Trapped In Amber
“Once they paved the way in the Canaries, more and more projects appeared,” recalls ‘The New Vignerons’ author Luis Gutierrez, “and I must say there’s absolutely no doubt that Roberto Santana of Envínate started it all..”
What does it mean to be a pioneer? For most, it implies some sort of innovation – as Luis describes, a paving of the way; often literally. Where would Santa Barbara County be without Richard Sanford laying down Pinot Noir vines in the Sta. Rita Hills? Where would Napa be without Andre Tchelistcheff shaping the landscape of Northern California winemaking and Robert Mondavi investing in and proselytizing its potential? But when the history books smile upon the Canary Islands, its pioneering influence, its innovation, they will tell a very different tale. Not one of progress or forging new roads, but rather its counterpoint: preservation.
The idea of resurrecting old, forgotten vineyards is today as much American as it is a global trend in regions like Ribeira Sacra and Chile’s Itata Valley. But even as wine’s ‘Back to the Future’ movement fans out, claiming new geography, attracting both the ambitious and eco-conscious alike, there is no place on earth that lives out the concept of preservation, as dynamically, as the inconceivable Canary Islands…
CLOUDS AND DIRT ON TENERIFE
Who would of thought the highest concentration of ancient, own-rooted vines would reside on the 28th parallel; below the likes of Sonora, Mexico and the Canaries’ closest mainland asylum, Morocco? How on earth could any grapevine survive here, let alone unveil a Jurassic Park of wonderment and possibility? It would be enough that isolation has helped an island chain evade the global pandemic, phylloxera; the aphid’s next of kin, responsible for a World War Z of vine destruction. It would be enough to just gaze upon huge, gnarled trunks, hanging off volcanic cliffsides, and think ‘job well done’. The fact that the Canary Islands wine efforts are making waves in the marketplace points to pure anomaly.
We’re taught that grapes grow between 30 and 50 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere. Anything higher than 50 and it’s too cold to ripen fruit, a notion in recent years challenged by melting glaciers and Siberian heatwaves. Land below 30 degrees latitude turns equatorial; warm and humid nights leeching just enough acidity and freshness out of more noble wine-growing intentions. It would indeed take an anomaly to overcome such a geographical handicap. And of the seven islands comprising the Canarian archipelago, the largest and most vine-endowed – Tenerife – emerges as the crown jewel of improbability.
LISTAN NEGRO VINES IN OROTAVA VALLEY...
TENERIFE: CLOUDS AND DIRT
It makes sense that most of Tenerife’s vines are concentrated in the north. Here, cool ‘Alisios’ winds and rain clouds make their way south, trapped by a mammoth volcano in the center of the island called Teide, the largest peak in Spain at 12,198 feet. As you can imagine, the southern part of the island bakes on the leeward side of the rain shadow, with annual precipitation often 15 inches less than the north. Below the inversion layer, sub-regions such as the Orotava Valley and Taganan are routinely shrouded in fog, revealing sub-tropical jungles; whereas in the wild west, windswept towns above 2700 feet – like Santiago del Teide – masquerade as a Sergio Leone set, cacti and dusty plains lacking only The Man with No Name. A car ride around the island will cost a tentative driver just a few hours, with sporadic views of a summit that impacts more than weather. Various shades of red, white, black, and brown volcanic earth mix with irregular proportions of clay and sand, depending on where a vine sets up shop. And so, a perfect engine of macro-climate has preserved Tenerife viticulture; some of these ancient relics surviving four centuries.
If vines could talk… What tales they would tell here. What ghosts they would dig up from the vault, of a once-glorious wine industry, whose fortified casks Shakespeare would immortalize in The Twelfth Night. Where British invasions laid siege…where Franco conspired, launching the Spanish Civil War…the regime of which neutered an economy and oppressed a people deep into the 20th century. Where the full range of human history has washed over this island and its descendants, vines once stood and still do. Their cultivation since has fostered little ambition. That would all change in 2008…
3/4 OF TEAM ENVÍNATE IN OROTAVA WITH LEGENDARY GROWER FLORENCIO LABRADOR...
