lanzarote

Photo credit: Dario Garavini (Creative Commons)

Maybe it’s my pioneering American roots coming out, or the fact that I’m living in Roussillon, one of France’s most underappreciated wine-growing regions. Whatever the influence I’ve recently become fascinated by off-the-beaten-path wine makers. As a result, my recent travels have been inspired by wine growers and regions where hardship and persistence are key factors in making distinctive regional styles—again perhaps echoing that American spirit of trial and triumph.

If you’re also a wine adventure traveler, or simply looking for another way to experience a destination, you may want to consider planning a Lanzarote holiday, where artisanal, low-yield wines have been making their way into bottles from the ash remains of a severe volcanic eruption since the mid-18th century.

Lanzarote is the easternmost isle of the volcanic sculpted chain of the Canary Islands, belonging to Spain in territory, but closer to the African continent in terms of climate and proximity. Lanzarote’s lunar-like landscape and exposure to harsh trade winds lend an implausible impression to its vineyards, some of which are astonishingly high in elevation. It’s a winegrowing region that defies all logic, but prevails none the less.

The story of Lanzarote’s wine tradition exemplifies the doggedness I’m most attracted to in regions where it seems nothing could possibly grow, certainly nothing as intense as ultra-sweet grapes ready-made for characteristic wines.  Grapes were first planted on the island in the 1600’s after the America’s replaced the demand for sugarcane. But a six-year volcanic eruption destroyed all those vines, leaving a thick layer of black volcanic ash to cover the landscape.

Much respect to whoever was the first to even think of growing a vine out of the stuff, because it worked. Islanders soon found that the ash, known as picon or lapill, retained water and worked well with vines if planted in wide holes or trenches. For this reason the vineyards of Lanzarote are sometimes sporadic in design. For protection from the island’s punishing coastal winds, each vine is planted behind a semi-circle of stones called zocos to block the blasts. Add to this already strange and epic scenario Lanzarote’s steep volcanic hillsides and then try to imagine terraced vineyards carved out of the rubble. It’s easy to see why Lanzarote quickly became known as “the impossible vineyard.” 

However, Lanzarote does have one interesting thing going for it with regard to grape growing. For mysterious reasons the vines of the Canary Islands are the only European root stocks immune to the Phylloxera louse.  Phylloxera made its way to Europe from North America on contaminated vines late in the 19th century. It proceeded to decimate most every vineyard on the other side of the Atlantic, most notably in France. Today, grapevines all over Europe have to be grafted with a resistant American root stock or they won’t survive the louse. That is, except the vines of the Canaries. Thanks to this unexplainable resistance, the wines of Lanzarote offer the rare opportunity to taste from original European vines. 

And the tastes are surprisingly pleasing. Because the vines can’t help but produce low yields under such conditions, the wines of Lanzarote are distinctive and original, offering up a true regional expression of volcanic land and sea. And because the yields are low, so are the number of bottles, making it nearly impossible to taste for yourself without going to the island in person—all the more reason to consider a Lanzarote holiday soon. 

Most of the dozen or so wine makers in the Denominacion de Origen of Lanzarote are centered around the town of La Geria between San Bartolomé and Playa Blanca. Perhaps a good place to start your tour is with the oldest maker on the island and one of the oldest in Spain, El Grifo, proudly producing since 1775. Salud!