Cotton–candy clouds dot a brilliant blue sky as we arrive at Bodegas Viñátigo on the northwest side of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The cooling sea breeze ruffles our shirt sleeves, and my husband and I feel like we may have been here before: The wines of these islands shimmer with the energy of the sun and carry a saline tinge informed by the volcanic soil and salt air. Despite being relatively unheralded on the world stage, we have fallen for these wines, and so our Canary Islands vacation has become an unofficial wine–scouting expedition.
The Canary Islands, a volcanic archipelago 100 kilometres off the coast of North Africa, are home to some of the world’s oldest ungrafted vines and many ancient grape varieties.
We’re early for our arranged visit with owner Juan Jesús Méndez Siverio, so his wife Elena Batista leads us past a wrought–iron grape vine twisted into cursive script: Jardin de Variedades Canarias – the Garden of Canarian Varieties – is a living museum of Méndez Siverio’s life’s work. The chemist and oenologist has identified 82 grape varieties on the Canary Islands, 17 of which are planted here in this garden. Batista pulls back lush leaves to reveal clusters of grapes that resemble miniature green caterpillars, so small they’re nearly invisible. These are descendants of cultivars brought here by 15th–century colonists from Spain, Portugal and across Europe. Over 500 years, the cultivars have cross–bred and mutated in nature to express something quite different from that of their continental cousins. Several, including the white grape marmajuelo, carry DNA fingerprints no longer found anywhere else on Earth.
Here in his hometown of La Guancha, Méndez Siverio makes 11 single–variety wines and five blends using grapes unique to the Canaries and others that have genetic twins in Spain, Portugal and beyond. What makes them unique is that while the world’s vineyards were decimated by the late 19th–century aphid scourge phylloxera, the Canaries were protected by their distance from the mainland – and the fact that the pest does not thrive in sandy, rocky volcanic soil. The islands became a time capsule of ancient grapes, a Galapagos of wine where varieties multiplied in the diversity of terroirs and microclimates. (Genetic analyses have found more than 20 variations of the malvasia grape growing in the archipelago.)
To fully appreciate the time–capsule nature of these wines, you have to understand how they flourished, achieved celebrity status, were forgotten, then revived. By the 16th century, sweet Canarian wines made with the malvasia grape (probably brought over from Spain) were all the rage in England. In 1681, 4.5 million quart bottles were exported, most of them from Tenerife. Shakespeare made dozens of references to “malmsey,” “Canary” or “sack,” as Canarian wines were known. Lord Byron loved Canary malvasia, and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were fans, too – partially because every ship headed to the New World stopped at the Canaries for the laying in of provisions.
But by about 1700, price disputes and shifting trade alliances brought the golden era of Canarian malvasia wine ascendancy to an end. A drier, less–coveted wine known as vidueño took hold and, over time, bright table wines made with the most common varieties, listán blanco and listán negro, dominated. Other grape varieties fell into obscurity.
Foreign wine merchants and aristocratic landowners prospered from the wine trade, but a majority of islanders, especially those living in the remote highlands like Méndez Siverio’s family, lived in poverty. Their homemade wine was mainly a source of nutrients and calories. “You drank it every day for lunch and dinner because grape cultivation was so extensive and it was safer to drink wine than water,” Méndez Siverio says. When he was six, his typical merienda, or afternoon snack, might consist of a glass of wine and gofio, a dish made with toasted ancient–grain flour that was handed down from the Indigenous Guanches.
The new era of Canarian wine began in the late 1980s, with the arrival of temperature–controlled stainless steel tanks for fermentation and aging. In the 1990s, in the midst of a renaissance in local grape varieties (spearheaded by Méndez Siverio), winemakers began working to express the kaleidoscopic range of island terroirs and microclimates that are shaped by the islands’ volcanic soils, varying topography and cooling trade winds.
Tenerife is the largest of the eight main islands in this Spanish archipelago (seven produce wine), which erupted into being over a span of 20 million years. Fewer than a million people inhabit Tenerife’s 2,000 square kilometres, some 340 kilometres west of Morocco. Vineyards flourish from sea level to 1,450 metres up, both above and below the tender mar de nubes (sea of clouds) that wreath El Teide, Spain’s tallest mountain at 3,718 metres. White wines trend toward tart, floral and tropical. Reds tend to be ripe, smoky and earthy.
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Wine production in the Canaries is small, and there’s little in the way of wine tourism, so I’ve arranged – with the aid of my junior high school Spanish and Google Translate – to visit Viñátigo directly with Méndez Siverio. We enter the compact three–storey winery and tasting room through a cylindrical structure made of large volcanic rocks, descending a spiral staircase hung with ferns. Méndez Siverio designed it to be a symbolic vine–covered volcano cone illuminated from above by a skylight – a literal descent into terroir. “A winery is not just a factory,” Méndez Siverio says, “it’s a place where you create wines that express emotions.”
His “aha” moment, he tells us, came while studying chemistry in university, when he understood that the grapes he grew up stomping on to make the family’s wine – often in the communal hardwood and stone lagar, or press, near his hometown – were the last vestiges of the earliest domesticated grape vines. They were a genetic treasure trove with the potential to make great wines.
Méndez Siverio sought and received a grant from Spain’s ministry of science and agriculture and began working in Galicia and then in Tarragona to map the genetic roots of Canarian wine grapes. Here in the Canaries, he started in the late 1990s on the island of El Hierro, where two varieties, marmajuelo and gual, were about to disappear.
In his tasting room, we savour the marmajuelo’s balance of bright acidity and rich mouthfeel, with seductive notes from passion fruit to caramel. The gual, an ancient cousin to Portugal’s malvasia fina, offers up white flower and melon; listán blanco, its vibrating acidity playing off aromas of fennel and dried fruit, is genetically identical to the palomino fino grape, the raw material in Andalusian sherry.
