A Vinous Microcosm in the midst of the Atlantic
In recent years, the volcanic wines from Tenerife have been showered with praise, but it is only a handful of producers that have received most of the attention. In the slipstream of much-lauded wineries like Suertes del Marqués and Envínate, there are a significant number of other quality vintners that produce anything from sparkling, fortified, and orange, to high altitude and submarine wines. With barely 20 percent of the area of Rogaland (but double the population), the “island of eternal spring” produces an incredible diversity of styles. Unfortunately, these wines may be hard to find outside the Canary Isles. Apéritif tasted through some interesting examples that are worth seeking out.
Tenerife, the largest of the Canaries, lies at approximately 28 degrees north, just outside what is normally considered to be the best zone for winegrowing. Due to climate change, this zone is moving north, away from Tenerife. So, with the Sahara’s influence steadily becoming more noticeable, you may be surprised by how beautiful Tenerifan wines are. But with the Atlantic Ocean still the dominant force, most vineyards facing north, and just enough precipitation, at least in the north of the island, the climate is an asset rather than a risk.
To use the overarching appellation or not
Tenerife counts five appellations or Denominaciónes de Origen (DO’s). (See below, sidebar 1.) But some vintners believe that marketing five, sometimes obscurely named appellations, is too difficult. Only the DO Valle de La Orotava has managed to build something of an international profile. Therefore some wineries, such as Monje, prefer to label their wines using the overarching DO Islas Canarias.
Alberto Monje, who runs the Monje winery in the DO Tacoronte-Acentejano together with his uncle Felipe, says they largely stopped using the local appellation ten years ago. They prefer to have the flexibility to source grapes from elsewhere, even though all their vineyards and bought-in grapes are local. Interestingly enough, Alberto claims that the Islas Canarias appellation allows them to label a wine with its single vineyard name, while the Tacoronte appellation doesn’t. (The Consejo Regulador has answered neither phone calls nor e-mails to confirm this.)
DO's Tenerife © FUIA Tenerife
Monje is an experimental producer. They not only produce a wide range of different wines, they also like to explore the island’s native varieties and venture into new production methods. One of Monje’s standout products is their Tradicional Submarine. It seemed gimmicky to me at first, but the sommelier of the wine bar and restaurant Mirador de Garachico (recommended) made a convincing case, so I tried it. Back home, Alberto gives me the details via Zoom. Made from listán negro, the DO’s main variety, Monje produces one thousand bottles of their Tradicional annually. The young wine is matured in 600-liter old barrels for three to four months before aging for another two years in stainless steel. Subsequently, the wine is bottled, sealed and labeled. Half of the bottles are then matured for six months at 18 meters below sea level. (To avoid the seawater from washing it off, the label is laminated and attached with a string into the sealing wax.) The other 500 are kept in a dry cellar to age further. The submarine wine is exposed to a pressure of 2 bar, causing the oxygen between cork and wine to dissolve leading to faster micro-oxidation and hence a faster softening and polymerisation of the tannins.
If such an accelerated aging process (inspired by ancient amphoras found in sunken ships) is useful remains a point of discussion. But gimmicky or not, the 2016 vintage I tasted was very good. Prunes and dried figs dominated a gamut of flavours and aromas that also included hints of brambles, blueberries, cherries, violets, bayleaf, dried herbs, tobacco and cedar. With smooth but still grippy enough tannins and decent fresh acidity, this mid-weight wine was a real pleaser that was in its perfect drinking window. Mirador de Garachico couldn’t offer me a regular Tradicional (of the same vintage) to see if its lifespan is indeed l onger, but Alberto assures the unsubmerged wine tastes two years younger. If you are in the area, the Monje winery offers side-by-side tastings.
Vineyards Monje with Mount Teide in the back ©Monje
High altitude wines from Abona
On the other side of the altitude spectrum, Altos de Trevejos prides itself in farming some of Europe’s highest vineyards in the sunny and dry appellation of Abona. Altitude is a prerequisite here to create fresh and aromatic wines. And Trevejos’s Listán Blanco 2019 from vines grown at 1250 m.a.s.l. is a textbook example of what a good vintner in this appellation can do. Despite only 168 millimetres of rain in 2019, the 150-year-old vines have such deep roots that irrigation isn’t needed, Chaxi Velázquez, the vintner, writes to me. Hand-harvested organic fruit, spontaneous fermentation, six months on the fine lees in three-year-old French oak, and one year in the bottle – this wine hits the market when it has something to say. Restraint in its fruit – a hint of tropical fruit, some yellow apple and honeydew melon – it has great freshness, a bit of creaminess and a little chew that carry additional flavours of hay, white almond and a whiff of vanilla to a lingering finish. The acidity, although not excessively high, is as bright and crisp as mountain air.
