Stock up on Canary Island wine for Fourth of July, George Washington would approve!
Updated: May 29, 2020
When researching wine, it is likely that you will come across a historical anecdote that you’ve never heard of before. Wine has been around for a long time so it happens. For example, during my research of wines from the Canary Island of Tenerife, I read about a letter from George Washington confirming his preference for Tenerife wine over beer for his troops during the American Revolutionary War. Take that Samuel Adams Brewery!
Ok, enough with the history lesson. Let’s get back to the real reason we are here, wine, and in particular, wine from the Canary Island of Tenerife.
Today’s wine lesson is all about my love for seeking out unique and delectable wines that come from lesser-known wine regions—like the wines from the Canary Island of Tenerife. But don’t just take my word for it, here’s what the omniscient Jancis Robinson says:
In a nutshell, if you like low-alcohol, unconventional, delicate but
expressive profiles, salty or chalky characters and small,
independent wine producers, Tenerife is a region to take notice of.
Still not convinced that you should try these wines? Well, when the magnificent Spanish wine importer Jose Pastor was asked about what lead him to the Canary Islands, he responded:
The combination of little-known grapes, high-elevation vineyards
and dramatic volcanic soils made for some of the most distinctive
and delicious wines I’ve ever had.
By now, either you’ve gone back to TikTok or I have your attention. If it’s the latter, then, thank you, I hope to make it worth your time. Let’s start by covering the basics.
Geography and climate of Tenerife
There are seven Canary Islands, and five of those produce wine. Today, we are only discussing the island of Tenerife, which is about 80 miles southwest of Morocco. Tenerife lies about 28 degrees latitude. Since most quality vineyards lie between the latitudes of 30 degrees and 50 degrees north and south of the equator, being this far south should make Tenerife too hot to produce quality wine. Yet, there are other factors at play that cool the island’s vineyards down.
First, the Canary Current helps to temper the heating effect of the Sahara to the east. The offshore winds from the African continent cause upwelling, which cools the water and in turn the islands. Also, and more importantly for the vineyards, there is some serious elevation on the island.
The highest peak in Spain is the El Teide, which is an active volcano on Tenerife. And there are vineyards on El Teide that reach the height of 1,600 meters above the Atlantic. These are the highest vineyards in Europe. (Use that fact at your next dinner party!) As altitude increases, temperatures drop so quality grapes can grow even though they are close to the equator.
There are five D.O. (denominated wine regions) on Tenerife: Tacoronte-Acentejo; Abona, which is home to the highest vineyards in Europe; Ycoden Daute Isora; Valle de la Orotava; and Valle de Güimar. If you had to remember two D.O.s for wine purchasing purposes, we’d go with Valle de la Orotava and Ycoden Daute Isora.
As you might imagine, there is volcanic soil on Tenerife. There is also clay and sand closer the rocky coast.
Old vines and phylloxera
Many papers have been written about phylloxera, which is a small yellow root-feeding aphid, and the devastation that it has caused to the world’s wine production so we won’t spend much time on that topic today. (If you want to learn more about phylloxera, please search the Internet.) But the short-and-skinny is that most of the world’s vines are grafted onto the rootstock of an American vine or hybrid because those rootstocks are resistant to phylloxera. Phylloxera devastation was so great, that when you find vines that are ungrafted (i.e., grown on their own roots), you should cherish the uniqueness of what you have in front of you.
And that is exactly what you have in wines from Tenerife—all vines grow on their own roots rather than being grafted on to phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.
For many years, the majority of wine exported out of Tenerife was white wine. The Malvasia grape was the key grape varietal back then. However, as palates have changed, Malvasia is no longer the grape of choice. For that, the honor goes to Listan Blanco, which is a white grape, and Listan Negro, which is a black mutation of Listan.
