If we asked tourists visiting Tenerife what the most sought-after product in the 17th century was, few would guess that wine made the island thrive for almost three centuries. It wasn't only the locals who profited from it —merchants, adventurers and pirates traded with Malvasía and Vidueños (wines made from other varieties) on their way to the American colonies and England.
These days, the Canaries’ most valued asset is not wine but the sun, which attracts millions of visitors to its seven islands and has become the archipelago’s main money-spinner. Despite taking a secondary role, viticulture is the main farming activity in all of the islands accounting for 44% of the agricultural land.
A good deal of the fruity whites and red blends made from foreign varieties which are churned in the ten Canary Islands appellations are of little interest and are destined for domestic consumption, but there is a bunch of producers wishing to let the world know about the region’s spectacular wine heritage, with vines plunging down towards the Atlantic, covering slopes guarded by volcanoes on picture-postcard sceneries.
The wealth of local grape varieties is astounding —Conquistadors brought them from Madeira and the Iberian Peninsula, where many of them have disappeared. As phylloxera never reached the islands, there are some very old ungrafted vineyards around with unique trailing systems such as cordón trenzado in La Orotava Valley and the string vines of La Palma. Listán Blanco (also known as Palomino in Sherry Country) and Listán Negro are the principal grape varieties but Malvasía, Marmajuelo, Verdello, Gual (Boal in Madeira), Forastera Blanca, Albillo, Negramoll, Tintilla, Baboso, Listán Prieto (Mission or País), Vijariego… are also planted, sometimes intermingled in the oldest vines.
Most of the vines are in Tenerife, with five appellations (Tacoronte-Acentejo, Ycoden Daute Izora and Valle de la Orotava in the north, Valle de Güímar in the east y Abona in the south) and a variety of mesoclimates. Temperatures are mild in the north although on higher areas —vineyards are planted up to 1,400 meters above sea level in the northwest— the humidity brought by the trade winds is noticeable. The south registers little rain and intense heat, although in places like Vilaflor, with vines at 1,500 meters on the foothills of the Teide volcano, the climate is continental. Guímar, to the east, is also influenced by the trade winds.
Soils are volcanic, but they are not short of diversity. The north has ash and volcanic rock, rich in organic matter, while the south features jable, a white volcanic ash, and clay-sandy soils which retain the little rain that falls there.
One of the most special and less visited spots in the island is Taganana, on the northwest of Tenerife. Part of Anaga UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it is a rugged and remote area with an abrupt terrain often at the mercy of the Atlantic ocean’s mists and winds. Vineyards are hard to reach so only a handful of brave winegrowers take care of them.
“There are plots such as Campillo where grapes are taken out by horses because there are no roads”, explains Roberto Santana, one of the four members of Envínate, a group of winemakers who work with 90% of the area’s growers. “Vines in Taganana lie on the ground to control vigour. When grapes start to set, vines are supported on forks to let the air flow. Some growers leave these forks all year round because it is hard work, specially if they work by hand; many of them are getting older too”.
Vineyard tradition in this area, which is highly influenced by the humid trade winds, goes back 400-500 years. “There are stone presses in the vineyard where grapes used to be stomped; the must was carried in wineskins to the port and then transferred into the barrels to be shipped to England”, explains Roberto. “We refer to this area as Jurassic Park because there are countless mixed varieties which are still worked like in the old days. We have 300-year-old plants which we use to obtain new ones”.
Envínate has championed this area, but also La Orotava, where their first vintage was 2016, and Santiago del Teide, a dry, high-altitude area to the northwest of the island where they have recently moved to the village’s old winery. “We want everyone to see Tenerife’s diversity. People think it’s all similar, but that’s not the case”, adds Roberto.
The diversity of climates, soils and cultivation methods is evident to visitors of Tenerife. One of the most striking elements is cordón trenzado (braided cord). Producer Suertes del Marqués, an advocate of this training system, owns very old Listán Tinto and Listán Blanco vines; some of them are 200 years old with 20-metre long branches braided together. “Pruning these vines is an art and they require good care; we keep vegetation cover but these vines cannot be made to suffer”, explains Jonatan García, the owner of this spectacular estate with views of the Atlantic Ocean.
