Imagine yourself walking through a vineyard on some alien planet. Dusty black soil is beneath your boots, craters dug into the ground shelter each vine, and a torrential gust of wind flows through, forcing you nearly to topple over. On today’s exploratory journey, join guest author Zach Wright in discovering the vines and wines of this alien terroir yet on earth.
Welcome to Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canary Island Archipelago, an alien-looking desert island just off the coast of Africa but still a part of Spain. With an unsavory colonial past and a distinctive landscape due to eruptive geological events, this island has become one of the most unique wine-growing regions in the world. Growing vines in pits, on an island, in the desert is a massive undertaking but the farmers here bear the conditions and come out on top, making some of the most terroir-driven wines in the world. With a hot maritime/sub-tropical climate making white wines, let’s get into what makes this a thriving wine region while resolving the issues of the past with the successes of the present.
Lanzarote is the 4th largest island of the Canary Islands, with a population of 152,000 people, and is a part of the Las Palmas territories of Spain, despite being 600 miles from the Iberian Peninsula. It is 326 square miles, or a little larger than the five boroughs of New York City, and has a predominantly rocky coastline, with small portions comprising beach and sand. The Native population, known as the Guanches, named the island Tyterogaka, which means “one that is all ochre,” which speaks to the principal coloring of the island’s landscape.
The Brutal Colonial History
The island was initially settled by the Majos tribe of the Guanche people. The first interaction with the Western world happened in 999 AD when Arab Explorers visited the Island. Later in 1336, Lancellotto Malocello, an Italian explorer, visited the island under the Alias Lanzarote da Framqua, whose namesake became the accepted colonial name of the island. From 1385-1393 hundreds of the Guanche people were subjugated as part of the Castillian Slave trade and sold in Spain. In 1402 French explorers discovered the island and quickly captured it. Under French rule, even more of the Guanche people were sold into slavery; at this point, less than 300 Guanche people remained. In 1404 the Guanches fought back against the Franco-Castillian slave trade. Unfortunately, the natives were decimated, leaving the island to be fought over for hundreds of years by various factions, including the Spanish, French, and Ottomans.
The Lay of the Land
The Island was created during a volcanic event 15 million years ago due to the break-up of the African and American Continental plates. The area is still volcanically active, especially in Timanfaya, a national park on the island. Lanzarote has two low-elevation mountain ranges, the Famara Range to the north and the Ajaches to the south, with the highest elevations being around 2000 feet. South of these ranges is a desert, the El Jable, which is a dry, rugged expanse. The geographic influences don’t allow for many storm systems to develop as there is a lack of lift from the mountain ranges to create storms, and there are no geological areas to pool clouds on the island. The trade winds blow away all the humidity that could accumulate on the island.
Vines of the Dessert
Known as the “Land of the Eternal Spring,” Lanzarote has a subtropical desert climate averaging 4.37 inches of precipitation per year with a UV index averaging over 8 all year; this island is arid and incredibly exposed, usually only getting rainfall in December and January. The ocean helps to moderate the temperature, with winter averages around 64 F and summer averages around 84 F; without this oceanic influence, the island may be over 100 F during the summer. The native flora of the island is incredibly drought resistant and needs to be able to handle summertime heat; Vitis Vinifera can be adapted to this type of climate but needs to be planted very ingeniously.
Vines of the Volcano
Before the volcanic ecological events of the 1730s, the island’s fertile soil was utilized to grow cereal crops, namely wheat, which were exported to the other Canary Islands. In 1736 there was a series of volcanic eruptions all over the island, which covered the island in 25% lava and dusted the rest of the island with volcanic detritus, including pumice stone and lapilli, a type of small volcanic rock which is semi-porous. Thick layers of volcanic dust choked out the growth of many plants on the island. Still, in areas where the dusting was lighter, the plants grew more vigorously due to the nutrients deposited by the volcanic material.
Such renewed vigor and agricultural efficiency afforded by the introduction of volcanic particulates helped the Lanzarote’s population double from 5,000 in 1730 to 10,000 in 1768. This drastic change in soil type helped with moisture accumulation and dispersal, allowing for the first plantings of Vitis Vinifera. Malvasia, an ancient and widely traded Mediterranean grape (or family of grapes), was planted first.
