The receipt was smudged with two brown stains, as if someone had spilt an espresso across it. Dated 10th June 1787, this was a piece of Australian history, sitting casually in my right hand.
I knew from reading Robert Hughes’ masterpiece, The Fatal Shore, that the First Fleet stopped in Tenerife for a week to take on “fresh water, pumpkins, onions, indifferent and costly meat and Canary wine”, but here was the evidence, signed and approved by Governor Arthur Phillip himself.
The Archivo Histórico Provincial de Santa Cruz de Tenerife is full of such documents, reminders of a time when the Canary Islands enjoyed considerable strategic and economic importance. Their position off the coast of Africa made them a vital staging post on long voyages from Europe to the Americas, the Cape and further afield.
Christopher Columbus weighed anchor on his way to the New World in 1492 and so did that famous cargo of convicts, bound for Botany Bay, 295 years later.
We have no way of knowing what Governor Phillip’s wine tasted like, although it may well have been fortified, given the long voyage ahead. What we do know is that it was essential to the health and survival of his expedition.
As local historian Carlos Cólogan told me, “Wine is pleasure today, but back then it was a necessity, as water went off after three weeks, whereas wine could last for up to three years. Without wine, you could die at sea.”
Grapes have been grown in Tenerife – the last of the Canary Islands to be conquered by Spain – since the late 15th century, arriving from Castilla-La Mancha, Madeira and Portugal. As phylloxera has never invaded, Roberto Santana of Envínate surmised that some of the island’s parcels could be 500 years old.
That may be an exaggeration, but 200-year-old vines are almost commonplace, especially in the Valle de la Orotava, where the plaited cordon trenzado training system is used, producing snaking single vines that can run to 10 metres in length.
In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Tenerife’s wine trade was one of the most successful in the world. From its first vintage in 1502, it expanded exponentially, thanks to generous land grants to settlers. Almost anything grows well here, from bananas to potatoes, chestnuts to sugar cane, because of abundant sunshine and water from El Teide, a volcano and Spain’s highest point at 3,718 metres.
But it was grapes that made the island’s fortune. Visiting Tenerife in 1799, the explorer Alexander von Humboldt described it as a “vast landscape of vineyards”. Canary wine
was famous across the globe for 300 years.
Tenerife at a Glance
Location: 320 kilometres off the coast of Morocco; 1,400 kilometres from Seville.
Area under vines: 3,193 hectares.
Number of grape varieties: 82, of which around 30 are in commercial production.
Number of producers: 98, five of which are co-operatives.
Soil types: Basalt, clay, gravel, iron, sand and volcanic.
Denominations: Abona, Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de Güímar, Valle de La Orotava,
And then everything went wrong. From 1840, Tenerife’s vineyards went into precipitous decline. There were several reasons for this, including the failure of various exporting companies, a change in Atlantic sea routes and good old-fashioned incompetence.
The wine industry remained in the doldrums until the start of the 1990s. For all its history, its stock of old vines and traditions, Tenerife had to begin all over again.
Felipe Monje of Bodegas Monje has witnessed the transformation. “In 1983, when I started, we had no water or electricity here. I’ve gone from seeing the island in black and white to seeing it in colour,” says Monje.
And what colours they are! Monje runs four Wine & Sex nights per year at the winery, where people are encouraged to drink, scrimp on clothing and indulge their fantasies. “It’s not an orgy,” he assured me with a laugh, “but sometimes it comes close. The things we do to flog wine, eh.” He has a point.
There has been a vibrant tourist trade on the island since the 1980s – close to six million people visit every year – but those visitors are generally more interested in beaches, beer
and cheap plonk than fine wine. Roughly half of Tenerife’s vino is still sold in bulk, often consumed in bars or cellar door restaurants called gauchinches.
Sunshine, especially winter sunshine, may be what Tenerife is famous for, but the island’s climate can be as varied as Melbourne’s. “You’ll need to bring half your wardrobe in the car today,” María Hontoria from the governing Cabildo de Tenerife told me one morning as we set off to visit wineries.
