By Wink Lorch
The vineyards of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands are among a select band of wine regions that can truly be called volcanic. In summer the bright green vines emerge startlingly from the pitch black volcanic soil. It makes an arresting view and the way the vines are grown is intriguing.
Lanzarote lies in the Atlantic around 125km from the coast of Morocco, with its largest concentration of vineyards set in a bowl beneath the Fire Mountains, a group of volcanoes that erupted in the 18th century. The story of farmers’ persistence to plant vines there in such an inhospitable place is as extraordinary as the landscape today.
Most of the vines are grown in volcanic pits as deep as three meters (nine feet). The method of digging these pits, each taking between one and three vines, was devised when residents, exiled by extreme volcanic activity for six years from 1730 to 1736, returned and tried to find a way to farm again in a dramatically altered landscape.
The pits offer vital protection from the northerly trade winds and each one is reinforced with semi-circular protective walls built from the volcanic clinker. The distinctive walls help to stop the volcanic soil sliding down and burying the vines, even so, twice a year, when pruning and after harvest, workers have to clear out extra picón, the gritty volcanic lava, to prevent it from burying the vines. Working the vines was and remains extremely labour intensive – in the past camels were used on the island to transport tools and to bring in the harvest.
Running, hiking and exploring the island
Last month my partner Brett and I, along with a few hundred other people, participated in the hiking ‘class’ of WineRun Lanzarote, following a 12.7km route through these scenic vineyards. We made regular stops to taste the wines (out of plastic goblets) and to clear out our shoes of the picón that seeped its way in, like sand.
For keen runners (there are options of a 22km run or the 12km route) and hikers, who enjoy group events, this is a well-organized and convivial event that has taken place in mid-June for over a decade. A lively and bustling food and wine festival takes place on the eve of the event and during the day itself, complete with live music.
If you visit the island at any other time, there are marked hiking routes through the vineyards and much else to explore beyond the beach. Lanzarote has around 300 now-dormant volcanoes that create a type of lunar landscape. Eight hundred species of flora and fauna are said to have emerged since the big eruptions of the 18th century and the island has been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1993.
Tourism is by far the most important industry of the island, which in the past lived from fishing, salt mines and agriculture, and the majority of tourists visit the island for the sun, sand and ah-hem ‘beach culture’. Our long weekend press trip, arranged by the Lanzarote section of the Spanish tourist board and timed for the WineRun weekend, was specifically designed to show us that there is another side to the island, mainly inspired by the volcanic landscape.
We were taken to several fascinating sites, created or inspired by a man of vision, Lanzarote-born artist and architect César Manrique, who died in 1992. It was he who encouraged planning laws to be passed to restrict buildings only to low-rise and insisted that all were painted either white or black. Manrique created sculptures to fit in with the volcanic landscape and also built fascinating tourist sites: caves (Cueva de los Verdes) and a music and theatre auditorium (Jameos del Agua) in the volcanic tunnels; a stunning viewpoint, the Mirador del Rio, in the northern part of the island, and a restaurant and visitors’ centre in the Timanfaya National Park, complete with a sculpture of the devil that is the island’s symbol (islanders believed that volcanic activity was the work of the devil). A guided driving tour through the park that encloses the Fire Mountains was a real highlight of our trip.
La Geria wine route
Most of Lanzarote’s 2,000 hectares (3,000 acres) of vineyards and its 18 wineries are in the La Geria zone, below the Timanfaya National Park. The island climate is sub-tropical with little difference between day and night temperatures. There is very low rainfall, but the picón acts as a sponge, retaining the evening humidity. Vintage volumes vary widely according to how much rainfall there is, but yields are very low indeed, averaging 1.5 tons per hectare.
The island grows five main grape varieties, dominated by a form of Malvasía named Malvasía Volcánica or Malvasía de Lanzarote. The three other chief whites are Listán Blanco, Diego and Moscatel de Alexandria, some of the latter vines are up to 200 years old for the phylloxera pest has never reached the island. For rosés and reds Listán Negro is the main grape.
The five wineries on the official wine route are easy to reach by car (rental or taxi) from either the capital Arrecife or Puerto del Carmen, the most popular beach resort of the region. We visited three of the most important bodegas, La Geria, El Grifo and Los Bermejos, and also drank very drinkable wines from two others – Rubicón (no relation to the California winery) and Vega de Yuko.
Bodegas La Geria is the most visited and well geared up for casual visitors or groups. There is a huge shop/tasting room built in the original winery, established at the end of the 19th century, and a small restaurant. The winery holds a public harvest celebration in mid-August, which features camels bringing in the grapes and a grape stomping session for the children. The range of wines is clean and fresh, with the higher level Manto Malvasía Seco, from very old vines typical of the better Malvasía Seco offerings – fresh, spicy and grapey with a herbal character.
Bodegas El Grifo is the largest winery on the island and the oldest in the Canaries, dating back to 1775. In the old winery a nicely curated wine museum has been established. About 20% of El Grifo’s production is red and rosé and we had the chance to drink both. We felt that, particularly with the red (we drank a very pleasant version from La Geria too), the island is hiding a star – light fresh juicy reds with a hint of a metallic edge, presumably influenced by the volcanic soils and just right served relatively cool for summer drinking.
At El Grifo we also tasted a fortified Moscatel, matured in a solera system as is traditional on the island. From a solera dating back to 1881 it was intensely sweet and spicy with 15% alcohol, but was overshadowed by what came next. Cleverly El Grifo makes a wine named Canari in homage to Shakespeare’s reference to Canary Sack, even though the original would have come from Tenerife. From Malvasía, it is fortified and aged in a ‘fixed’ solera from three top vintages, in this case 1956, 1970 and 1997. It was not as sweet as the Moscatel, 17% alcohol and with much better balance and excellent length – a treat.
Bodegas Los Bermejos was founded in 2001 and is now the second-largest winery on the island – our short visit indicated this might be the one with most quality potential and wines are exported to the US. The winery offers an organic line and told us that 8 – 10% of the island’s vineyards are now organic and it expects that figure to grow. We tasted a sparkling Malvasía Brut Nature with a rounded, soft mousse and a fresh sour lemon character and also enjoyed the Bermejo still Malvasía Seco over a meal.
The cuisine we experienced was not very inspiring, catering to a mass tourist audience, but an honourable exception were the ‘black potatoes’ we ate in the Timanfaya restaurant, cooked with the heat of the mountain. We felt sure that had we been travelling independently and self-catering we would have found great fish in particular.
Apart from exploring the volcanoes, the wineries and hiking, the island has several major sports facilities and upmarket options for relaxation. In the north of the island is a dedicated sports hotel named Club La Santa, open all year round and welcoming anyone from top-rate athletes to sport-loving families. Closer to the vineyards, the smaller more upmarket town of Puerto Calero, just along the coast from Puerto del Carmen seemed a good place to be based and the Costa Calero hotel with its thalassotherapy and spa is a smart hotel option.
Lanzarote offers a magical and spectacular landscape, made so partly by the vineyards themselves. Thanks to the efforts of the WineRun organisers among many, a big effort is made to preserve this landscape. For whatever reason you visit, you won’t go short of highly drinkable volcanic wines, all sourced from the island itself.