What comes to mind when you think of Lanzarote?
Sunny beaches, wind-related sports, volcanoes, fresh fish and… wine?
Apart from being a major Spanish holiday destination Lanzarote has one of the most incredible wine stories to tell. Its wines have been enjoyed worldwide, travelling by boat to some of the most significant destinations.
To fully understand the uniqueness of this now-rare wine, one must appreciate where it comes from and how hard it is for the winemakers and growers to make it a reality.
The landscape in Lanzarote is shaped by two main things, wind and volcanoes.
The island is low, and the few mountains that dot it barely reach 500 metres. This means the Alisios winds (the constant northern winds coming from the Atlantic) continually sweep the island. This is great for creating energy using wind farms, but it is not an ideal environment to grow plants.
Lanzarote does not have any forests, and few trees grow naturally there. This summer's wind and extreme temperatures destroyed the few crops we saw during our 3-day visit. If the Alisios does not blow from the north, Lanzarote experiences Eastern Sahara Desert winds instead, bringing even higher temperatures, dust and sand, meaning the burning of even more unprotected vegetation.
A large part of the island, about two-thirds, is geologically old and eroded, whilst approximately one-third is relatively new. Between 1730 and 1736, the island suffered a series of volcanic events, making it the longest volcanic eruption ever recorded in the Canary Islands. The ashes created new land, new mountains, and a new landscape, covering most of the island and blanketing the small amount of fertile soil available with 'lapilli', or 'rofe' (as the locals call it). 'Rofe' is a black, thin and sharp volcanic ash. The locals quickly realised (before the eruption ended) fertile soil could be found if they dug deep into the ground. As a result, the people of Lanzarote could produce wine, halting imports and even exporting some wine overseas.
Volcanic ash played a crucial role in the magic that consequently happened. The locals planted vines and fruit trees in pits and excavated on the 'rofe', and those pits protected the plants from the wind, avoided soil erosion, absorbed most of the heat and even caught the moisture from the air, trapping the humidity in the soil. Eventually, wine could be made, and a new industry flourished.
Growing vines and making wine in Lanzarote is hard work. The pits have to be worked by hand. This means that every part of the pit maintenance - the fertilising, the harvesting, and the pruning, involves one or more people entering the pit, doing the work and then getting out again. And there is only one vine per pit! Some of the 'hoyos', as the locals call them, are deeper than others, depending on the amount of 'rofe' they received from the volcanic eruptions. The more 'rofe' there is on top of the soil, the wider the 'hoyo'.
Some of the vineyards I visited were only about 1 hectare. I walked around one vineyard in La Geria with approximately 430 'hoyos', so only 430 plants per hectare. When compared to an average of 3,000 vines per hectare in mainland Spain, this number is ridiculously low. I was in awe of these men and women who loved this land so much that they would make wine in such an inhospitable location.
I grew up in the Canary Islands, and wine growing was part of my childhood and adolescence. Even though I was not involved in the wine industry as I am now, I saw vines everywhere whilst growing up in Tenerife. I also knew about the 'hoyos' in Lanzarote after holidaying there with my parents. As a result of this trip's proximity to the vines and my increased knowledge of wine, this short break will remain an unforgettable experience for me. In addition, I learned something that surprised and fascinated me: a new way to exploit the land.
As well as 'hoyos', the Conejeros (slang for people from Lanzarote) found an ingenious way to use every imaginable resource to plant their vines. The 'chabocos' are volcanic crevasses mainly formed from collapsed volcanic tubes. In this sheltered location, vines are also grown, but only the Muscatel grape variety, which is used for sweet wines or to eat at home. After visiting two of these "chabocos" I realised two things; the human mind can solve any problem with very little, and vine plants are incredibly robust.
Visits and wines
I am so grateful to Fátima (from Bodegas Loher in Tenerife) for introducing me to the two wineries we visited. Her enthusiasm for wine in general, and her passion for Canarian wine, is an inspiration. Without her, we probably would have toured other wineries, but we would not have had the same level of personal experience.
Having arrived on the island and settled in, we drove to the Tisalaya winery in a rusty 4x4 we were lent for the weekend. This car proved to be a bit of a godsend, despite my physical battles with it (dodgy brakes and a very tricky fifth gear). Once there, in the tiny hamlet of Tajaste, we met Miguel Morales. His winery doesn't have any superstar architectural design, far from it. It is an old converted garage with a wooden beam protruding from one of the walls. When we met Miguel, he was cleaning and preparing for the harvest. After a lengthy introduction to his project and a long chat about his winemaking methods and techniques, we knew we were in front of no ordinary man. He made his winepress, and the large wooden beam we had noticed earlier was part of it.
