By Gerry Dawes

The Canary Islands are home to the most amazing vineyards I have ever seen. After 40 years of visiting many of the world's most beautiful and inspiring wine regions, I thought I had seen it all. Then in May, as I traveled in the Canary Islands, I saw vines clinging precariously to lava-strewn slopes, surviving in barren volcanic soils, yet producing strikingly good wines despite the daunting conditions. Words like “amazing,” “awesome” and “incredible” somehow seem inadequate to describe what must be seen with one’s own eyes—especially the vineyards on the island of Lanzarote, where vines thrive without any irrigation in small man-made craters that seem to imitate the larger volcanic craters that proliferate on this island. These hyperbolic words would only be of value in describing the vineyard landscape if the wines were not good. But that is not the case in the Canary Islands, especially when it comes to white wines and sweet wines, which here reach their quality apogee in all of Spain.

Sweet wines made from Malvasia (and some with Moscatel and Sabro) came from the same historical lineage that brought fame to the “Malmseys” of Portugal’s Madeira. In fact, La Palma’s Bodegas Teneguía claims that Malvasia (Malmsey) was planted in 1427 in Madeira and from there came to the Canary Islands in 1676. The Madeira Islands are the next major island group north of the Canaries and are part of a far-flung group that also includes the Portuguese Azores. This string of Atlantic Ocean islands, of which the seven main islands of the Canaries—El Hierro, La Palma, La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote—are a part, are thought by some historians to be the remnants of fabled Atlantis.

The Canary Islands have ten D.O.s (denominaciones de origen) governing the production of their wines. Several of the islands—Gran Canaria, El Hierro, La Gomera, La Palma and Lanzarote—have just one eponymous D.O., but Tenerife has five, which can be very confusing since some of them carry more than one name. They are Abona, Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de Güimar, Valle de la Orotava and the somewhat daunting Ycoden-Daute-Isora. The latter produces some of the best wines of the Canary Islands. There is a move afoot to consolidate the Tenerife D.O.s into one, but these micro-climate-based D.O.s, however confusing, can be quite different. Monte Lentiscal, until recently its own D.O. on Gran Canaria, was absorbed into the bigger Gran Canaría denomination.

I visited the four most important wine-making islands — Lanzarote, Tenerife, La Palma and Gran Canaria — and found wines of distinction on them all. Lanzarote is a fascinating place with 250 inactive and not-so-inactive volcanoes. It is a dry, subtropical island 70 miles off the coast of Africa. The vines, primarily Malvasía and Listán Blanco for white and semi-sweet to sweet wines, and Listán Negro and Negramoll for reds, essentially grow in holes strewn with ancient volcanic sand, protected from strong winds by conical depressions and a small quarter circle of volcanic rock wall stacked up about a foot high. These structures allow air flow, winds carrying Atlantic Ocean moisture, which then collects in the porous volcanic ash and sand mixture, nourishing the low density vines with life-sustaining water. Rain is very infrequent here — only 200 mm per year!

Lanzarote produces some of the most distinguished wines of the Canary Islands. Bodega Los Bermejos produces very good Bermejo Malvasías (dry and semi-dulce), a bright, fresh Listán Negro Rosado and a fine Moscatel Naturalmente Dulce sweet wine. El Grifo winery, in the area of La Geria, is the oldest in the archipelago and has long carried the banner for Lanzarote with some distinctive sweet and semi-dulce Malavasía- and Moscatel-based wines.

But the emerging star in Lanzarote is Stratvs, a new, architecturally stunning winery that is the showcase of the Canary Islands, boasting one of the most striking and advanced designs of all Spanish bodegas. At Stratvs, the winemaker, Alberto González, is also the director of the winery and the man who designed much of the innovative winemaking equipment. The juxtaposition of this state-of-the-art winery and the original pre-phylloxera rootstock vines that grow in its vineyards is truly remarkable. González produces a superb range of wines, including a brilliant Malvasía Seco, a fresh Tinta Conejera (“rabbit red”) Rosado, a couple of good commercial young red wines, an amontillado seco-like solera Vino Naturalmente Dulce, and a superb Moscatel Vino de Licor solera wine made from Moscatel de Alejandría grapes.

La Palma, called La Isla Bonita (beautiful island), the island with the second highest altitude in the Canaries after Tenerife, is entirely a biospheric reserve. Because of the altitude changes on this small island, the climate differences can be dramatic. A visit might begin in a fine mist with clouds covering one side of the island, while a hail storm is hitting the north and a heat wave rules in the south. Although most of the volcanoes are extinct on La Palma, there was a major eruption near the Teneguía winery in southernmost La Palma in 1971.

It is striking to see Malvasía and Sabro vines, from which some of the island's best sweet wines are made, clinging to volcanic slopes with the vines snaking low across the landscape, providing a dramatic contrast between the bright green of the leaves and the stark grey, lava-strewn ground. Vega Norte is producing some ever-better red table wines from Negramoll and Prieto Picudo grapes, but the stars here are Tamanca, Teneguía, Vid Sur and Carballo, all of which produce truly exceptional Malvasías Dulces dessert wines. And Tamanca and Teneguía produce some spectacular dulces (sweet wines) from the Sabro grape.