The northern side of the island is much cooler and wetter than the tourist-magnetic south and often sits under a thick duvet of clouds transported from the Azores by Los Alisios, the trade winds that were so beneficial to mariners travelling under sail. What keeps the clouds from crossing the island is the volcanic wall of El Teide.
To grow good grapes in the hotter, clear-skied south, altitude is essential. I started my tour in Abona, the highest of Tenerife’s five Denominaciones de Origen (DOs), which was created in 1996. The other four are Valle de Güímar (1996), on the east coast, Tacoronte-Acentejo (1992) and Valle de la Orotava (1995), both on the north coast, and Ycoden-Daute-Isora (1994), on the west coast.
As I drove up to the village of Charco del Pino to see Enrique Alfonso, my ears popped. Alfonso’s vineyards at Altos de Trevejos go up to 1,300 metres, but they’re not the most elevated in Tenerife.
That record belongs to Olga García Peceño parcels in nearby Los Frontones at a heady 1,700 metres. Compare this with the north side of the island, where there’s nothing over 1,000 metres. “Above that, you’re in the clouds,” said Agustín García Farráis of Bodega Tajinaste.
The thing that strikes you about Abona is its luminosity. “We get between nine and 14 hours of sun a day, which is comparable with parts of the high Andes,” Alfonso told me.
“The north is a more traditional grape-growing area, because it has always had more rainfall. We sometimes have to irrigate here, but there are compensations for the dry climate. We don’t have to worry about oidium, mildew and botrytis, whereas they do on the other side of the island in some vintages.”
That may be why the south specialises in thinner-skinned whites, especially listán blanco (the same variety as Jerez’s palomino), whereas the north is both red and white wine territory. Tenerife’s unique collection of grapes is considerably more diverse than anything you’d find on the “peninsula”, as local Canarios describe the Spanish mainland, and could take up an article all in its own.
There are 82 registered varieties, of which around 30 are produced in commercial quantities. Reflecting Tenerife’s history, they are a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and French cultivars, as well as two autonomous crossings – red listán negro (listán blanco x negramoll) and white marmajuelo (a mystery).
For lovers of diversity and something new, Tenerife is fascinating. White grapes are more historic – the first grapes were planted by Portugal’s Fernando de Castro in 1497 – but the reds can be equally special.
Before I discuss those grapes in a little more detail, let’s get the planting statistics out of the way, as these are often quoted inaccurately in articles. The Cabildo de Tenerife confirms that there are currently 2,565 hectares of DO vineyards, divided between Abona (898 ha), Tacoronte-Acentejo (1,017 ha), Valle de Güímar (160 ha), Valle de la Orotava (329 ha) and Ycoden-Daute-Isora (161 ha). There are a further 628 hectares of non-DO vineyards.
It’s much tougher to work out the precise plantings of each variety, as only production statistics are available and I suspect these are fingers in the wind.
Looking at them, it’s safe to say that listán negro and listán blanco are the most important grapes by far, accounting for around 85% of what Tenerife grows; significantly, there are at least 10 different clones of each.
After that come ruby cabernet (yes, I know), tempranillo, moscatel de Alejandría, syrah, marmajuelo, malvasía, albillo, vijariego negro (Catalonia’s sumoll), negramoll, merlot, listán prieto (California’s mission and Chile’s país), baboso negro (Portugal’s alfrocheiro), tintilla, gual and other bits and pieces.
Tenerife, in other words, is almost the United Nations of wine. Or as Juan Jesús Mendez of Viñátigo puts it: “We’re part of Europe, but we’re also the first area in the New World.”
Describing the characters of these grapes isn’t easy either, as they are often blended and have different aromas and flavours depending on altitude, aspect, soil type, picking dates and winemaking techniques. I’ve listed 10 wines at the end of this article to give you some idea of what to expect.
All I will say is that, with the exception of baboso negro, which is chunky and firm, Tenerife wines tend to be fresh, light-to-medium bodied and even a little salty. They certainly don’t taste like reds and (especially) whites produced at the same latitude as the Sahara Desert. It’s partly the cooling influence of those trade winds, especially on the north side of the island, but it’s also the predominantly volcanic soils which seem to impart a particular character to the wines.
