A Simple Guide to Wine From the Canary Islands

Spain, Canary islands, Lanzarote, vineyard agriculture.
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Wine is probably not the first vision that comes to mind when thinking of the Canary Islands. However, this sun-kissed archipelago has produced wines of volcanic origin for centuries.

The Canaries are located around 60 miles west of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean. The main islands, from largest to smallest, are Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Graciosa. Their subtropical climate attracts a thriving tourist industry all year, but the islands’ distinctive volcanic wines are also gaining global attention and critical acclaim.

Early Wine Production

La Palma, Canary Islands: Vineyard on volcanic soil.
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Wine has been made in the Canaries since the 15th century, when Spaniards colonized the islands. For many years after, British merchant and Royal Navy ships carried sweet, fortified Canary wine to mainland Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia. Thousands of gallons of Malvasía wine, called Sack or Malmsey, were exported to the U.K. each year during the 16th and 17th centuries and enjoyed by royalty, aristocrats and writers, including Shakespeare.

Global demand for these wines declined in the 18th century as desire for French and Portuguese wines grew, so much of the islands’ industry collapsed. Only very small producers remained, mostly making wine for their own consumption and to supply the local market.

However, Lanzarote’s El Grifo, founded in 1775 and the oldest bodega in the Canary Islands, still exists today and remains at the forefront of innovation in the Canarian wine industry.

Wine-Producing Islands and the Terroir

Wine is made on seven of the eight main islands, encompassing 10 Denominaciones de Origen Protegida (DOPs, formerly known as DOs)— Abona, Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de Guimar, Valle de la Orotava, Ycoden-Daute-Isora, El Hierro, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, La Palma and Lanzarote.

“Soils are very varied, formed by volcanic eruptions, landslides and erosion,” says Jesús González de Chávez, winemaker at Vinos Atlante in northwest Tenerife’s Valle de la Orotava. “There are light stone soils, others with very heavy basalt rock and different proportions between sand and clay. Every island is different.”

Climate also differs across the archipelago, and the lack of natural freshwater resources is mitigated by humidity carried over by Atlantic trade winds. “The eastern islands are of older geological formation, with lower, more uniform altitude and a dry, desert-like climate,” says González de Chávez. “The western islands are higher, steeper and have greater diversity of microclimates. Northern trade winds—alisios—cool temperatures and bring moisture.”

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Tenerife, the largest of the archipelago, dominated by Mount Teide, Spain’s tallest peak, has some of Europe’s highest vineyards, two distinct climatic zones, five DOPs and a great diversity of wine styles.

Additionally, the Islas Canarias DOP, created in 2012, includes grapes grown anywhere in the Canary Islands, meaning all wines from the islands can carry identifying appellation branding.

Grapes on the Canary Islands

The phylloxera-free Canaries are among only a few places in the world to have ungrafted vitis vinifera vines. Some are over 200 years old, and many are exclusive to the islands.

“There are 20 recognized unique grape varieties here, and more than 20 new varieties that are currently being studied, with a further 60 that are genetic profile variations,” says Juan Jesús Méndez Siverio, winemaker at Tenerife’s Bodegas Viñatigo.

Listán Blanco (aka Palomino) and Listán Negro are the most widely planted grapes on the islands. Others include white wine grapes Malvasía Volcánica, Malvasía Aromática and Albillo Criollo; along with red wine grapes Negramoll, Vijariego Negro and Baboso Negro. There are a few plantings of international varieties, like Syrah.

However, each island has its own specialities. Méndez Siverio says these include Malvasía Volcánica in Lanzarote, Listán Prieto in Fuerteventura, Albillo Monte Lentiscal in Gran Canaria, Listán Negro and Listán Blanco in Tenerife, Forastera Blanca in La Gomera, Albillo Criollo in La Palma and Verijadiego Blanco in El Hierro.

Dry, high acid whites and light, fruity reds, some made using carbonic maceration, are typical, but richer, oak-aged expressions are produced, too.

In 2020, around 15 million gallons of wine (51% red and 49% white), were produced in the archipelago.

Unique Viticulture

Vines growing well in the lava rock of Lanzarote walls
Vines growing in the lava rock of Lanzarote walls / Getty

Several unique vine-growing methods are used, including cordón trenzado, or “braided cords” of vines that can stretch 49 feet horizontally, in Tenerife’s Valle de la Orotava.

Perhaps the most striking is on Lanzarote, where vines are planted in crater-like pits called hoyos, and then dug deep into the soil containing thick layers of water-retaining volcanic ash, or picón. These are surrounded by protective lava-stone walls that shield the grapes from wind and sun, and trap the scarce moisture carried over by the Atlantic trade winds in an otherwise very dry climate.

“In normal places with this weather, these wines wouldn’t have such levels of acidity due to the intense daytime sun,” says Luca Torelli visitor center manager at El Grifo.

Contemporary Appeal

Locals believe that the variety of soils and climates, grapes and viticulture methods creates terroir expressive, volcanic wines that are becoming particularly relevant for modern-day wine drinkers.

“Renewed interest for [distinctive] wines, grapes and styles, moving away from homogenized wine styles, has enabled the industry to grow again,” says Angus Macnab, Tenerife-born sommelier and wine consultant.

Ollie Horton, owner of Wine Shop Lanzarote, agrees. “Nowadays, we see a more open-minded consumer than ever before—a customer that seeks a new and interesting story, one with tradition and is somewhat distanced from the mainstream.”

The Future of Canarian Wines

“The future is very much centered around gaining the international recognition that Canarian wines deserve, based on unique and ancient grape varieties grown in extreme terroir,” says Méndez Siverio. The goal, he says, is to see these niche wines in “dynamic markets where there is demand or where demand can be grown.”

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However, González de Chávez believes there is still work to do locally. The lack of young people working in vineyards poses a potential problem.

“We want young people to become interested again,” he says, “so that this part of our culture, which has been so important since the Spanish and Portuguese arrived on the islands, can continue.”

Published on April 15, 2022
Topics: Spain