We may not think of the Canary Islands as one of Europe’s major producers of wine, but that’s not to say that they never have been. Back in the 16th century, the islands were famous for their ’Canary’ wine. Referenced by Shakespeare and favoured by European kings, it soon became the islands’ largest export and a principal source of income.
In the 19th century, when phylloxera aphid wiped out most of Europe’s vines, the Canary Islands’ isolated location meant it remained unaffected. Production in Europe was revived when they learned that the European vines could be grafted onto American rootstocks to prevent further infection of the pest. As this wasn’t necessary in the Canaries, today you have a unique opportunity to sample wine from original, indigenous and ungrafted vines, grown from their own root.
You will find that each island has its own idiosyncrasies and tastes, depending on the grape, the techniques used and the landscape in which the vine grows. There are strong Atlantic winds that whip over the islands, creating landscapes that can often be quite barren, and the climate is usually hot and humid. This is certainly not a standard depiction of a wine-growing country. Nevertheless, islanders have found a way.
In Lanzarote, for example, the vines are grown in black sand heavily laced with volcanic ash, and are often the only plant able to grow there. The volcanic minerals and salts give extra flavour to the mostly aromatic tones found in the local wines. In the black sand, crater-like holes are dug for a single vine, with each crater having a low semicircular stone wall, or abrigo, built to protect the vine from strong winds. Altogether, the sight appears more lunar landscape than vineyard.
In other areas of the islands you’ll find vines located on high mountains, on steep terraced hillsides or wherever they can be placed, and this is what makes this wine region so interesting to discover. If you want to get the best idea of the variety of wine available, head to Lanzarote, Tenerife and Gran Canaria. Beyond these three, other islands, such as El Hierro, have some good-quality varieties that are worth considering too.
Six out of the seven Canary Islands produce wine; between them, there are 13 wineries and 225 vineyards.
Back in the 1990s and 2000s, the islands were granted a total of 10 Denominacións de Origen here (a Spanish mark of quality and geographical origin). These are the regions of Abona, Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de Guimar, Valle de la Orotava and Ycoden-Daute-Isora, and the whole islands of El Hierro, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, La Palma and Lanzarote. Each D.O. region is distinctive in that it has its own microclimate and unique soil composition, creating very individual wines.
Popular wines produced include Malmsey or Malvasia, Moscatel dessert wine, Marmajuelo, Tintilla, Rosé and Listan Negro and Listan Blanco.
The Bodega El Grifo in Lanzarote is the oldest in the Canaries (founded in 1775) and one of the top 10 operating wineries in the whole of Spain. There’s a thoroughly interesting museum to visit on site, detailing the history of wine production to the present day.
It is true that very little of the wine is exported, due mainly to high local demand thanks to the booming tourist trade. The islands also have a low yield and have low vine density, so production levels are far lower than other European markets, making mass production more difficult than in some other countries.
It is evident that the locals love their Canary wine. To see it for yourself, you should plan your trip around one of their wine festivals, in particular one of the following.
The Wine Run, Lanzarote, in June
This is an event for all those who enjoy a glass or two. People flock to the crater-filled landscape of La Geria, to either run 22 kilometres (14 miles) or walk 11 kilometres (seven miles) through the volcanic landscape, enjoying tapas and music at the midway stop, before finishing at the town of Uga. One added incentive to join in: the winner is presented with their weight in wine.
Feast of San Andreas, Tenerife, in November
The village of Icod de los Vinos hosts an event to welcome in the new season’s wines. The town is on a steep hill with many cobbled streets. In honour of the former wine producers making the wine barrels in the woods up the mountain and riding them back down the hill, you’ll find padded-up kids on trays hurling themselves down the streets in the name of old-fashioned fun. Join in at your peril, or head to the Plaza Pila to hang with the grownups.
Fiesta de la Vendimia, Lanzarote, in August
Head off with the workers of La Geria winery to celebrate the harvest. Camels are the taxis that transport the pickers to the fiesta, where you will be able to tread grapes and taste some of the season’s wines.
Saborea Lanzarote food and wine festival, Lanzarote, in November
This is the Canary Island’s largest food and wine festival. You’ll discover local produce and can attend expert talks on the island’s food and wine.
If any of the above don’t make it onto your radar, be sure to look up cheese and wine tasting tours or other events that are generally on offer throughout the year.
Suertes del Marqués organically farms indigenous grapes in vineyards on the lower slopes of Mount Teide, Spain’s highest mountain. Their 7 Fuentes range is reasonably priced, made from Listán Negro and Tintilla grapes, and has a peppery fruitiness with mineral tones.
Bodegas Monje located in the north of the island. It is family-run and produces an excellent tinto tradicional (traditional young red wine) with a typical characterful, fruity flavour undercut with mineral tones.
Bodegas Bentaygas is one of the highest vineyards in Spain and produces some award-winning white wines. The Algala Altitude 1318 is particularly good and is grown in the Nublo Rural Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Fronton de Oro produces a delicate tinto tradicional and is a great example of a tasty but accessible Gran Canarian red wine.