Eyes closed, this warm breeze is unlike any of you've ever experienced in lands where wine is made. Tropical, wrapping you up inside of that very distinct sense of what standing in the middle of the ocean feels like. It is, yet, not what truly thrills the senses here. Open your eyes to the horizon, where the bluest of skies meets the black, pockmarked, grey stoned earth as if we had colonized the moon, and this was our vineyard there. Indeed, this volcanic island eighty miles from the coast of southern Morocco -- yes, that would be Africa -- feels a moon's distance from the cellars where the finest wine is made. Yet here we stand in the shadow of the Timanfaya volcano, amongst the estate vines of Bodegas El Grifo on Lanzarote, one of Spain's Canary Islands, grapes in hand, awe struck.
It is from this volcano that El Grifo and the other wineries of the thriving Lanzarote DO (Denominación de Origen, the designation for a Spanish wine making region) draw their unique character, both visually and in the wines themselves. Like so much of the world's wine worth drinking, the grapes and the bottles they yield here reflect the soul of the terrain, the terroir, in which they are grown. Were I to be introducing the curious novice to the very concept of terroir, I'd first bring them to this spot. The roots of these vines grow in the volcanic ash that Timanfaya has sown into the ground, which hold and retain the island's limited water in ways that ordinary soil cannot. They grow old and strong, protected from those warm winds, sheltered behind elaborate walls hewn from volcanic rock and arranged like a series tropical Stonehenges, carefully constructed monuments to the work that is done here.
First built in 1775, El Grifo is the oldest winery in the Canary Islands, and purportedly one of the ten oldest still operating in all of Spain. The family owners possess longevity to match, passing the winery through five generations since they purchased it from another family in 1880. This deep history is memorialized in the museum housed in the original building, itself a historical artifact for having been built from volcanic stones and wood salvaged from visiting ships. It seems that Lanzarote has little in the way of forestation on a scale necessary for significant construction. Venture inside to find all manner of antiquated wine making apparatus, variants of the El Grifo griffin designed by Lanzarote native César Manrique, and a library of 4000 books devoted to the study of wine, agriculture, and Canarian history.
The bottles produced here by winemaker Tomás Mesa are expressions of that history. Time capsules in that they are made from grapes that were untouched by the phylloxera that blighted and devastated European winemaking in the 19th century, the most popular varietal -- Malvasía Volcánica -- is a homage to the land itself, headlining a lineup that also includes Listan Negro, Listan Blanco, Syrah, Moscatel, and Vijariego. Lack of rain and a local prohibition on watering the vines produce grapes that are smaller, but highly concentrated in their flavor profile.
NV Malvasía Brut
This sparkling wine is made in the traditional method of French Champagnes, but from the island's noted Malvasía Volcánica grape. Consider it a study in contrasts, an extraordinarily traditional feeling sparkling made from an extraordinarily unique varietal. Brioche nose is followed by lovely yet not sweet honey and lime zest. We loved it so much we returned to it after tasting the lineup with our hosts, pairing it with delicious Canarian cheese and quince jelly.
Grown more widely in the south of mainland Spain before the phylloxera, Vijariego is now a grape grown nearly exclusively in the Canaries in general and (at 60% of total production) on Lanzarote in particular. Expressive lemon notes reminiscent of Fanta Limón (that would be lemon-flavored Fanta) headline a wine that we think would pair delightfully with a simply prepared lemon herb chicken. One can approximate the experience by thinking of a Verdicchio or a not-so-grassy Sauvignon Blanc.
NV Seco Colección
Bring back the Malvasía Volcánica for this seco (that's "dry", in Spanish wine parlance) white featuring tropical fruit and passion fruit notes that remind us that this could have only come from an island, delivered in one of the most expressive noses I can recall experiencing in any wine glass ever. You'll taste pineapple on the palate. This is a delightful bottle, and it seems that international judges agree.
2015 Tinto Listán Negro
Another unique Canarian grape varietal, Listán Negro is the first red in the lineup. It offers a nose of sweet, brambly jam that is reminiscent yet softer than some Petit Verdots, slightly smoky and peppery with a bit of assertive cranberry juice. The palate seems at once like a Cabernet Franc and alternatively like a Gamay (the grape varietal made famous in France's Beaujolais). Little notes of volcanic ash lend unique but unsurprising character.
They've blended the Listán Negro with Syrah -- one of the few well known varietals that performs in the Canarian climate -- with four months of barrel aging to produce the nose of cedar, toast, white pepper, and tea that we found in the Ariana. The Cab Franc like notes in the palates remind us that there's Listán Negro in this bottle, while the Syrah is so obviously itself that we can't miss it.
2014 Reserva de Familia
Monovarietal Syrah (that's Syrah as a single, mono, i.e. not blended with any other varietal) is aged twelve months in barrel and twelve months in bottle before going to market as the estate grown (that's wine made from grapes grown exclusively on the property) Reserva de Familia. This classically styled Syrah is deep inky colored in the glass with graphite at the front and warmly charred meaty notes as it progresses. We wish we could drink it with Argentine chimichurri and Vacio a la Gaucho (hangar steak) at New York's Chimichurri Grill.
NV Moscatel de Ana
This dessert wine is made from Moscatel grapes that were dried slightly in the sun. Toasted brown sugar in the nose conjured a distinct memory of a white Port we once drank at Quevedo Winery along the Douro River in Portugal. Notes of almond and honey tea make this a great pairing for vanilla ice cream.