When a top Spanish sommelier puts a Gran Canaria red amongst the top five in Spain for 2017, you know things are happening on the island, oenologically-speaking.
And you know it’s time to get out there and try the latest vintages before they all get drunk.
It’s January and last year’s grape juice is already in the bottles and ready to go. So, I head to Monte to knock on doors and sample the volcanic wines of El Monte Lentiscal, Gran Canaria’s oldest wine region.
Turn left at the volcano: The El Monte Lentiscal wine region:
Picture tiny vineyards, dotted with palm trees and bougainvillaea bushes, in the shadow of a volcano. The vines, poking out of the jet-black soil, grow on terraces that follow the contours of the rolling terrain.
The squat, whitewashed wineries are mostly based in an annexe of the family home or built on a rocky outcrop useless for farming. They are decorated with vast wine presses made of pine tree hearts, terracotta pots of subtropical plants, and dragon trees casually growing out of old barrels.
As it’s been a mild year in Gran Canaria, spring started on about Christmas day. The white broom and bugloss flowers hum with honey bees and the cockerels and Canaries are in full voice. The lizards, flopping about on dry stone walls with their bellies full of cactus fruit, are silent until you get too close, then crash off into the tangled vines. It’s not graceful, but as a defence mechanism, it’s worked against hawks and cats for millennia.
Knock, knock, knocking on winery doors
El Monte’s wineries are too small and real to have tasting rooms and dedicated sales staff. Most manage, at best, a sign that points at a gate by the road and says “se vende vino”.
Opening hours are unofficial but 09.00 to 13.00 and 16.00 to 19.00 is always a good bet.
Ring the bell or bang on the door and be prepared to wait as the person who attends you likely has to stop doing something else to attend you.
Don’t worry though, Monte’s winemakers are more than happy to receive wine-buying visitors and most are happy to spend time explaining their art.
My advice on what to buy?
Monte’s dry whites, made from local Listan Blanco, Albillo and Malvasia grapes, are always a good bet; crisp and fruity with a pleasant bitter aftertaste. They go well with fish and with sunsets on a balcony.
Gran Canaria’s reds are intense as the grapes are packed with volcanic minerals and stuffed with fruit flavour by the sun. It takes skill to get all this character into a bottle and back out into your glass in harmony. However, when it pays off, which it does more and more these days, the effect is superb.
Go for unoaked reds and expect lots of black fruit and berry flavour, pepper spiciness and a mineral undertone.
Gran Canaria wines: Cheap at the price
Gran Canaria’s wine sells for around 10 euros per bottle for a white or a young red.
Before you stop reading and head to the supermarket for a cheap and cheerful bottle of Rioja, bear in mind what you are paying for.
Gran Canaria wines are an artisan wine made from hand-picked grapes. The money you spend goes right back to the grower and protects the island’s countryside and the rural economy. And as for food miles, well there’s just no comparison between a local wine and an imported bottle.
El Monte Lentiscal Winery doors to knock on
It doesn’t matter which way you go to get to the Los Lirios winery, it’s always down a pretty lane. Los Lirios is also owned by the same winemaker who made the 2017 Lava that made the headlines. Call in advance if you want an organised tasting with local cheese and olives.
Hoyos de Bandama
The Hoyos de Bandama winery, which makes a great dry white called Caldera, actually has a tasting room that opens from 12.00 to 16.00 Thursday through Sunday. It’s right by the gate to the Bandama crater rim walk.
Turn left by the tall palm tree, drive down the track past the oranges and the vines and you’ll find the huge lagar or old wine press right by the modern winery at Plaza Perdida. Don’t expect to be attended during siesta time ( 13.00 to 16.00).
Bards and plagues: The history of Canary Islands wine
Shakespeare mentioned Canary sack several times, although Elizabethan was strong and sweet and a long way from today’s wines. And anyway, Canary Islands wines have a bigger claim to fame that the drowning of a fictional duke!
In the 1880s a vicious plague called Phylloxera arrived on a ship from the Americas and ripped across Europe. It wiped out 99% of the vines and growers had to start again with resistant vines.
Except in the Canary Islands where the dry volcanic soils protected the local grape vines from the root aphid that spread the disease. The vines that grow in the Canary Islands today are the last ones that descend directly from Roman and Ancient Greek plants.
Like I said, Gran Canaria and Canary Islands wine is cheap at the price as well as delicious.