Suertes del Marqués is one of the star producers of the island on an international level, but they share something with other, more modest producers: the high costs of wine growing.
Most plots are small, rugged and must be worked without machinery. In difficult vintages such as 2016, with grape production losses of up to 40-50%, the uncertainty for many winegrowers is considerable.
One of my plots is planted with Baboso. It is a low-yielding, difficult to grow variety but if you know how to handle it, you can get deep, perfumed wines. The best vintage gave me 2,700 kg per hectare, but in 2011 production barely reached 1,000 kg per hectare”, explains Borja Pérez, from Ignios Orígenes.
Borja sells his wines at prices that reflect the effort he invests in making them, a policy that is also followed by Envínate, who sell most of their production outside of Spain. “A kilo of grapes in the island should be more than one euro. Quality wines must leave the winery for no less than five euros —which would translate as 12-15 euros for consumers [taxes notwithstanding]— and in small quantities; we cannot compete in volume with other wine regions”, adds Roberto Santana.
Borja owns five hectares in the DO Ycoden-Daute-Isora but he also works with local winegrowers. “Smallholders are the ones keeping viticulture alive; many tend to their vines only at the weekends; they are getting old and thinking about pulling the vines out because it is not worth the effort”, he says.
Some of them are likely to be tempted to sell: according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the highest average prices for a hectare of dry vines in Spain are found in the Canary Islands (77,433 euros/ha), against an average price of 14,010 euros.
Paradoxical situations are still found in Tenerife. If a kilo of grapes is sold between one and two euros, how is it possible to find wines at three euros per bottle and productions of 100,000 bottles? The government of the Canary Islands has tightened controls to avoid the entrance of non-domestic grapes to make the local wine, but the shadow of doubt is still present after it was revealed that the Cabildo, the governing body of the island, had purchased in 2010 around 10,000 litres of wine from Castilla-La Mancha to mix it with local table wine and sell it in the island’s hotels without a back label specifying its origin.
Another setback for diversity and traceability of origin is the new DO Islas Canarias, which permits that grapes from anywhere in the islands are blended with a total disregard for terroir. This appellation, which started its activity in the 2012 vintage, argues that this formula helps to offset high yields in certain areas with poor vintages in others and avoid wine surplus. Some winegrowers fear instead that this move is an invitation for large wineries, particularly in bumper years, to purchase grapes wherever they are cheaper at the expense of small winegrowers. Membership of DO Islas Canarias is compatible with being part of any of the archipelago’s ten appellations, and some well-known producers, such as Viñátigo in Tenerife or El Grifo and Los Bermejos in Lanzarote, have seized the opportunity.
Against this utilitarian approach, the Asociación de Bodegueros y Viticultores de Tenerife (Tenerife Producers and Winegrowers Association), presented in 2016, calls for a “winegrowing model based on the respect for tradition and the environment”, explains Enrique Alfonso, president of the association and owner of Altos de Trevejos, a beautiful high-altitude estate with a considerable number of old vines on the foothills of the Teide volcano.
Earlier this year, they presented all the paperwork requested by the Canary Islands authorities to create a DO Tenerife, a name which is internationally recognized, unlike those of the five existing appellations in the island. Once the regional government gives the go ahead, the request will be forwarded to Brussels for approval.
“We estimate it might take around two years. Although the DO proposal we have presented does not include many details, we all agree that it must take into account quality with wines ranked from generic levels to village or individual plot”, explains Borja Pérez, the association’s secretary. “We want to avoid losing vineyard surface or even gain additional hectares to boost sales. Consumers demand products with local character and personality and we have a huge potential here”.
The association, formed by three dozen wineries working in different areas of the five appellations, includes both internationally recognized producers such as Suertes del Marqués and lesser-known brands like El Borujo (DO Guímar) or Altos de Trevejos (DO Abona) who are also committed to quality.
Envínate has not yet joined the association, but it doesn’t rule it out. “DO Tenerife sounds good on paper, but we would like to know more details. There are five appellations in Tenerife which we support but it is obvious that there should not be five buildings, five directors, five marketing departments… We think these elements should be merged together but maintaining the sub-zones and without asking for subsidies”.