As John Szabo writes in his book, Volcanic Wines, these aromas and flavours “hinge on a common mouth-watering quality, sometimes from high acids, almost always from palpable saltiness, sometimes both. Minerality and volcanic wines walk hand in hand.”
➼ Altos de Trevejos
➼ Bodegas Cráter
➼ Bodegas Insulares
➼ Bodegas Monje
➼ Borja Pérez
➼ Cumbres de Abona
➼ El Borujo and Los Loros (both owned by Juan Francisco Fariña Pérez)
➼ El Sitio de San Juan
➼ Hoya del Navío
➼ La Suertita
➼ Presas Ocampo
➼ Tajinaste (CAN)
➼ Sociedad Cooperativa Agrícola San Miguel
➼ Suertes del Marqués
Tenerife started to turn itself around in the 1990s with its first DOs, even if producers such as Bodegas Monje, Bodega Tajinaste and Presas Ocampo were making wine before that, but the winery that is credited with igniting the island’s modern revolution is Suertes del Marqués (in the Valle de la Orotava), which began bottling its own wine in 2006.
True to his motto that “Tenerife allows you to make almost any style of wine you want”, owner Jonatan García Lima produces wines under 17 different labels to express a range of terroirs and grape varieties. “I have to stop myself, or it could easily be 50,” he added.
García Lima’s stated preference is for freshness and natural acidity, but he admitted that the climate may be changing in Tenerife, just as it is in other wine regions.
“These days, the summers are hotter and so are the winters. In 2017, we picked three weeks earlier than normal. If it weren’t for these clouds,” he said as he pointed to the heavens, “we’d hit 40°C in summer. With them, we rarely go above 30°C and we generally have a long growing season.”
The vineyards above Suertes del Marqués’ stylish new cellar are certainly special, stacked on terraces under the mountains, but if you’re looking for something really spectacular, head to Taganana in the Tacoronte-Acentejo DO. This must be the most photographed corner of the island, at least by wine lovers, who test their thighs and lungs and treat their palates.
Give or take the odd passing car, these plots and their sweeping, unhurried environment haven’t changed in centuries. The slopes are so steep – think the Mosel, the hill of Hermitage or the Douro Valley – that in the 18th century grapes were picked and immediately trodden in stone lagares, rather than lugged back down the hill; even the juice, all 80 litres of it carried in a goat skin called a fole, must have felt like an anvil. You can still see those lagares today.
The big name in these parts is Envínate, a brand launched by four winemakers (Roberto Santana, Alfonso Torrente, Laura Ramos and José Martínez) with 1,000 bottles from Ribeira Sacra in Galicia in 2008.
They have since expanded their focus to take in other Spanish regions, notably Almansa, Extremadura and Tenerife. Santana, who runs the project on the island, also worked for Suertes del Marqués until 2016, but is now entirely dedicated to Envínate. The partners own 40% of the vineyards they use, working with fruit from Ycoden-Daute-Isora and Taganana. Santana is a local, so he knows what it takes to work vineyards like these.
“You have to do everything by hand,” he says, pausing to adjust the hat on a scarecrow. “It used to be mostly old people here with no successors, but that’s changing. When we started vinifying individual parcels 10 years ago, people said it was madness, that listán negro made wines that wouldn’t keep for more than six months. Well, we’ve proved them wrong.”
It was time to climb back down the hill, picking our way along precarious terraces overgrown with contorted vines. I’d arranged to meet Antonio Negrín, a descendant of one of the first five Spanish families to colonise Tenerife, and he was frying some eggs and chorizo for brunch. Negrín has one of those ancient, lived-in faces: craggy, knowing and with penetrating, deep-set eyes. I could talk to him for days.
We finished our food and ducked into a cellar that belonged to a Castilian count in the 16th century. My host poured a small sample of the only wine he makes and offered it to me in a brandy glass.
Fortified and produced in a solera that’s topped every year, it was the colour of road tar and sweet, viscous and concentrated on the palate. Was this a descendant of Canary wine, the elixir that moved Shakespeare to poetry?
