Canary in a wine glass: Drinkers flock to islands’ distinct wines

geriaFour years ago, wine from the Canary Islands was unheard of in America. Unless you were one of the tourists who visit the archipelago each year, you might have assumed that quality grapes couldn’t exist 80 miles off the southwestern coast of Morocco.

But these days, Canary Islands wines have become almost a constant in good Bay Area wine shops and restaurants, largely thanks to their sole American importer, Richmond’s Jose Pastor.

“I learned about them from a friend at Tajinaste,” says Pastor, a wiry Spaniard with black curly hair and a few days’ growth of beard, referring to the first Canary Islands producer he imported in 2007. “I was right away taken by their pure, almost naked, soil-driven character.”

Wine drinkers of all stripes quickly pounced. Pastor brought in 3,000 cases of the wines last year and this year plans to import 4,000.

“He’s created this out of thin air,” says Kevin Hogan, the wine buyer for the Spanish Table in Berkeley. “It’s like discovering a room in your house that you never knew existed.”

Pastor contrasts the wines with those from the rest of Spain, of which the Canary Islands are a territory.

“The vast majority of the wines being produced in Spain didn’t have much personality or identity at all,” he says. “They just had too much makeup,” he continues, using a common term for overzealous cellar work. “It was and still is almost impossible to recognize their origin.”

Canary wines don’t seem to suffer the same problem.

“Everything I’ve ever tasted from there has been unique and special,” says Jeff Berlin, the wine buyer for À Côté in Oakland, who routinely features several such wines on his list.

Grapes grown on the islands are a mix of not-unheard-of varieties such as Malvasia and such geeks-only choices as Negramoll – the same as Tinta Negra Mole, the workhorse grape of the more famous Atlantic wine island Madeira, 250 miles northwest.

A surprising grape

A grape called Listán Negro turned out to be a surprise, though. It’s rarely seen in modern Spain, but Spanish galleons brought it to California and planted it next to the missions they founded.

Over time, Californians just called it Mission, and it dominated the landscape in the early 19th century. More famous varieties have since taken hold, but pockets of Mission are still scattered throughout the state.

“Everyone had to go to the books to figure out what all these varieties were,” Hogan says.

While “distinct” is a well-worn word in the wine world, the Canaries have more claim than most. Volcanoes burped the islands out of the ocean a mere 30 million years ago.

They’re still active: On Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canaries, you can fry an egg in the heat that comes from some crevices. Those burbling bellies have left the islands with a rare, fresh-from-the-planet’s-core coating of volcanic soil.

Like a lunar landscape

On most of the islands, says Pastor, the soil is clay with a volcanic substrate. But it is on Lanzarote that things get, as Pastor says, crazy.

Moonscape is a typical description. The other islands’ mountains reach to 12,000 feet, hold some of the European Union‘s highest vineyards (at around 5,300 feet) and, crucially, snag fog flowing from the African coast. But Lanzarote’s are too short.

That has left Lanzarote a parched desert. Craters pockmark the island, and old lava flows course across it. The bare soil is painted with a limited palette: deep red-brown, gray and black.

Within this stark landscape, vines look anomalous. They don’t even look like normal vines. They hunker against the ground like cacti, spreading horizontally behind curved barriers dug into the earth that winegrowers erect as protection from the easterly winds.

It’s no surprise that, even amid the remarkable Canary wines, those from the producer Los Bermejos and Stratvs, on the island of Lanzarote, stick out the most.

The wines manage to be light and meaty at the same time, with a hard-core vibrant acidity and aromatic cues of herbaceousness and smoke.


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