The island is dry and relatively flat, meaning it does not collect wind or moisture, so it has difficulty developing clouds or storm systems. This effect on local precipitation means viticulturists must get creative in their planting techniques. The vineyards of Lanzarote DO, a protected viticultural area approved in 1993, are located in La Geria region in the western central portion of the island. Because of the arid nature of the island, there is a high diurnal shift from day to night in temperature, allowing for excellent ripening coupled with tremendous retention of acidity. Viticulturists of the island employ a technique called ‘enarenado’ translated as “covered with sand,” to help the vines have a chance to propagate in these extreme conditions.
Growing Vines in the Ashes
“Enarenado” has farmers dig ‘zocos,’ pits, or ditches and plant the vines. The holes are 4-7 feet deep and 10-15 feet wide, resembling a satellite dish. Initially, the vignerons dug the zocos to allow the vines to reach the “fertile” soil before realizing that the volcanic material was as fertile as the underlying strata. The holes are often coupled with a low rock wall on the windward side of the pit that helps diminish the tradewinds’ desiccating effects. Due to the nature of the enarenado system, machine harvesting is impossible, so all labor is done manually. The soil infertility and the growing environment’s complexity lead to a low planting density, around 300 vines/hectare. In comparison, a conventional vineyard would have vine plantings ranging from 2,500 – 10,000 vines per hectare.
These vines offer low yields but excellent quality harvests that reflect the rugged exposure of the island. Due to the separation from most of the world, these vineyards have not been devastated by phylloxera and are typically own-rooted.
The Grapes of Lanzarote
The Spanish brought many grapes to the island, the first being the heavily traded Malvasia grape and Listan Prieto, an ancestor to the modern Mission grape. The island necessitated hardy plantings, and these varietals were especially suited to travel, making their way across the Atlantic to Mexico by Castilian colonizers in the 1500s. These grapes would become the foundation of wine industries in Chile, Argentina, and the Early Americas. The Lanzarote DO is now primarily focused on white wines, with 75 percent of the plantings dedicated to Malvasia Volcanica, an “indigenous” cultivar of Malvasia known for its hardiness and ability to survive the island’s extremes.
The main white grapes of the island are Malvasia, Moscatel de Alexandria, Diego, Albillo, Gual, and Verdello. The main red grapes- though produced in smaller quantities- are Listan Negro, Negramoll, Malvasia Rosado, and Tintilla (Trousseau).
The Market for Lanzarote
The wines from the Lanzarote are incredibly affordable internationally, retailing from $15-30 US dollars per bottle. The wines are mineral-driven due to the concentration of volcanic material in the soil and retain a searing acidity due to the high diurnal shift of the island. Yields are low because of the pressure on the vines due to water scarcity; thus, these wines can have high levels of concentration of flavors and are generally high quality. There are dry and sweet wines from various varieties on the island, but dry is the predominant style. A small proportion of grapes are also fashioned into sparkling wine, usually from the Diego grape, a fairly neutral white grown on the island.
Bodegas Bermejo: The Flag-bearer for Lanzarote
Some Lanzarote DOP wines are available for mass market distribution, including wines from Bodegas Bermejo, a producer located centrally on the island. They make multiple passes along their vineyards during the harvest season to ensure proper phenolic ripeness and have a gentle approach to vinification. They are implementing whole cluster pressing and only using gravity to move juice through the Bodega. The wines are never clarified and are carefully racked to ensure a crystalline appearance. Bodega Bermejo vines are own-rooted, with no phylloxera having invaded the island due to the sandy volcanic soil. They produce wines with incredible tension and mineral tones, highlighting the land the grapes are grown on. The Malvasia Volvanica in still and sparkling forms produces wines with bright acidity, orange-fleshed fruit, floral tones, and an inorganic quality ranging from mineral tones to fossil fuels, depending on the bottling.
A similar style of wine would be Etna Bianco. In both wines, mineral tones, and acid are providing the building blocks for the structure. These wines are comparably affordable and provide enough intrigue to pair with many different cuisines.
Check Bodegas Bermejo out on Wine.com
Looking to the Future
Lanzarote is an island still developing its unique identity shaped by its indigenous heritage and brutal colonial past. Through the island’s cultural changes, it has developed innovative viticultural practices not found anywhere else. From indigenous varieties to vineyard design, this alien landscape has an almost extraterrestrial feel to the land and the vines. But, rest assured that it is producing exciting and accessible wines. Bright wines from a hot climate are a wonder to marvel at; sometimes, enjoying something strange is fun.
For another story of a unique terroir, check out Bernat Voraviu, and the Ancient Vines of Forgotten Spain.