards at the end of the 19th century. These vines of medieval style were defined by their wide dispersion and the large number of species, many of which disappeared on the Peninsula. Additionally, there is the peculiar grapevine cultivation that does not resemble the universal picture of espalier or goblet. Tacoronte’s movable stakes are completely different from the intertwined vines of La Orotava or La Palma. The vines of Listán, Negramoll or Vijariego were grapes that illustrated Gabriel Alonso de Herrera’s General Agriculture, published in 1513. And if there were any doubt remaining, the English traveler Brown, in his guide book Madeira and the Canary Islands, published in 1898, described the same varieties that are cultivated today in the Denominations of Origin from Canary Islands.
The natural and human landscapes have remained the same, which is already unique. For all these reasons, as you read 100 Essential wines from the Canary Islands, I advise you not to pay attention only to the descriptions of the wines portrayed here as you read, but to let your thoughts wander among the natural phenomena that have resulted in the creation of singular wines on islands that are only a few kilometers away from the world’s largest desert.