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With Island Wines, It's Always Five O'Clock Somewhere
If you're not drinking reds from the Canary Islands, this afternoon would be a great time to start.
Right off the jump, I must apologize profusely. I’ve been listening to Jimmy Buffett as I write this newsletter. Why? I don’t know. Why not? I guess it’s because this dispatch is about island wines. It has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Island wines. Feels like the title of a Jimmy Buffett song. Not one of the songs the cover band plays at the local crab shack. “Island Wines” would be a minor Buffett song, something with heavy xylophone that only a Boomer Parrothead—maybe someone who lives in the Margaritaville retirement village—would know. Alas, I’ve searched the Jimmy Buffett catalog on Spotify and sadly there is no such song called “Island Wines.” But let’s pretend, shall we?
I’ve been enjoying a number of island wines lately. For instance, a new-to-me small importer called Strade Bianche just sent me an amazing wine from Sardinia, Mario Bagella '1 Sorso' Cannonau di Sardegna. Cannonau is the Sardinian synonym for grenache, and it’s usually dark and heavy from that Mediterranean island, but not this bottle. This is light, lively, with great acidity and tension, seamless. It absolutely fits right in with the light reds we’ve been discussing over the past couple of weeks.
But the island wines I want to talk about today (our next stop on the light-red tour) are from the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa. These days, you’ll find some of the most exciting red wines in the world coming from the Canary Islands, particularly the Valle de la Orotava on Tenerife, but also from Lanzarote and Gran Canaria. In cities like Madrid and Barcelona, wine-bar menus are full of light red wines made from obscure varieties such as listán negro and listán prieto, the main red grapes on the islands.
Over the past decade, we’ve started to see more and more Canary Islands wines in the U.S., mostly on big-city wine lists, but widespread recognition is a still a ways to go. Envínate, revered in natty wine circles, is probably the most famous—they make one of my favorite wines in the world. But at a recent David Bowler portfolio tasting, I was blown away by the quality of the dozen or so Canary Islands reds I tasted, from a half-dozen producers. It’s time to jump on the bandwagon if you haven’t already.
All the elements are there in the Canary Islands. There’s volcanic soil, high-altitude vineyards (many above 1,000 meters elevation) and a unique Atlantic microclimate. Above all, the vines are very old, some dating back a couple hundred years. Notably, most of these old vines are ungrafted, since phylloxera never ravaged the Canary Islands.
This is not a “new” wine region by any stretch. Canary Islands wines were popular in Britain during the 16th and 17th centuries, and name-checked in Shakespeare’s plays. In the 16th century, listán prieto was brought to Mexico and California by the Franciscan priests who founded the missions, and the grape became known in the New World as mission (as Baja considers which grape to grow, I wonder if listán prieto is worth a shot?). If you enjoy país from Chile, that’s listán prieto, too.
The result is that Canary Islands wines are almost the inverse of what people have come to expect from reds. Pale in color, peppery, savory, with great freshness and lively acidity, and just enough tannin to keep things structured and elegant. Canary Island reds are amazing food wines, which is probably why you see them in so many tapas bars in Spanish cities. I think of these as perfect red wines to open on a sunny afternoon…hey, it’s five o’clock somewhere, as the cliché goes.
Unlike most of the regions I write about, I’ve never actually been to the Canary Islands. I hope to go some day soon, though. Canary Islands Day Dreamin’. Wait, is that another Jimmy Buffett song? I swear, I can almost hear a crowd of drunk men in Tommy Bahama shirts singing along.
Seven Canary Island Reds
One of my favorite wines in the world. Honestly, a steal at $30, and more memorable than reds at twice the price. From old-vine listán priesto (aka mission) grown at 1,000 meters elevation. Packs a volcanic punch, with notes of all the peppers—white, black, green, pink—and great juicy flavors of tart pomegranate and cranberry. Elegant and seamless.
Another steal at under $30. Made from tintilla (aka trousseau) grown at 1,200 meters elevation and rested in old barrels for four months. Juicy dark fruit with a delicious, spicy core—blackberries and white pepper with elegant tannins.
Made from 100-year-old ungrafted vines and aged only three months in neutral casks, this is a red that’s lively and light on its feet, with a peppery, mineral backbone.
Volcanic wine on the cheap. From mostly listán negro grown up to 800 meters above sea level and from up to 200-year-old vines. Overdelivers with complexity. Earthy, meaty, notes of rosemary and deep red fruit, and a bloody, ferrous edge.
Energetic, peppery, with notes of black cherry, blackberry, and blood orange, balanced by licorice and smoky incense.
Aged 5 months in French oak, juicy, fresh, and fruity with a core of black pepper, paprika, and smoked meat.
Top of the food chain for Canary Island reds. This 100 percent listán negro is a hedonistic style of Canary Island red. Deep earthy, savory nose, with aromas of white pepper and cumin, and berry and plum on the palate, with a saline finish.