TO drink only the best-known wines from time-honored regions is a little like eating in the same restaurants over and over. You can’t go wrong, perhaps, but without the rewards of exploration, you are missing out on so much more. This has never been truer for wine lovers than it is today, when more people have more access to great wines from more places than ever before. Yet of all the world’s wine regions well off the beaten path, none is farther removed than the Canary Islands.
This improbable archipelago is a region of Spain, but geographically and geologically it is part of Africa, situated just about 60 miles off the southwest coast of Morocco. There, on a scattering of volcanic islands, lie some of the most unusual, visually striking vineyards seen anywhere on earth, none more so than the eerie, almost extraterrestrial vineyards of Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canaries.
Vines on Lanzarote grow in the black soil of volcanic ash, which is carved into circular hollows that resemble craters on the Moon. On the sea side of the hollows, low stone walls are constructed to guard the huddled vines from the hot, humid breath of the Atlantic, which blows in mercilessly. Often the vines are the only things growing.
Not all of the Canaries’ vineyards are so exotic. But many are highly unusual, planted at high elevations on terraces carved into steep volcanic hillsides and in myriad microclimates.
Wine has been made on the Canary Islands for more than 500 years. Lanzarote is a relative newcomer, though. Vines there have been traced back only to the mid-18th century, perhaps because of a volcanic eruption — the source of all that rich, black earth — that lasted for six years. Much of the island is now protected as Timanfaya National Park.
Because the Canaries are so isolated, they have never known phylloxera, the ravenous aphid that almost destroyed Europe’s grapevines in the late 19th century. The wine industry was reborn when scientists discovered that European vines could be protected from phylloxera by grafting them onto American rootstocks, which were naturally immune.
But on the Canaries, vines can be planted on their own roots, offering the relatively rare opportunity to drink wines made from ungrafted vines. Isolation has also resulted in a variety of grapes that, if not exactly unknown elsewhere, are not often seen, especially in the production of still wines.
Until recently, Americans have had few opportunities to drink wines from the Canaries. That has changed drastically in the last five years, thanks almost entirely to the hard work of one importer, José Pastor, who has cornered the market, bringing in wines from more than a dozen producers representing a variety of different terroirs.
So it was that the wine panel was able to assemble for a recent tasting of 18 wines from the Canary Islands, all of them imported by Mr. Pastor. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by my friend Rafael Mateo, proprietor of Pata Negra, a Spanish wine and ham bar in the East Village, and Gil Avital, the wine director at Tertulia, a Spanish restaurant in Greenwich Village.
Our bottles included one sparkling wine; six whites; one rosé, or rosado; nine reds, or tintos; and one sweet, or dulce. Even with such a mix, these wines had a clear character. They were light and elegant rather than heavy or overly concentrated.
I was especially taken by the reds, which, whatever the blend of grapes, offered lovely aromas and flavors of wildflowers, spicy fruit and an occasional bit of attractive funkiness. The whites seemed less consistent, sometimes lacking the acidity that would make them refreshing.
Even so, our favorite wine in the tasting was the rosado, a 2010 from Los Bermejos, on Lanzarote. This rosado is a year-round wine, gutsy and savory with an exotic flavor of earthy fruit and a touch of licorice. At $20 it was also our best value.
The rosado was made of old vines of the listán negro grape, which is perhaps better known as the mission, a grape that was widely planted in California by Spanish settlers, but has largely disappeared there. It lives on in the Canaries, where it is the leading red grape.
Our No. 2 wine, the 2008 Tinto Tradicional from Monje, on Tenerife, a large island in the center of the chain, is a blend of listán negro and negramoll, another red grape, along with some listán blanco, a white grape that is better known as the palomino, the leading grape of sherry. This wine had a delicious wildness, along with a tannic bite.
[Available here at Spirit Haus for $21.99/$18.70 as pare of a mixed case.]
[Review By Josh Raynolds from Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, Nov/Dec 10
($18; a blend of listan negro, negramoll and listan blanco) Bright red. Aromas of spicy red
fruits, cherry and herbs, with a hint of tobacco. Reminded me of a Loire cabernet franc,
with tangy redcurrant and bitter cherry flavors and sneaky sweetness. Gains weight with
air and finishes on a dark cherry note, with lingering licorice and herbal qualities. 88 points]
Our No. 3 wine was a real curiosity, a bone-dry sparkling wine, or espumoso, made using the Champagne method but entirely with the malvasia grape, which gives it a little more heft than you might expect. Nonetheless, I loved its yeasty, mineral character. At $52 it was by far the most expensive wine in our tasting.
The sparkler was made by Los Bermejos, the star producer in our tasting, which landed 4 wines in the top 10. Its 2010 dry malvasia, which was crisp and perfumed, was our No. 5 wine, and our top white; its unctuous, almost syrupy yet complex sweet malvasia was No. 8. We might have ranked a fifth wine if Los Bermejos’s tinto had been available.
Other noteworthy wines included the 2010 Tinto Tradicional from Tajinaste, on Tenerife, 100 percent listán negro, juicy and satisfying; the 2008 listán blanco from Carballo, an unusually rich and nutty wine; and the fresh, delicate 2008 red from Frontón de Oro, on the isle of Gran Canaria.
No doubt, one of the major reasons we were so impressed with these wines was the work of Mr. Pastor himself in selecting them. He is a passionate proponent of distinctive regional styles and traditional methods, who avoids wines that have been subjected to the blurring influence of internationalization. I asked Mr. Pastor, who has an impressive portfolio from all over Spain, what had led him to the Canaries.
“The combination of little-known grapes, high-elevation vineyards and dramatic volcanic soils made for some of the most distinctive and delicious wines I’ve ever had,” he wrote by e-mail. From a true explorer come the rewards.
Los Bermejos Lanzarote, $20, *** Rosado 2010
Dry, savory and fresh with earthy fruit and licorice flavors. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet, Richmond, Calif.)
Monje Tenerife Tinto Tradicional, $25, *** 2008
Beautifully balanced though tannic, with flavors of wild berries and herbs. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet)
Los Bermejos Lanzarote, $52, *** Espumoso Brut Nature NV
Dry, fresh and richly textured with yeasty aromas and mineral flavors. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet)
Tajinaste Tenerife Valle de la Orotava, $30, ** ½ Tinto Tradicional 2010
Juicy and perfumed with aromas of flowers and purple fruits. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet)
Los Bermejos Lanzarote, $27, ** ½ Malvasía Seco 2010
Crisp and explosively aromatic with bright citrus and mineral flavors. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet)
Carballo Listán Blanco, $20, ** ½ 2008
Highly floral with nutlike flavors and a pleasant touch of funk. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet)
Frontón de Oro Gran Canaria, $22, ** ½ Tinto 2008
Fresh and delicate with aromas of red fruit, flowers and tobacco. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet)
Los Bermejos Lanzarote, $35, ** ½ Malvasía Dulce NV
Deliciously sweet, almost syrupy, with candied fruit and coconut flavors. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet)
Castro y Morgan La Palma Tendal, $19, ** 2009
Aromas of flowers and herbs with lip smacking dark fruit flavors. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet)
Juan Matías Torres Pérez La Palma, $20, ** Vid Sur Tinto Negramoll 2009
Floral, with savage flavors of dark fruit. (José Pastor Selections/Vinos & Gourmet)