Why the Canary Islands Remain the Perfect Storm of Wine Cool

Welcome to "Crib Sheet," your monthly shortcut to what's hot in wine right now, in four bottles, courtesy of Jon Bonné. This month: the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelago off Africa that is home to a grab bag of volcanic wines.

If you were to put a pushpin on a map to mark today’s epicenter for coolhunting in Spanish wine, here’s what you wouldn’t do: You wouldn’t move south, past Andalusia, past Gibraltar, all the way to Morocco’s southern border. For sure, you wouldn’t then move due west, out into the ocean, and place it there.

Except the Canary Islands, a remote Spanish archipelago off the coast of Africa, is arguably one of the brightest spots in Spanish wine—one of those colonial European leftovers that dot the Atlantic Ocean; it’s essentially Spain’s Hawaii. And that isolation has, for the most part, helped to make the Canaries unique in a way that’s finally being appreciated today.

Of course, the Canaries have had past fans—Shakespeare, most famously, whose characters went on about “Canary wine,” which was likely not far off from a lighter style of Madeira. Like Madeira and the wines of Jerez, “Canary wine” resonated with prominent American colonialists for a sensible reason: It was eminently shippable on the high seas.

Today’s Canary wines are, safe to assume, nothing like that.

In which case, just what are they like? For all the current popularity, it’s hard to find an exact thread through the many varieties and growing areas. But the one quality that’s unmistakable is a dense streak of stony or salty minerality in nearly every good Canary wine (think sherry or Chablis). Beyond that, most are produced by small wineries rather than big; there’s relatively little chemical farming and a general interest in less intervention in the winery; and the wines consist of a panoply of unusual grapes not found many other places.

When those grapes are found elsewhere, they end up in other fashionable wines: Listán blanco in the Canaries happens to be the palomino fino grape that makes up most sherry; its major red, listán negro, has at least some similarity to the mission grape, which is planted throughout the Americas and is now getting renewed attention in California and Chile. There’s also verdelho, albillo, gual and tintilla, the last of which is known as trousseau in Jura, along with many others.

Even if you recognize the grapes, the islands’ unique diversity of climate evokes a different side in each (verdelho here comes off as more distinctly savory than fruity, while listán blanco avoids the blah neutrality of palomino fino). This is because the Canaries are not one place, but many. There are at least seven main islands in the archipelago, and many smaller ones, each comprising a range of microclimates and soils.

Five of the seven islands have their own appellations (denominations, or DOs)—El Hierro, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, Lanzarote and La Palma—and Tenerife, the largest island, has five of its own, leading to mouthfuls like “Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora,” which basically translates to western Tenerife. I don’t want to oversimplify and say that these aren’t helpful, but they’re perhaps one step past our current understanding. Even the biggest Canary devotee would probably be challenged to pinpoint the difference in the glass between, say, La Palma, at the archipelago’s northwestern edge, and the easternmost island of Lanzarote.

The one unifying trait, however, is volcanism, which arguably contributes to the wines’ mineral character. Many good vineyards are planted in ash fields and often whipped by an unrelenting wind—a combination that makes grape-growing on the Canaries a particular challenge. Tenerife, for instance, is home to Mount Teide, an active volcano that plays host to some of Europe’s highest-elevation vineyards.

The typical photo of Canary Islands vineyards reveals vines planted in a moonscape of pure black sand—an even weirder sight than the vineyards of Sicily’s Mount Etna. They’re often planted close to the ground and frequently in the midst of a small moat, or hoyo. This leaves the vine partly sunken, thus helping to stave off the often brutal winds. But these challenges mean that yields are never high and farming requires intense manual labor.

Hence, there’s never much wine to go around. So even with the popularity, the wines appear itinerantly, which might be why it has been hard to fully get our heads around the Canaries. But a few have emerged as standard-bearers. First among them, undoubtedly, is Los Bermejos, located on Lanzarote and one of the pioneers of the island’s modern wine culture; the winery produces everything from Champagne-style brut to a carbonic listán negro that drinks like a southern homage to Beaujolais.