His family own the vineyards he manages, and in Tinajo, where his vineyards are located, the most planted grape variety is Diego (or Vijariego as it is known in the rest of the Canaries). As far as the grape varieties were concerned, he had little influence. Upon checking certain records, Miguel and his family discovered that the vines were approximately 100 years old. We tried some of his wines, which are as rare as a unicorn, as some years his production can be less than 1000 bottles. The Tisalaya white is a glyceric but fresh and acidic wine designed to last some time. We tried his last bottle of the 2020 vintage. Miguel reckons the wine will be even better by 2023. He also gave us a taste of his red wine Las Veguetas and a few other wines from other islands in the Canary Islands. Then we all headed out to visit his vineyards about 5 km away.
Although we are only about 100 km from the Sahara Desert, the Alisios winds were blowing strong, and we felt cold walking around the grape vines and 'hoyos', even though it was late August. Miguel invited me to get close to one of the vines to check the grapes and the leaves. Once inside the 'hoyo', he told me to duck, and the sheltering effect was astounding! The wind disappeared and it was 4 or 5 degrees warmer near the vine. After further inspection of the vines, you could tell this summer had taken its toll. Some of the grapes and leaves were damaged or burnt due to the extreme temperatures and the lack of water.
Diego is a white grape variety. The grape bunches were large, and they were ripe enough to taste. I always find tasting wine grapes fascinating. Somehow everything makes sense when you taste a particular grape variety. Diego grapes are meaty, dense and a little blunt. But they are also refreshing, just like the wine.
Walking around, we could fully appreciate the strength of the wind in Lanzarote and how the locals have learned to use what little they have in their favour.
The second winery visit was unexpected. I had not planned to meet Dani Ramírez from Titerok Akaet as he and his family had gone to Fuerteventura for a short holiday. However, Dani works on many projects, and there was an emergency related to one of them, so he made a flash visit to Lanzarote and was able to accommodate me too.
We met in La Geria, the most renowned wine region in Lanzarote. All of the historical wineries are based here, including El Grifo, which was established in 1775, and they have been making wine since then. Dani and his team manage a small plot in La Geria. Here, the 'hoyos' are deep, and the terrain slopes up from the road to a rounded-top volcano. Most of the grapes here are Malvasía, but there are some others like Listán Blanco, Listán Negro and Diego. Dani told me they found this vineyard when it was abandoned. They could hardly see the green shoots of the vines as the action of the wind had buried most of them. Every vine had to be dug out by hand, and this job took them about a day's work per vine. I can understand how he feels when he informed us that many of these labour-intensive vineyards are being abandoned for new easier-to-manage vineyards with irrigation systems. Traditions and quality grapes are becoming lost in favour of more productive vineyards, which is a great pity!
We drove away from La Geria to a nearby vineyard where Dani and Marta look after a very impressive 'chaboco'. Seeing the cracks in its walls and the depth of it reminded me how much of a volcanic landscape we were walking on. The second vineyard had a combination of trenches and 'hoyos'. The 'hoyos' were not as deep or as wide as before, so there were more vines. The vines are a mix of varieties, but Dani has no record of their age.
On the last vineyard of the day, we moved on to the Guatisea volcano. On a slope next to the bottom of this volcano, we looked down at a small plot of 100% Malvasía. With these grapes, Dani produces a single plot wine called Finca Guatisea. Every year just enough is made to fill up one amphora, meaning approximately 400 bottles. If I think about how much work goes into managing a vineyard that only produces 400 bottles, I am sure we do not pay enough.
Dani seems to be a very busy man. He has a few different jobs, a family, and his micro-winery to look after. He gave me a few bottles of their wine to taste as he didn’t have time to taste them with me. That same evening we opened their YE-YÉ wine, a lovely light red made with Listán Negro grapes harvested from a vineyard in the north of the island, close to a town called Ye. It is fruity and light-bodied, and we enjoyed it slightly chilled, with a meat and cheese platter, and shared it with good friends. It was the perfect moment to enjoy this wine while we were still on this enchanting island.
The other bottle of wine came to Mallorca with us, for another future tasting.
If Lanzarote has been on your radar as a holiday destination, and you are a wine lover, I urge you to go there and take some time to explore some of the vineyards and dip into discovering their wines. The only way we will make sure these vines survive is by drinking these unique Lanzarote wines!