TENERIFE SUB-REGION: OROTAVA VALLEY
Today’s Tenerife, like most islands of favorable climate and beauty, relies on tourism. It’s an easy out, especially for a community still finding their bearings after a steady diet of autocratic rule. Of the 11 million tourists that flock to the Canaries each year, nearly half are found on Tenerife. It’s not rocket science. A grape grower either: A) drinks well and sells other crops. B) holds out for hotel money. C) appeases the out-of-towners, basking on the beach. For the enterprising winery, that has meant taking ancient, indigenous vines and manufacturing a zippy, quaffable industrial beverage or a concoction, derivative of high-octane examples from Rioja or Ribeira del Duero.
From their inland vantage point, winemakers in the Orotava Valley can’t miss the luxury high rise of their flagship town, Puerto de la Cruz. With an anemic export presence, tourism is the ultimate invitation for a Canary winery to paint by numbers. Ironically, in Orotava, nearly everything viticulturally is idiosyncratic. Huddled in the northcentral part of the island, the area stays relatively cool and wet, as evidenced by palm trees and lush greenery. Vineyards ranging upwards of 2400 feet in elevation face the north shore at just a mile or two from water's edge. As the slopes ascend, volcanic influence from Mt. Teide becomes more prominent. Primary grapes include, for red, Listan Negro, and Listan Blanco for white. The former is indigenous exclusively to the Canaries, while the latter can also be found in Southern Spain’s Sherry country, going by the name of Palomino. All conversations on vine-spacing evaporate quickly here as the locals historically have relied on ‘cordon trenzado’, a singular training method of Portugeuse influence where vines are braided together. The sight is jarringly impressive as slopes are lined like corn rows, some stretching 30 meters contiguous.
Orotava is enough to make anyone’s head spin, no less Envínate member and island native, Roberto Santana, who became convinced of the region’s potential. “When I returned back home to Tenerife, Francisco of Suertes del Marques gave me the freedom in Orotava, to apply the philosophies I had learned to his winery, to make wine from the vineyard.” Francisco also gave Roberto the freedom to remain committed to an already blooming Envínate project on the Spanish mainland, soon to infiltrate Islas Canarias. “The impact could really be noticed by the 2011 vintage,” adds author Luis Gutierrez. “Roberto was the winemaker at Suertes from 2008 to April 2016. He designed and carried out the transformation of the winery and its wines…starting a revolution in the Canaries.”
But progressive thought doesn’t incubate in a vacuum. It certainly doesn’t incubate in enology school, where the Envínate quartet was formed. A young winemaker doesn’t wake up and say, ‘Don’t replant Cabernet and Tempranillo here. Your Listan Negro vines are the ticket.’ A young winemaker doesn’t just farm organically for sport. Nor do they work minimally in the cellar by instinct. Natural methods are far from the status quo. Roberto admits it’s who you know. “The credit is owed to José Maria Vincente of Casa Castillo in Jumilla. For us at Envínate, it was José who showed us how to drink good wines. He would open a different bottle every day and show us how domaines all over the world were able to interpret their terroir. After working two years at Casa Castillo, it was time for us to apply what we had learned in new areas.”