And today, a new handful of names is beginning to appear. People like Victoria Torres of Matías i Torres, whose work is some of the first to bring attention to the tiny and dramatically beautiful outlying island of La Palma, and Borja Pérez of Ignios, who is practicing some of the lowest-intervention winemaking on the islands.

The net result is that the Canaries, in their slightly endangered state, have become a microcosm of all the tendencies that today’s wine industry holds dear. We love the romance of determined people doing things against the odds. And few places embody that more than the Canary Islands.

The Classic

2014 Los Bermejos Lanzarote Listán Rosado | $22
If the Canaries have a breakthrough success, it would be Ignacio Valdera and his Bermejos winery. The urn-shaped bottles (and their helpful notched rims!) are immediately recognizable, and many of the photos of the island vineyards come from the black sands of easternmost Lanzarote, where the winery is located. Bermejos makes pretty much everything, including a very good Champagne-style wine and one of the few examples of the diego grape. It makes an austere, savory wine—like albariño if it was giving up fruit for Lent.

The winery’s rosé is a particular pleasure every year, showing a substantial side to listán negro. The grape’s low-acid tendencies are clearly not a problem here. But it’s also meaty and substantial, showing a mix of iodine and dried nectarines. Importer/Distributor: David Bowler Wines [Buy]

See also: Tajinaste, Bodegas Monje

The Outlier

2014 Viñátigo Ancestrale Islas Canarias Blanco | $45
Viñátigo itself isn’t an outlier; Juan Jesús Méndez and his wife Elena run one of the bigger, more established wineries on Tenerife. Among other things, they have made it their project to discover some of the islands’ many obscure (and endangered) grape varieties, at least some of which make it into their bottles. Their Ensamblaje Tinto, for instance, mixes baboso, vijariego negro and tintilla (and then puts on a good bit of oak, which seems to negate the point).

The Ancestrale goes elsewhere, though. Made entirely from the gual grape (bual in Madeira), it’s skin-fermented like a red and wonderfully aromatic (think almond blossoms and ginger). It’s also both salty with a mineral sense and creamy, an orange wine that outshines many examples of the form. Put this up against wines from Umbria’s Paolo Bea, for instance, and the Spaniards have the advantage. Importer/Distributor: David Bowler Wines [Buy]

See also: Frontón de Oro

The Discovery

2014 Matías i Torres Las Machuqueras La Palma Listán Blanco | $27
The lush island of La Palma is still uncharted territory even for Canary lovers. And it’s rare to find single-vineyard bottlings from the islands. Here, then, is a chance to experience both. Victoria Torres is taking over her family’s holdings in Fuencaliente, including this parcel of 100-year-old listán blanco (n.b., good luck finding vines that old in Jerez). At the same time, she has continued some unrelentingly old-fashioned traditions: using old wooden presses and native yeasts that hearken to the 19th century.

Think of the Machuqueras as fino sherry before it’s fortified—that intensely tangy, salty aspect in spades, all olive brine and tar and charred lemons. It’s rich but not overly so, the saline side keeping the wine in check. Importer/Distributor: David Bowler Wines [Buy]

See also: Malpei, Suertes del Marqués

The Naturalist

2014 Ignios Artifice Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora Tinto  | $21 
Borja Pérez shows off a different side of the relatively well-known Ycoden appellation. Launching his winery in 2011, he wanted to work with almost no sulfur dioxide and a minimum of intrusion in the cellar. His Origenes wines are from his own parcels, but Artifice comes from purchased fruit. This red, made from listán negro, vijariego negro and baboso, is approachable and rugged, the sort of wine that would attract a lot of new attention to the Canaries.

It’s defined by a distinct bloodiness—in a good way—and a surprising amount of tannic grip for what’s supposed to be a friendly, carefree red. It also is reminiscent of syrah, with leathery fruit and a black-pepper spice, but the whack of acidity is all Canaries. Importer/Distributor: David Bowler Wines [Buy]

See also: Envinate, Tendal