Wine is probably not the first vision that comes to mind when thinking of the Canary Islands. However, this sun-kissed archipelago has produced wines of volcanic origin for centuries.
The Canaries are located around 60 miles west of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean. The main islands, from largest to smallest, are Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Graciosa. Their subtropical climate attracts a thriving tourist industry all year, but the islands’ distinctive volcanic wines are also gaining global attention and critical acclaim.
Early Wine Production
Wine has been made in the Canaries since the 15th century, when Spaniards colonized the islands. For many years after, British merchant and Royal Navy ships carried sweet, fortified Canary wine to mainland Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia. Thousands of gallons of Malvasía wine, called Sack or Malmsey, were exported to the U.K. each year during the 16th and 17th centuries and enjoyed by royalty, aristocrats and writers, including Shakespeare.
Global demand for these wines declined in the 18th century as desire for French and Portuguese wines grew, so much of the islands’ industry collapsed. Only very small producers remained, mostly making wine for their own consumption and to supply the local market.
However, Lanzarote’s El Grifo, founded in 1775 and the oldest bodega in the Canary Islands, still exists today and remains at the forefront of innovation in the Canarian wine industry.
Wine-Producing Islands and the Terroir
Wine is made on six of the eight main islands, encompassing 10 Denominaciones de Origen Protegida (DOPs, formerly known as DOs)— Abona, Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de Guimar, Valle de la Orotava, Ycoden-Daute-Isora, El Hierro, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, La Palma and Lanzarote.
“Soils are very varied, formed by volcanic eruptions, landslides and erosion,” says Jesús González de Chávez, winemaker at Vinos Atlante in northwest Tenerife’s Valle de la Orotava. “There are light stone soils, others with very heavy basalt rock and different proportions between sand and clay. Every island is different.”
Climate also differs across the archipelago, and the lack of natural freshwater resources is mitigated by humidity carried over by Atlantic trade winds. “The eastern islands are of older geological formation, with lower, more uniform altitude and a dry, desert-like climate,” says González de Chávez. “The western islands are higher, steeper and have greater diversity of microclimates. Northern trade winds—alisios—cool temperatures and bring moisture.”