Listan Blanco is another name for Palomino Fino, which is the grape that accounts for the vast majority of the planting in Jerez, Spain for sherry production. Listan Blanco is not known as an exciting grape outside of sherry, which is all about the incredible production process. In Oz Clarke’s Encyclopedia of Grapes, he calls Listan “one of the world’s most boring grapes,” but also states that Listan Blanco “is a key variety in the Canary Islands, where its wine even manages to have a little character—I haven’t quite worked out how.” That’s the magic of the Canary Islands, and I believe Tenerife produces some great wines from Listan Blanco.
Listan Negro has become the star in recent years. Many wineries are using carbonic maceration to produce medium bodied wines with exceptional aromas of red and black fruit, pepper, and licorice. Listan Negro is also genetically identical to the Mission grape, which was the original black grape variety planted for sacramental purposes by Franciscan missionaries in Mexico and California. I now know what wine I’m sending my extremely religious mother for Christmas.
Other varietals found on the island are Baboso Negro, Vijariego Negro, Verdello, Albillo, and Negramoll.
Producers and importers
We have a couple favorite producers, who we would gladly pull any bottle off the shelf with no questions asked. So keep an eye out for both Suertes del Maquis and Envivante. Both of these wineries started producing wine after 2006; yet, they are killing it. Both have, or have had, young winemakers who understood how to take advantage of their environment. It’s an exciting time for Tenerife wine with those two wineries leading the way. We also really enjoy Dolores Cabrera’s wines even though we haven’t explored her portfolio as extensively. Still, what we’ve had from Ms. Cabrera, we’ve enjoyed.
One day we will do a lesson on importers. For those of you who have our book, Teakwood Tavern’s Guide to Empty Glasses and Full Hearts, you are aware of our thoughts on learning importers. For those of you without our book, BUY OUR BOOK! Learning the wines of the world is difficult. And one of the best ways to be adventurous in your wine journeys is to follow the great wine importers. For Spain, keep an eye out for Jose Pastor (aka Llaurador Wines, LLC) and Eric Solomon’s European Cellars .
Wines we enjoyed for educational purposes
Suertes del Marquis, 7 Fuentes 2014 (Eric Solomon, European Cellars Selection), $20
This might be the entry level wine for Suertes del Marquis, but this is no basic bitch. Anise, fennel, black and white pepper, green pepper, arugula, blackberry, and dark cherry are just some of the aromas and flavors that arise. Tannins are medium; yet, soft and subtle. Acidity is medium-plus and a medium body. Finish is medium. (In full disclosure, we purchased a case of this to serve at our wedding so we are big fans of this wine.)
Dolores Cabrera Fernandez, La Araucaria Tinto 2017 (Jose Pastor Selections), $25
Welcome to Funktown, population: this wine. This wine packs a punch of earthy flavors like mushrooms, wet leaves, barnyard, and blue cheese. Honestyl, we love everything about those flavors in a wine (in moderation). Yet, there is still tart cranberry, dark cherry, and raspberry. The typical pepper flavor of Listan Negro comes through as well. The tannins are medium-plus; not necessarily puckered mouth high tannins, but they are a bit astringent. The wine has medium acidity and a medium body. This is the bottle to bring to your oenophile friend's house when you want to get some street cred. Maybe not the wine to bring to your aunt's house who drinks Two Buck Chuck out of a 32 oz Slurpie cup. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Let Karen be Karen.
Envinate, Benje Blanco 2018 (Jose Pastor Selections), $27
This is an complex white wine that showcased aromas and flavors of flint, wet stones, apricot, underripe peach, lemon, and honeysuckle with medium-high acidity. The body was medium and the finish was medium-plus with the honeysuckle flavor pleasantly lasting for a good 30+ seconds.
Tenerife is an exciting place for wines. Here you have volcanic soil, the highest vineyards in Europe, unique grapes, and a young group of talented winemakers. Tenerife has the markings of a true champion for years to come. So grab some now while it's not crazy expensive. And tell your local wine monger that Teakwood Tavern sent you!
Sending love and fermented grape juice knowledge,