Peter Ranscombe pens a very personal reflection on wines from the Canaries’ most unusual island.
LET me start with a confession – I’m biased horrendously when it comes to Lanzarote.
In fact, I promised myself I would never write an article about the island and its wines in this blog.
Selfishly, I wanted to keep their secrets all to myself.
But, now that a clever entrepreneur has started importing the island’s wines to the UK, the cat is well and truly out of the bag.
Ollie Horton gave up a career as an investment manager in 2013 to become a surfing teacher on Lanzarote, the most northerly of the Canary Islands.
Four years later, he set up Wine Tours Lanzarote to take visitors on trips around the island’s vineyards and wineries, following in the footsteps of the likes of the excellent Carmen Portella Ernest at Lanzarote Active Club.
Craft beer also features on his tours.
Last year, he added Wine Shop Lanzarote to his empire and begun exporting bottles to the UK and Ireland.
In doing so, he’s made the dreams of thousands of holidaymakers come true – including me.
Although wine merchant Hallgarten had previously imported bottles from El Grifo – the island’s most famous winery, the oldest in the Canaries and one of the ten oldest in Spain – Horton is the first to champion Lanzarote’s wines on this scale.
“Three million people a year visit Lanzarote, and most of them are from the UK and Ireland,” explained Horton during an online wine tasting last week.
It sounds like he’s got a ready-made audience for the brands be brings to the British Isles.
While I might already be sold on the bottles, speaking to other wine-savvy visitors to the Lanzarote, it turns out I’m not alone.
Other wine writers who have holidayed on its white – and black – beaches have praised the wines too.
Vines and volcanoes
Those black sandy beaches have their origins amid the volcanic eruptions between 1730 and 1736 that have shaped the island’s modern history.
About 30% of the land was covered in “rofe”, the volcanic ash that gives Lanzarote its lunar-like appearance.
Vines have been planted in the soils beneath the rofe, which extends to a depth of between 30 centimetres and three metres.
To collect moisture and provide protection from the Atlantic and Saharan winds, dry stane dykes or “zoco” have been erected around many of the vines.
If grape farmers want their wines to be labelled as “Denominación de Origen Protegida Lanzarote” then they cannot water their vines.
About 150,000 people live on Lanzarote but as many as 2,000 are listed as growing grapes.
This army of hobbyists and farmers – which has echoes of the weekend grape growers in parts of Germany – sell their grapes to the island’s growing number of wineries.
There were 14 wineries when Horton began his tours in 2017 and that number has already climbed to 21.
Horton praised the young local winemakers who have trained off the island but returned home to start plying their trade.
Over the past 25 years, the quality of Lanzarote’s wines has risen in leaps and bounds, as with other parts of Spain that have benefited from investment since the 1980s and 1990s.
Gone are the dull, slightly oxidised whites of old to be replaced by fresh, modern bottles, which hold their own against any part of the Mediterranean.
They’re still made in tiny quantities, and that’s reflected in the prices, which are edging into the £20 to £25 a bottle category.
Are they worth it? Like any wine produced in small quantitites, it sometimes feels hard to justify the cost when you think what else you can buy at that price.
But these are high-quality wines that would easily command £15 on a bottle shop’s shelves, and so paying those few extra pounds to – at last, at long last – be able to enjoy them in the UK and support small wineries and small farmers is money well spent in my book.
Bermejo Malvasia Volcánica Seco 2019 (£18.99)
Malvasia volcánica is one of the four speciality white grape varieties grown on the island and easily Lanzarote’s standard bearer. The nose is rich with red apple and peach before the characteristic crisp acidity kicks-in on the palate. There’s an excellent balance between the acidity and the concentrated lemon, grapefruit, and red apple on the palate. This bright and fresh style of white wine is Lanzarote’s calling card. Addictive stuff.
Vulcano de Lanzarote Malvasía Volcánica Roble 2017 (£24.99)
As well as excelling as a crisp, dry white, malvasía volcánica can also handle a few winemaking techniques too. Here, the grapes have been fermented in French oak barrels before being in stainless steel tanks, with their lees – the dead yeast left over from the fermentation – being stirred to help build up the wine’s body. The result is excellent, with lemon curd, pear, and red apple on the note, but not masking a lovely floral note. There’s a richness to the fruit on the palate too, along with a touch of crea, while the lemon curd and red apple being joined by fresher lemon and more mineral notes.
El Grifo Ariana Listan Negro Syrah 2017 (£25.99)
It’s not all about the whites. Listan negro is the island’s flagship red grape and here it’s been blended with Rhone favourite syrah. I’ve tried previous vintages of Ariana while visiting El Grifo’s winery in the past and haven’t been blown away, but the added bottle age on this 2017 has really helped the wine to find its feet. On those nose, there’s plenty of blackcurrant and blackberry, plus a touch of smoke and pencil lead. “I can smell the volcanoes,” is something I’ve heard time and time again when visiting the island’s wineries, but it’s no more overt than the smokiness of – say – well-made South African pinotage. Instead, there’s an excellent balance between the fresh blackberry, sweeter vanilla and blackcurrant jam, and well-integrated tannins.
To read more about Peter Ranscombe’s adventures around the world – both in person and online – visit his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain