Sometimes a photograph and a single word are enough to define a whole philosophy of doing things and that is exactly what Jonatan García Lima managed to achieve with one of his recent Facebook posts.
Under the word “Contrasts”, you can see on the foreground (photo 1) the soils covered with green grass beaming with life and some recently pruned old vines. It is La Solana, one of Suertes del Marqués’ plots trained in the traditional cordón trenzado system found around their estate in La Orotava, a town on the slopes of the Teide volcano facing the Atlantic Ocean in Tenerife. On the background, the vines on the next plot —outside of the 11 hectares that Jonatan and his family own in this lush valley— could not look more different, with barren soils and muted colours by the lethal action of chemical herbicides. Technicolor against black and white.
Some winegrowers have chosen the most comfortable path, albeit unsustainable on the long run, for their crops, but Jonatan is a firm advocate of respectful viticulture methods and the conservation of Tenerife’s rich wine heritage and its native varieties.
La Orotava’s cordón trenzado is one of the world’s most singular and striking training systems. In the old days, potato crops used to be planted underneath the trunks but this practice stopped when wine shifted its role as food to become a drink of pleasure. But cordón trenzado still needs care and plenty of manual work.
Suertes del Marqués owns several plots with ungrafted, 100+ year old vines and up to five branches —phylloxera never reached the Canary Islands. No herbicides are used to control the estate’s green covered vineyards and ploughing is only superficial to avoid damaging the plants’ roots growing near the surface. “Four people in our staff spend half of their working day clearing vegetation from the end of the year until July”, explains Jonatan. After winter pruning, usually the men’s job, the women manually tie the canes to the old trunk so the cycle commences again.
Despite many of those suertes, as the plots used to be called in the old days, were planted in the early part of the 20th century, the García family has been in the business just over a decade (the marquis of the name was a landowner from yesteryear).
Casiano García, Jonatan’s grandfather, used to sell wine in a small shop he owned up in the mountain, at 950m above sea level, but it was his son Francisco, a furniture businessman, who purchased El Esquilón estate 30 years ago as a weekend home. In the early days, he used to sell the grapes to another winery in La Orotava, but as time went by, Francisco and his family not only enjoyed the stunning views of the valley and the Atlantic Ocean —they glimpsed a future as producers and in 2006, they set up Suertes del Marqués.
Later on, and with the help of Tenerife winemaker Roberto Santana of Envínate, who joined the project in 2008, the wines of Suertes del Marqués gradually adopted their own personality, bringing to light the region’s terroirs and traditional varieties —mostly Listán Negro and Listán Blanco. This approach hit the right notes and the wines of Suertes del Marqués became the quality benchmark in the island —and by extension, in the Canary Islands— and the wine of choice for cool-hunting sommeliers and wine gurus worldwide.
After the departure of Roberto Santana in March 2016 to work exclusively with his Envínate project, Portuguese winemaker Luis Seabra (Cru, ex Niepoort) became the new technical director at Suertes del Marqués. The day to day tasks, including vineyard supervision and vinifications, are taken care by Loles Pérez, a Canary Islands born winemaker with previous experience in Pingus (Ribera del Duero) and Cráter, in nearby Tacoronte.
Will the wines be any different? “The arrival of Luis is very exciting and it means a change of cycle. We plan to make fresher wines, both whites and reds, with good acidity, forgetting about the alcohol. Our wines will continue to reflect the Atlantic character of the vineyard, our main asset, but we will try to make them better”, explains Jonatan. One of the first novelties is the purchase of a few 300-litre butts from Henriques & Henriques, one of Madeira’s top producers. The links between the Portuguese island and Tenerife go back a long way —Malvasía di Candia, which originated in Crete, was brought to the Canary Islands from Madeira. “Luis’ idea is to make a fortified wine with Listán Blanco following the tradition of our historic Canary Wines”.
The work in all the vineyards in Suertes del Marqués —11 hectares of their own plus 16 more from winegrowers in La Orotava, at the foothills of the Teide volcano— is based on their altitude (ranging from 350m up to 700m), aspect and type of soil, which is mostly volcanic rock with a sand or clay layer on the topsoil.
In the winery, cement and large wood are the vessels of choice for the fermentations and native yeasts are always used. “We’ve just bought a couple new oak vats for our largest productions to avoid the presence of oak notes in the wines. We make a real effort in the vineyard so we don’t want that work to be obscured by wood aromas”, says Jonatan. These are their guidelines in terms of vinification, but Jonatan makes a point of using common sense to make good wines. “We don’t want to be pigeonholed or follow the latest trends; if I need to use chemicals in the vines I will do it and I will tell it, the same as if I had a cancer. If an old vineyard is sick, I’m not going to let it die for an ideology”.
Their idea of capturing the character of the vineyard is also applied to their flagship village wine, 7 Fuentes, a flawless calling card for the island’s volcanic soils, for Listán Negro (around 90% of the blend) and the singularities of La Orotava, with 25 different vinifications which are all blended prior to bottling. The result is a textbook example of fruit, freshness and authenticity which at €11,5 a bottle (in Spain), it is arguably the Canary Islands’ top value wine. “I don’t make any money with 7 Fuentes but it is a good entry-level wine”, says Jonatan, a great wine aficionado, who enjoys drinking wines from around the world, particularly Burgundy, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Mosel and Rheingau Rieslings.
In this category of village wines —sourced from own vineyards as well as from growers such as Fefe, their main provider— we find El Lance (a blend of Vijariego Negro, Tintilla, Listán Negro, Baboso Negro and Malvasía Rosada), Medianías (Listán Negro, Vijariego Negro and Tintilla) and the white Trenzado (old Listán Blanco and Pedro Ximenez vines blended with younger trellised vines of local varieties like Marmajuelo or Gual, among others). Beyond their individual character, good acidity is a common feature in all of the wines, in tune with Suertes del Marques’ philosophy.
Their single vineyard wines —La Solana, El Esquilón, Candio, El Ciruelo, Los Pasitos and the superb white Vidonia— were joined by El Chibirique 2015, an elegant 100% Listán Negro sourced from 80+ year old vines planted in a small amphitheater-shaped plot purchased in 2013 and which used to go to 7 Fuentes.
“We want to gain depth in our single vineyard wines to increase their aging potential. Our wines have consistently been immediate and ready to drink, but perhaps we needed to up our game so our wines stand the test of time. We are thinking about the future in this new cycle”, adds Jonatan.
The most immediate future will bring a new aging cellar, freeing some much needed space in the winery for vinifications. “We have been waiting three years for the building license and I hope we have the go-ahead soon. We would like to be able to produce our 2017 wines there”.