On Gran Canaria, the warmest of the islands due to the influence of African trade winds, are some of the most impressive restaurants. The wines, with a few notable exceptions, need to do some catch up with the food but are clearly on an upward trend. My friends from and I were fortunate to sample some of the better Gran Canaria wines during wonderful meals at such restaurants as Salsete in San Fernando, the Hecansa Hotel Escuela in Santa Brígida, the charming Casa de los Camellos in Agüimes, and Mariano García’s first-rate traditional cuisine La Cuadra in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

At the superb modern cuisine restaurant La Terraza in the luxurious Hotel Santa Catalina in Las Palmas, chef José Rojano served us some stellar dishes. We enjoyed gazpacho de mango with trout caviar, diced apple and prawns; vieja (parrot fish) with papas negritas arrugadas (Canary Islands black potatoes “wrinkled” by cooking in salt water) served with two of the Islands’ famous, deliciously addictive mojo sauces (verde, made with cilantro, and rojo, made with garlic, Spanish olive oil and hot peppers), and albondigas de cerdo negro de Canarias con trufa (Canaries black pig meatballs with truffles). With this exceptional meal we drank a superb Stratus Malvasía Blanco Seco (“El Vino del Fuego de la Tierra del Viento,” a Lanzarote “Volcanic Fire Wine from the Land of Wind”) and a delicious Tajinaste red from Tenerife’s Valle de la Orotava.

Among the better wines I tried on Gran Canaria were Las Tirinajas Blanco (Listán Blanco, Malvasía and Moscatel), Las Tirinajas Tinto (Listán Negro, Castellana) and the lemony, off-dry Mondalón Malvasía Dulce. But we tasted the most impressive Gran Canaria wines during a visit to the spectacular Los Berrazales in Agaete, a self-sustaining farm that also produces avocados, mangos, oranges, orange blossom honey and exceptional coffee. Everything on this marvelous farm—including a huge rock that fell onto the property during a earthquake years ago and was incorporated into the winery—has a “sense of place,” (terruño), including the wines. From pre-phylloxera vines, Inocencio Lugo, the owner and his son, Victor Lugo, produce Los Berrozales Semi-seco (Moscatel, Malvasía; great with foie-gras and goat cheese), a delicious young red Tinto (Tintilla, Castellana) and a subtle, honeysuckle-and-jasmine laced Moscatel Dulce that was a perfect match to the orange honey and goat cheese.

Tenerife, with more than 2,000 square kilometers, is the largest of the Canary Islands and with nearly 900,000 inhabitants, the most populated. It is also the most important island for tourists, many of whom come for the beaches. Tenerife is the island most attuned to marketing its wines outside the Islands. At the Casa del Vino La Baranda in the Tacoronte-Acentejo D.O. near La Laguna and the Tenerife capital of Santa Cruz, I was able to taste some the best wines of the five Tenerife denominaciones de origen: Abona, Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de Güimar, Valle de la Orotava and Ycoden-Daute-Isora. Among the most interesting were the Domínguez Especial Blanco (Tacoronte-Acentejo), an improbable but charming, rosé-tinged wine made from 90% Negramoll (a red grape) and 10% Malvasía; Viñátigo’s superb (Ycoden-Daute-Isora D.O.) dry wines as well as their stunning sweet Malvasías (the latter among Spain’s greatest dessert wines); wines from Viña Norte/Humboldt (Tacoronte-Acentejo); Bodegas Buten’s aptly-named Magma de Crater (Tacoronte-Acentejo); and the delicious, tart Tajinaste (Valle de la Orotava) made from 100% Listán Negro.

Abona’s vines on Tenerife are on the lower slopes of the mighty volcanic mountain, Teide, the highest peak in all of Spain. Abona grows a variety of native grapes and foreign varietals in vineyards that are often strewn with a fine, white volcanic sand that helps retain moisture, known as “Jable” soil. At Bodegas Frontos in Granadilla de Abona, I tasted the clean, fresh, minerally Blanco Seco Ecológico (100% Listán Blanco) and a rich, spicy Baboso Negro.

I came away from the Canary Islands vowing not to let another forty months—let alone years—pass before I return to see what other wine treasures are to be found in these remarkable islands.

From the 16th to 19th Centuries, when Sherries, Madeira wines and Ports were in vogue in England, wines of the Canary Islands figured prominently among the giants of classical wine. Shakespeare’s characters talk about drinking "Canary" (malvasia-based wines) and references to these wines are found in the works of Sir Walter Scott, Ben Jonson, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Theophile Gautier, John Keats, Immanuel Kant, John Locke and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Canary Island vineyards boast a wide variety of grapes, many of which disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula mainland when it was hit by the phylloxera plague that devastated European vineyards in the late 19th Century. Most of the best dry white wines and sweet white wines–among the greatest dessert wines of Spain–are made from Malvasía grapes, but a number are made with Moscatel, Pedro Ximénez, Torrontés, Listán Blanca, Verdello and Albillo, as well as such little-known Canary Islands varieties as Sabro, Bastardo Blanco, Güal and Forastera Blanca.

Predominant red varieties include Listán Negro, Negramoll, Bastardo Negro, Malvasía Rosada, Mosacatel Negro, Tintilla, Baboso Negro (related to the Bastardo of Galicia’s Monterrei region) and the more familiar varieties, Tempranillo and the recently planted foreign varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir.

About the author:
Gerry Dawes is a New York-based writer and photographer who specializes in Spain. He has published numerous articles on Spanish wine and food and lectures frequently in the U.S. and in Spain on Spanish wine and gastronomy. In 2003, he won the prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (Spanish National Gastronomy Prize).