Closing my eyes, I thought of those First Fleet convicts, transported to the other side of the world for theft, sedition, burglary, “coining and uttering” and “offences against the person”.
As the ships that carried them left Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1787, heading for Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and, over seven dangerous months later, the wilds of Australia, something like Señor Negrín’s Vino Añejo was probably sitting beside them in the hold.
The best place to buy wines in Tenerife is the Casa del Vino (casadelvinotenerife.com).
➼ 2015 Magma Blanco de Cráter Seco Sobre Lías, Tacoronte-Acentejo (12.5%)
Volumes are small at this bijou bodega on the cloudier north side of the island, but this age-worthy cuvée of malvasía and verdello is a classic volcanic white, with subtle reduction, a saline undertone and a complex, mineral core. The leesy weight complements the citrus and lime-scented fruit. 94 points
➼ 2018 El Borujo Los Loros Blanco Sobre Lías, Valle de Güímar (12.5%)
Sometimes made as a blend with vijariego blanco, but in 2018 Juan Francisco Fariña Pérez’s taut, chiselled, unoaked white is a varietal listán blanco from a 30-year-old vineyard. Focused and stony, one of Tenerife’s great whites. 96 points
➼ 2017 Envínate Palo Blanco, Vino de España (12%)
From a 1.5-hectare parcel of listán blanco on volcanic soils in the Valle de la Orotava. Fermented in concrete and aged in large oval oak foudres, it’s bready, savoury and yeasty with notes of wild flowers, salt and honey. Bears the focus and freshness typical of Tenerife whites. 94 points
➼ 2017 Suertes del Marqués Trenzado, Valle de la Orotava (12.5%)
Named after the plaited training system – a feature of old vineyards in this region – Jonatan García Lima’s brilliant white comes from basalt soils in the western part of the DO and is an assemblage of listán blanco with 5% torrontés. Aged in 500-litre barrels, it’s rich and layered, with subtle spice and piercing minerality. 94 points
➼ 2017 Viñátigo Elaboraciones Ancestrales Blanco, Islas Canarias (13.5%)
Labelled as a Canary Islands’ wine but entirely produced from the Madeira grape gual (bual). Tannic, intense and showing orange peel, jasmine and quince, it’s like a white wine crossed with a red, showing great depth and structure. 94 points
➼ 2016 Altos de Trevejos Vijariego Negro, Abona (13%)
Vijariego negro is rare in Tenerife, but achieves interesting results in Enrique Alfonso’s high-altitude vineyards in Abona. Sappy, grippy and just a little wild, this has notes of Mediterranean herbs, black cherry, taut acidity and a savoury bite. 93 points
➼ 2017 Borja Pérez Ignios Origenes Baboso Negro, Ycoden-Daute-Isora (14.5%)
Baboso negro is the most tannic and robust of Tenerife’s imports from Portugal. Borja Pérez ages this intense, savoury red in large wooden foudres to soften its rougher edges, producing a wine that is textured, floral and intense. 94 points
➼ 2017 CAN, Valle de la Orotava (13.5%)
CAN is the top red from Agustín García Farráis, a leading name in the Valle de la Orotava, with nine months in new and one-year-old French oak. Marrying listán negro and vijariego, it’s a serious, structured, more international style red with plenty of black cherry. 95 points
➼ 2017 Envínate Táganan Parcela Margalagua, Vino de España (12%)
Envínate’s best Tenerife red comes from the spectacular slopes of Tacoronte Acentejo and is a brilliant, foot-trodden blend of negramol, listán negro and 15% listán blanco. Pale, complex and hauntingly perfumed, with wonderful focus and clove spice from whole bunches. One of Spain’s greatest reds. 97 points
➼ 2016 Suertes del Marqués El
Esquilón, Valle de la Orotava (12.5%) Listán negro comes into its own in the best sites of the Valle de la Orotava. Sourced from vineyards between 450 and 550 metres, this is pale in colour but, like a nebbiolo, is not short of acidity or tobaccoey tannins. Fermented with 100% whole bunches, it has lovely rose petal aromas and pepper and clove spice. 95 points