2016 marked Envínate’s first expression of Orotava. They would make a stunning Listan Blanco bottling with legendary grower Florencio Labrador, called ‘Palo Blanco’, as well as two Listan Negros from plots near La Perdoma, a town that aboriginal settlers – the Guanches – called ‘Migan’. Envínate elected to memorialize the now extinct Guanche language by making ‘Migan’ the focal point of their Orotava red labels: the first bottling, a multi-parcel tinto, and the second a single-parcel bottling, exclusive to Viticole called ‘La Habanera’. La Habanera references Habana, Cuba, where many islanders fled under Franco and have since returned. It is an extreme volcanic site at the upper reaches of elevation. 2017 adds to La Habanera a new vineyard parcel, Tío Luis, that with a touch more clay bears similarities to Suerte's flagship bottling 'El Ciruelo.' The wines are energetic and complex, transparent and age-worthy; in many ways, an extension of what Roberto created at Suertes del Marques, but in other ways, by the hands of Envínate members José Angel, Lala Ramos, and Alfonso Torrente, putting their collective touch on Orotava, its own inimitable creature.
ROBERTO SANTANA SMELLS TAGANAN...
TENERIFE SUB-REGION: TAGANAN
“There are some parts of Taganan that you can only go by horseback,” states Roberto, as we struggled to maintain our foothold. Prior to the mid 20th century, the last thing an inhabitant here would want to do is forget an item on their shopping list. The nearest major city, Santa Cruz, is 14 miles away; the first paved road connecting the two places in 1968. Naturally, farming for subsistence helped keep Maslow’s hierarchy of needs contained, a time-honored tradition that started with sugar cane and gave way to grapevines in the 16th century.
In the distance from where we stood, a young man on foot carried a sack of potatoes across a narrow dirt path. To his left, were 60-70 degree pitches that descend straight down into the Atlantic, where ships would long ago load up casks of wine, fermented and aged in these very vineyards. According to Roberto, "A young farmer in Taganan is like seeing a unicorn. Most of this generation has left for better opportunities in Santa Cruz.” A renewed economy and more practical means of transportation have shattered an isolationist culture in the current iteration. As the young man approached, Roberto and Alfonso embraced him and introduced me. “This is Aaron. He farms ‘Lomo del Drago’ for us, a 300 year-old vine plot of white grapes, mostly Malvasia.”
Farming a vineyard in Taganan with one grape variety is rare. A commercial winery in Taganan is even rarer still. To date, there is one: Envínate. No one else had the audacity. No one had the audacity to wrap their head around this debatable blueprint; a low-yielding free system, each vine a different species, co-planted and vinified en masse. There are no manicured rows, overwrought with intervention; the cliffs wouldn’t allow it. No fancy trellising methods. Just a little Tenerife sprawl, and a stake that acts as a kickstand, propping up the plant for airflow. For Envínate, working alongside growers in Taganan of all places is crucial. Countless generations of farming experience have been poured into this rugged Eden. They are the owner’s manual to a foreign appliance. To let that knowledge slip by would not only mean a steeper growth curve, but yet another cultural extinction.
Taganan, at the northeast tip of the island, and the better part of its surrounding D.O. – Tacoronte Acentejo – are a Biosphere; a nature preserve that along with Teide National Park and several other protected outposts, comprise roughly half of the island’s geography. But while their land is safe, their way of life is threatened. With the diaspora of millennial youth, farmers with no heir grow too old to tend vines. More and more vineyards in Taganan are abandoned each year, some beyond repair. The opportunity for Envínate to have their pick of the litter is a win-win, economically and culturally. And the vinous fossils they have dug up, like their flagship cuvée, ‘Margalagua’, have not only stunned the wine world over, but have perhaps given the locals enough of a reason to stay.
FROM TROPICAL TO DESERT, 3 NEW ENVÍNATE CANARY BOTTLINGS FOR VITICOLE...
TENERIFE SUB-REGION: SANTIAGO DEL TEIDE
From Taganan, we travel tail to head across the island for the northwest corner, leaving the confines of rain clouds, climbing up above the fog line to a desert plain. Santiago del Teide is home to Envínate’s Tenerife facility, once again the only winery for miles, and yet another region whose vineyards are left in disrepair. But unlike a new generation escaping quarantine, the exodus here was ancestral.