Vintners Damián Díaz (r) en Chaxi Velázquez ©Altos de Trevejos
Organic and biodynamic
On the northern side of the island things are typically more humid, making organic farming a challenge. As Jonatan García Lima, owner/winemaker at Suertes del Marqués, told me, farming organic or biodynamic is still in its infancy on Tenerife. García Lima himself farms organic, but has decided to refrain from certification due to the large amount of administration required. At Marzagana they accept that burden and now label their wines with the EU Organic Agriculture and the Demeter logo. The winery is also a member of the French Vin Méthode Nature organisation. I tasted their red Elementales Barrica (60 percent listán negro, 30 percent syrah and 10 percent castellana) made without added sulfites or oenological additives, and bottled without fining or filtration at full moon using gravity. With its reductive nose and stony minerality it reminded me of Suertes del Marqués’s wines, with an additional hint of funk.
No phylloxera in volcanic soils?
All vines in Tenerife grow on their own roots. The volcanic soils, among the island’s most distinct features, are often credited for having kept phylloxera away from the island. But García Lima has his doubts. “How come the nasty aphid invaded the Azores, also volcanic,” he wonders? He attributes Tenerife’s good luck to the fact that for long the island was an economic backwater, which never picked up the latest trends in viticulture and hardly imported any new varieties, thus keeping the aphid at bay. Nowadays, the phytosanitary inspection is strict.
Most vintners and experts do agree the soils are responsible for the wines’ mineral character and their lick of salinity. Although minerality and salinity aren’t exclusive traits of Tenerifan wines, many of its wines do have these qualities, not least the age worthy wines by Suertes del Marqués, which belong to the very best the island, if not the country, has to offer. However, before anything else, Jonatan García Lima’s wines are reductive and lean with delicate fruit, and not overly extracted or structured. He likens them, not completely unjustified, to his beloved Burgundies.
Less reductive and possibly more saline was Bodegas Arautava’s Finca la Habanera Albillo Criollo. The grapes grow at 700 m.a.s.l. in the highest parts of their vineyards (see sidebar 2 below) rendering the wine with a distinct crunch that supports notes of anise, apricot, candy and clove.
Just like Arautava and Suertes del Marqués, La Haya, a small 2.5-hectare outfit, is located in the Valle de La Orotava. It uses fermentation on the skins to produce a very pleasant orange wine. Made from 90 percent listán blanco, the remainder a mix of no less than seven local varieties, the wine has a certain restraint to it. Not that it lacks the typical depth, intensity and grip of an orange wine, it is just subtler. The neutral character of the variety, but also the fact that the wine is pressed off the skins after eight days before fermentation ends, helps to make the Piel de La Haya beautifully nimble amber nectar. Bâtonnage and eight months of maturation in old French oak give it additional texture and structure.
Listán blanco (or palomino fino) is the workhorse and superstar among Tenerife’s varieties. Now perceived as a local variety, it originates from mainland Spain, or ‘the peninsula’ as the Tinerfeños call it. The same applies to many of the island’s most common varieties. Only listán negro, the foremost red variety, the aromatic marmajuelo, and possibly a few more are indigenous. As a part of their Paisaje de las Islas line Tajinaste, another winery in La Orotava Valley, produces a complex white wine of marmajuelo and malvasía aromática. With hints of orange, orange rind, mandarin, anise, ripe honeydew and a good bit of grapiness, it reminded me vaguely of Torrontes bursting with fragrant freshness. A slightly elevated viscosity gave the wine a round mouthfeel, while at 13.5 percent the alcohol level remained pleasantly moderate.
What emerges from a week of tasting around the island is an incredible diversity of styles, grape varieties and terroirs, making Tenerife a true viti- and vinicultural microcosm. The only problem with these wines is their availability outside the Canarian islands. Just a modest 5 percent gets exported, unless you consider the consumption by the droves of tourists as such. But poor English and the small scale of many operations may also negatively affect the export. Increasing their presence on the Norwegian shelves and elsewhere in the world, especially of the lesser-known producers, is an opportunity and a challenge that needs to be taken up by our importers head-on.
Sidebar 1: Tenerife’s appellations
Tenerife counts five appellations. From west to east Ycoden-Daute-Isora, Valle de La Orotava and Tacoronte-Acentejano line the northern coast. The DO Abona occupies the southern slopes of Spain’s highest peak Mount Teide (3715m), while Valle de Güímar lies squeezed in between Abona and Tacoronte on the eastern side of the island. Some appellations barely have a handful of members. With such a micro-division, one could wonder if the appellations are distinct enough, but climate, soil and altitude seem to justify the differentiations. The climate in the north is cooler and wetter than in the south, setting Güímar and Abona apart from the others. Sheltered by Mount Teide from the northerly rains, Abona in particular is dry. At 1700 meters, Abona is also home to some of Europe’s highest vineyards. The northern three DO’s differ from each other in soil, with Ycoden having the poorer ones becoming gradually richer and more clayey moving east.