Just as the genetic origins of Canarian grapes reveal the heritage of the islands’ colonizers, the various vine–trellising styles found here tell the melting–pot story of the settlers. The raised horizontal, or pergola–style trellising used in Viñátigo’s vineyards was imported by settlers from Portugal and southern Galicia, in Spain. In the hotter, drier southern Tenerife region of Abona – where we are headed next – settlers from the Kingdom of Castile trained the vines to grow in a goblet–shaped bush, protecting the grapes from the hot sun.
The Abona appellation stretches from sandy beaches to high up on the southern slope of El Teide. Our destination here is the beautifully preserved 18th–century village of San Miguel de Abona, home of the Altos de Trevejos winery, which sources its grapes from a plateau vineyard 1,000 metres higher up the slope.
Guided by an ebullient bearded sommelier named Eduardo Blas Nuñez Salvatierra, we taste a fruit–, floral– and salt–tinged white blend of old–vine listán blanco and malvasia, as well as a complex single–vineyard baboso negro red wine that conjures berry, earth and spice. Then there is the strawberry–nosed Brut Nature Sparkling Rosado made with listán prieto – a variety genetically identical to the mission or país grapes disseminated throughout the Americas by Spanish missionaries. In the courtyard, Nuñez Salvatierra demonstrates the sabering of a bottle, directing us to switch our camera to slow motion to capture the propulsive act in all its glory.
In this panoramic setting between volcano, vineyard and ocean, I think of what Méndez Siverio said about wineries being places that produce emotions. Once home, all we’ll need to do to relive these feelings is to uncork a bottle of Canary Islands gual or listán negro, and suddenly we’ll be right back here on Tenerife, the only place on Earth where these grapes – and their wines – can be found.
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Six of the Canary Islands have denomination of origin status.
Tenerife. Home to five of the Canaries’ 10 appellations, and the widest array of microclimates.
Lanzarote. The alien–looking vineyards on black volcanic rock were planted after 19th–century volcanic eruptions.
La Palma. Terroirs range from lush greenery to barren black sands, with wines made from albillo–criollo and the rare white sabro grape.
Gran Canaria. Two collapsed volcanic calderas create contrasting styles: big, minerally reds and lighter–body wines.
El Hierro. Heritage grapes found here sparked a revival, like the high–acid, herbal verijadiego and the age–worthy baboso blanco.
La Gomera. Vineyards are terraced along the steep slopes of the newest Canarian appellation, which is known for white wines made from the Forastera grape.
When You Go
Santa Cruz de Tenerife and San Cristóbal de La Laguna
Tenerife’s modern capital city, on the northeastern tip of the island, radiates out from its historic centre near Calzada de la Noria, where many of the city’s restaurants are gathered. The magnificent bright white opera house designed by Santiago Calatrava is the crowning architectural jewel, with a pointed canopy that swoops down over concentric half rings – a cross between New York’s Guggenheim Museum and a horseshoe crab.
The adjacent town of San Cristóbal de La Laguna is the cultural heart of the Canary Islands and a UNESCO World Heritage Site providing a glimpse back in time to the islands’ colonial era. The old centre is lined with lovingly restored, pastel–coloured 18th–century buildings that show off Portuguese and Andalusian influences, with top–floor rounded windows and beautiful tiled courtyards.
Bodegas Suertes del Marqués, La Perdoma
Getting to this Orotava Valley winery involves driving 300 metres up the vertiginously steep slope through the vineyards. Here they use the distinctive cordón trenzado (braided cord) method of training vines, which creates thick horizontal ropes of up to seven vines, each hand–tied and supported above ground by metal rods. The vines are between 80 and 150 years old, and some are wrist–thick.
Suertes del Marqués makes seven single–vineyard bottlings. The listán negro grapes in the elegant cherry–, smoke– and mineral–perfumed Candio are harvested from the parcel you drive past on the way in.
Casa del Vino, El Sauzal
Learn more about Tenerifan wines at this 17th–century country hacienda in the northeastern town of El Sauzal. See a massive lagar press, along with exhibits on the biodiversity of the island, various vine cultivation methods and Canarian winemaking history. On the terrace (with views of the ocean and El Teide) sample the Tenerife dish of braised and fried rabbit in a red chili mojo rojo sauce, paired with the garnet–hued Marba Tinto Barrica wine from the local Tacoronte–Acentejo appellation.
Bodegas Viñátigo, La Guancha
Altos de Trevejos, San Miguel
The Canarian culinary experience is equal parts rustic charm and Basque–style modern cooking.
Restaurante Playa Casa Africa, Taganana
Traditional seafood and other Canarian specialties (including a noteworthy fried octopus) are the draw at this unpretentious beachfront restaurant at the northeastern tip of Tenerife.
Restaurante Playa Casa Africa
El Sótano, San Juan de la Rambla
Owner Felipe Diaz Diaz prepares the daily catch of local fishermen so if there’s no haul, the restaurant won’t open. Look for grilled lapas (limpets) topped with mojo verde, or escalden, a humble Guanche dish made with gofio and fish stock.
El Rincón de Juan Carlos, Adeje
The Padrón family’s menu is a dreamlike taste journey. Try the Canarian black pudding served with almond praline, or a dish of prized local wreckfish (cherne) – all accompanied by top Canarian wines.
El Calderito de la Abuela, Cuesta de la Villa
This cottage restaurant produces all of its vegetables in a garden right outside the door. Here, traditional Canarian cuisine is prepared with modern flair, and enhanced by views of the Orotava Valley and the Atlantic Ocean.