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Part 1 

By Hutch Hill

Like a Hawaii of the Atlantic, the Canary Islands rise from the depths seemingly out of place, a cluster of seven ridgeback isles in the middle of open ocean. Though politically part of Spain, geographically they are much nearer to Africa, a mere 67 miles off the coast of Morocco, and in the direct path of the mighty trade winds that frequently carry clouds of sand from Western Sahara to the islands. Subtropical, in places jungle-lush, places barren, and with relatively little temperature variation throughout the year, the Canaries do not fit into any familiar image we have of winegrowing regions from most anywhere around the world. And yet the enological tradition there is long and proud, and the history of their production and consumption has been intimately connected to both Europe and the Americas for centuries, even if tasting the wines now feels like discovering a new region on what might look like another planet.

 

I had the outrageous fortune to travel to Las Canarias for a week of wine adventuring as a guest of David Bowler Imports in March, enjoying brief but richly educational stays on the islands of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, and Lanzarote. Each of the producers we visited, much like the islands themselves, were as astonishingly unique as the next, and some defy comparison to other wines anywhere.

 

TENERIFE – Tajinaste, Viñátigo, Monje

The first thing you should learn about the island of Tenerife, like all the islands that make up the Canaries, is that it is a volcano. Several volcanos really, but it takes its cultural and physical identity from the largest one, the massive snowcapped cone at the island’s center named Tiede. Affectionately called ‘el Padre’ by the locals, it towers over everything and serves as a reference point to where one is on the island. At 3,700 meters, the volcano is also the highest peak on Spanish soil and its stark elevation creates something like a layer cake effect for the island where the varying temperatures and climates lend themselves to different forms of agriculture. On a clear day you can see the layers with the naked eye as you stand in the harbor of Santa Cruz and look up at Tiede from below.

Our first visit was to Tajinaste, whose vineyards are scattered across the hillsides of the Valle de la Orotavia above Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The tireless Agustin Farrais works not only to carry on the family tradition of quintessentially Canarian viticulture, but also works with more than 100 local farmers to rescue and resuscitate abandoned vineyards around the region. It becomes clear speaking with him that his passion lies not only with the success of Tajinaste, but with the success of Tenerife wine producers in general. As we drove the switchback road up the mountainside he giddily pointed out tiny plots of vines, sometimes no bigger than a family garden of three or four rows, that he and his family help cultivate and farm. The wines of all the plots are vinified separately and then he blends the final wines with a fruit-forward and approachable character that readily mirrors the producer himself. 

 

Of particular note were our first tastings of the Listan Negro and Listan Blanco, the two calling card grapes of Las Canarias. The Tajinaste Listan Negro is representative of the varietals in that it carries pepper and earthy aromas overtop a medium body of darker red fruits. The Listan Blanco, known for its favoring the volcanic minerality that abounds in the Canaries, is a medium acid white with fresh citrus blooms and wild fennel on the nose, and then peachy-apricot flavors. Both Listans are shapeshifters—the white in particular—responding and revealing different characters in the hands of different winemakers and grown from different parts of the islands.

Photo Courtesy of Viñátigo

Day two we drove around to the northwest of Tenerife to a region called La Guancha where we visited the vineyards of Bodegas Viñátigo. This valley was the pathway for any number of lava flows from the top of the island down to the sea. Your ears pop as you drive the serpentine road up through fields of bananas and palm trees until finally emerging onto the steep slopes of vineyards that cling to the valley’s sides. We hiked vineyards planted to Gual, Bastardo Negra (Trousseau) and Baboso Negro (Alfrocheiro) and listened to proprietor and professor Juan Jesus Siverio and his wife Elena share their enthusiasm and insights about the varietals that they have helped preserve and catalogue on Tenerife. Farming organically and in places Biodynamically, Viñátigo are also the experimenters of the Canaries. In their cellar we tasted no fewer than a selection of 25 wines, all of them unique productions in terms of varietal or technique, and across the line-up one could taste the care and attention that results in some of the most complex and thoroughly expressive wine of all the Canaries. 

Sticking out in my memory (and underlined in my notebook), were the Negromoll and Vijiriega. Both reds, the Negramoll harkens to a Gamay/Pinot Noir personality—lighter in body and fresh and fragrant and crushable—while the Vijiriega Negro was more serious-minded and brooding, with leather and wood interlaced with the darker fruit characteristics. If one has the chance to drink any of the wines of Vinatigo, they simply ought to do so.

 

Photo Courtesy of Monje

On our third and last day on Tenerife, we had the immense pleasure of spending our time with Bodegas Monje, located in a particular section of El Sauzal called “La Hollera.” If Tajinaste is about history and community, Vinatigo about study and expertise, then Monje is about playfulness and joy. Famous locally for the restaurant at the winery, the art gallery and musical performances they have on-site, and the infamously epic parties that they host throughout the year, there might be a tendency to overlook the wines themselves. This would be a mistake. 

 

The wines of Monje are upright and well-structured with a core component of fruitiness that combines their drinkability with a depth of complexity. The standout wine for me was the ‘Hollera’ Carbonica. A blend of Listan Negro with smaller amounts of Negromoll and Listan Blanca vinified carbonically. Like we saw at Vinatigo, Listan Negro lends itself particularly well to carbonic maceration. In less optimal circumstances, Listan can lean a bit too far at times into reductive notes and pepper and potting soil aromas, but the carbonic seems to circumvent any chance of that while simultaneously highlighting the juicy, fresh, and tart red fruits that abound.

Read Part 2

In part two of this travel diary, Hutch takes us through Gran Canaria to Frontón de Oro to explore the wines of Antonio Ramirez. And finally, he visits the famed Bodega Los Bermejos on the remote island of Lanzarote.

 

Hutch Hill is Serendipity’s Senior Vice President of Sales & Portfolio Management. He has been with the company for over four years and has been known to enjoy a dumpling or two, on an occasion.