Historically, the wine scene in Santiago del Teide is almost as bleak as the backdrop, with a lone bright spot long since vanquished. From the dawn of Spanish settlement, the immediate area was earmarked for fisheries and inter-island trade, meaning at 10 miles inland, town proper became a high-society bedroom community for lords, ladies, and those who struck piscatorial gold in Puerto de Santiago. Grand wineries sprung up with nearby port towns, all too eager to move a little product. Shangri-la, however, would be cut short by Tenerife’s most recent volcanic eruption in 1909. Today, tourism in beach towns like Los Gigantes have brought about a resurgence, but the effect on non-coastal areas is incidental. A pilgrimage to Santiago del Teide carries more marketing leverage in its ghost town form. Otherwise, a curious traveler is relegated to viewing an old church, riding a horse into the country, or ironically visiting a wine museum.
Modern grape growers have kept the fire burning by drinking the proceeds and committing economic interest to more marketable crops, bananas and such. There are no remnants of the Portuguese imprint that typifies north shore viticulture: Taganan, Orotava, and the coastal hamlets within Santiago’s encompassing D.O., Ycoden Daute Isora. The bush vines of Santiago del Teide are planted on their own roots in the Goblet method made famous by Beaujolais. Some of these vines predate the volcano, and in colloquial territories like ‘Malpais’ (Badlands), a view toward the Montañas Negras provide a stark visual of where the lava flowed.
Yet for all its desolate hype, the wine potential in Santiago del Teide is exceptional. The soils are sandy and black, and the weather sunny and dry, moderated by Alisios winds and cool nights. A 3000-foot mesa provides a worthy perch to expansive vistas. One such view is Pico Viejo – or in the Guanche language ‘Benje’ – the second highest volcano on the island and namesake of the entire Envínate local line. The Benje reds are 100% Listan Prieto a.k.a the Mission Grape; picture Gamay dipped in pepper. The whites are 100% Listan Blanco. 2017 introduces a game-changing, new white parcel from 'the Badlands', a lunar-esque volcanic site called 'Las Arenas', whose jet black label pays homage to the shade of the earth. High-desert diurnals keep the Benje wines ultra-fresh and crisp, commandeered occasionally by a blistering African wind from the east…
WALKING OUT OF ENVÍNATE WINERY IN SANTIAGO DEL TEIDE WITH ANCIENT VINES IN LIQUID FORM...
CANARY IN THE COALMINE?
So in practice, we find the pride of equatorial winemaking, 80 miles west of the Sahara Desert. The Canaries are an island-wide preserve, trapped in amber; both viticulturally and climatically. But as warming trends and drought affect their adjacent mainland, potently as anywhere in the world, what becomes of a fortune untold?
For Tenerife, all indications point to Mount Teide, feeling the burn. High mountain temps have risen steadily since the ‘70’s as Saharan influence intensifies. Land below the inversion layer such as Orotava and Taganan have seen little effect. Let’s hope that continued environmental prosperity keeps Envínate’s conservation efforts within their grasp.
THE EDGE OF PARADISE IN TAGANAN...
“I think now is a beautiful moment for Spain,” explains Roberto. “A wine grower can make their own wines. They don’t have to be rich. They don’t have to make a big production. They don’t need to have a big building. There is room for more interpretations and I am glad we are seeing more and more of this…”
I wonder who will join Envínate in this 'beautiful moment'. Who will join them in magical places like Taganan and Santiago del Teide and beyond the Atlantic? Who will join them in preserving what ought to be preserved?
Change is a double-edged sword, whose exaction I accept, and in many cases applaud, despite terminal incompatibility. I am as inspired by it, as I am heartbroken. And I'm not unaware that the harder we cling, the more we must learn to let go. But as to landscapes and species, languages and cultures, if we are to lose any of these things to natural selection, let it not also be to neglect...
– Brian McClintic
A special thanks to Viticole operative, Lauren Hamilton, for (outside of the 3 labels shot) taking all these lovely photos...