Sidebar 2: Cordon trenzado
Although Arautava uses the Cordon Royat training system for its 25-year-old albillo criollo, their older vines are trenzado-trained, a typical feature of La Orotava Valley. To form the trenzado, each year a number of shoots are left to grow and are worked into a long braid. Looking like the earth’s tentacles, they wind their way up or down, parallel to the slope. As Julián González of Bodega La Haya says, maintaining the trenzado requires a lot of manual labour. The sad truth is that the number of trenzado-trained vines is gradually diminishing. If a vineyard needs to be replanted, vintners often opt for a less labour-intensive training system. Apparently, the trenzado traditionally had an economic advantage. After the harvest, the braid was rolled up at its stem creating space for another crop, González explains. García Lima adds that the trenzado could also be a result of the fact that Malvasia’s first few buds don’t bear fruit, for which reason the shoots were kept long. (Malvasia is among the oldest varieties grown on Tenerife.) Both González and García Lima treasure the trenzado primarily as a part of the island’s cultural heritage. They don’t grow a second crop.
Sidebar 3: Tasting notes
Bodegas Monje, Vino Padre Miguel Monje, Listán Negro Dulce 2017
Some people claim the tradition to make fortified sweet wine goes back to early colonial times when the Canaries were under Portuguese control. However, the Portuguese had left long before the process of fortification was invented.
Deep cherry, chocolate (but no Mon Chéri), dark berries, later also dried fruits (figs in particular), hint of tobacco, soft tannins. Paired well with smoky cheesecake.
Bodega Comarcal Valle de Güímar, Brumas d’Ayosa Brut Nature N.V.
Almost bone dry traditional method sparkling wine made of listán blanco with some interesting lemony and herbal flavours. Perfect aperitif.
Tajinaste, Paisaje de las Islas Malvasia Aromatica Dulce
Honeyed yoghurt and a sprig of hay on the nose, freshly sweet with honey, ripe apples and a distant dollop of caramel. Medium sweet, not very viscous.
Paired well with tamarillo ice cream.
Envínate, Benje Blanco 2019, DO Ycoden-Daute-Isora
Beautiful deep golden in colour, just not amber, but a bit of skin contact is obvious. Great balance of fruit, structure and acidity. Slightly reductive nose and a minimal suggestion of funkiness. Ripe honeydew, anise, rosehip, some salinity, vague hint of smoke, pleasant chew, nice little round bitter note on the finish. Very impressive for entry-level wine. 100 percent listán blanco.
Envínate Benje Tinto 2020, DO Ycoden-Daute-Isora
Subtle waft of burnt matchstick, cherry, cedar, some lily, rose and tar. Light to medium-bodied, soft tannins, bit of chalk. Huge drinkability. Made of the rare listán prieto (or país) variety.
Viñatigo, Listán Blanco de Canarias 2020, Islas Canarias DOP
Fresh, young, light, yellow and red apple, touch of salinity, bit of creaminess, a hint of bitter almond on the finish.
Tajinaste, CAN 2019, DO Valle de La Orotava
Made of listán negro and vijariego. Ripe dark fruit (blueberry, bramble, plum cherry) under an oaky vanilla nose, bit of tar. On the palate there was something vaguely perfumed reminiscent of Indian perfumes, possibly caused by a touch of cedar and spicy oak. Noticeable supple tannins and fresh acidity. Makes me want to try this wine again in 5 years.
Los Loros, Blanco fermentado en barrica, Valle de Güimar 2018
80 percent marmajuelo, 20 percent gual. Aromas of ripe tropical fruit including banana and melon, a hint of nutty reduction, a waft of vanilla. Obvious oak, but subtle. Some freshly cut green grass.
Creamy mouthfeel, medium-bodied. Harmonious and well-balanced primary and secondary flavours.
Suertes del Marqués, Vidonia VP 2020, DO Valle de La Orotava
García Lima’s top white wine made of 100 percent listán blanco. Least reductive. Subdued but well-concentrated aromas and flavours of apple, yellow melon, white flower, dried herbs. Light oak influence (fermented and aged in 500-liter French oak barrels). Long finish.
Suertes del Marqués, Vidueño 2019, DO Valle de La Orotava
Fascinating blend of twenty different red and white varieties (vijariego negro, baboso negro, malvasía rosada, listán negro, marmajuelo, listán blanco, negramoll, tintilla, castellana negra, gual, albillo criollo and others) fermented and aged togehter. Understated notes of cedar, tobacco and struck match, faint hints of raisin and prunes underpinned by lively acidity and fine tannins. Medium-bodied.
A version of this article was published in the Norwegian magazine Apéritif (2-2022) and the website of Dutch Perswijn.