Some historians speculate that the ancient Greek vinestock of Malvasia grape reached the Canary Islands with the Romans. Others credit Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator with introducing the vines in the 15th century. Either way, historical records show that wine has been produced on Lanzarote, the easternmost island of the archipelago, some 60 miles (100 k) offshore off the western Sahara, for over 500 years. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the sweet aromatic Malvasia wine was thought after throughout Europe, with England its major export market.
Life in Lava Land
Lanzarote was a fertile place then, with a thriving agriculture industry. However, Lanzaroteños had to rethink things when in the 1730’s, six years of continuous volcanic eruptions buried one third of the island, including its best farming land, under a thick coat of lava and volcanic ash. Grain and cereals, the staples of the time, were now out. Those farmers who didn’t flee for greener pastures in the Americas had to drastically revise their methods of survival. The island did have a proud heritage of viticulture, but would vines still grow in this new apocalyptic landscape?
Actually, yes. The vintners soon discovered that the volcanic ash (picón) that now covered the farmland was an efficient porous mulch. It absorbed the moisture from the air, released it into the ground and then prevented evaporation.They had to dig several feet through the picón to reach the original soil and plan the vines. Within its own basin, each plant then had to be protected from the sometimes fierce Atlantic wind by a semi-circular wall built from the omnipresent black basalt rock. Since then, wine growers have built over ten thousand of these tiny craters throughout the island to create the spectacular countryside of black vineyards that is unique to Lanzarote.
No Sour Grapes
Today there are over a dozen thriving bodegas (wineries) on Lanzarote, covering close to 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of active vineyards concentrated mainly in the central area of the island known as La Geria. Together they produce an average of 2 million liters (530 thousand U.S. gallons) annually, with around 75 percent of the production still dedicated to the Malvasia grape. Although they now produces a variety of wines, the most famous remains the traditional sweet dessert nectar with a rich texture reminiscent of aged Madeira. The balance of the production is split between Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which also produce quality sweet wines, and Listan Blanco for whites, and Listan Negra Mole for reds and rosés.
Typically, all Lanzarote wines are said to have a distinct personality: fruity, but with mineral characteristics and good acidity.The few that I sampled did fit that description, unsurprisingly given the island’s unique growing conditions. Most of the Bodegas welcome visitors with guides tours of their facilities and tasting opportunities for a reasonable fee. They usually require advanced booking. Here are three of the most popular wineries:
Bodega El Grifo– Founded in 1775, El Grifo is the oldest bodega in the Canaries and one of the ten oldest in Spain.Their 50 hectare (125 acre) vineyard surround the El Grifo Wine Museum, which gives visitors an interesting insight of the unique methods of viticulture practiced on Lanzarote as well as a snapshot of the island’s history.
Bodega La Geria– Built in the late 19th century against the spectacular backdrop of the Timanfaya National Park, Bodega La Geria is considered one of the most important vineyards on the island, with an annual production capacity of 300,000 liters (80,000 U.S. gallons). Six wines ranging from dry and semi-sweet to sweet Marvasia are produced under the La Geria Label.
Bodega Rubicón– Another venerable institution dating back to the mid-18th century, Bodega Rubicón has retained its beautifully restored colonial-style main house (a rarity on the island), complete with the courtyard shaded by an ancient eucalyptus tree. While the traditional artisan winemaking facilities of the old winery are reverently maintained, Rubicón has undergone major renovations and expansion in 2000 to introduce new technologies in the production of their wines.
Not all the wineries on the island are historical. Some are quite recent, such as the Bodega Vulcano de Lanzarote that opened its doors in 2009. But even these modern operations use the traditional single vine, hole-and-wall method when planting their new vineyards, preserving the unique landscape created three centuries ago by the ingenuity of the early vintners.
Good to Know
- Getting there –The island’s only airport is located just west of the capital city of Arrecife, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and major western European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago.
- Getting around – Although there is a good network of busses serving all the major points of interest, and reasonably priced taxis are readily available, I found a pre-booked car rental with pick-up and return at the airport to be the best value transportation option for exploring the vineyards at leisure.
- Visiting – Bodega El Grifo, Lugar El Grifu, Carretera Teguise-Uga LZ-30, Km,11,35550, San Bartlomé, is open daily from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Sunday at 10:00 am, 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 524 036, mail. firstname.lastname@example.org. Bodega La Geria, Carretera la Geria, Km 19, 35570, Yaiza,is open daily from 9:30 am to 7:00 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Friday at 2:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 178, mail. email@example.com. Bodega Rubicón, Carretera Teguise-Yaiza, 2, 35570, La Geria, Las Palmas is open daily from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 708, mail. firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The vineyards of La Geria are an area protected by the Lanzarote DO destination of origin.