Food and Drink David López

Earth, wine and fire

Lanzarote’s vineyards are planted among the ashes caused by volcanic eruptions in the 18th century. This unique method, which is now a tourist attraction, produces near miraculous wine that’s best enjoyed while contemplating the island’s untamed scenery.

If you just look at pictures, you won’t understand the reality. Quite the contrary, here on Lanzarote, that reality is like a play of contrasts, a masquerade. And the 200-plus volcanoes on this island – unique among the Canaries – are not the bad guys of this story, although they were at the beginning. Just as the sea – the infinite Atlantic Ocean that surrounds us – is not the good guy in this narrative. However, there’s an explanation behind all of this. In 1730, the volcanoes that today make up Timanfaya National Park began to erupt, continuing to spew stones and ash for nearly six years. When these natural tyrants returned to dormancy, the entire island – but especially the middle part – was covered with volcanic gravel, or rofe, as it’s called here. The islanders tried to remove it so they could return to sowing the grains they’d traditionally harvested – the only thing that would grow. However, there was so much accumulated ash – so much rofe – that the mission was clearly impossible. So, with their eyes on the volcanos that had reduced their island to an immense smouldering smoke stack and barren wasteland, they decided to make holes in the ground, digging through the ash in search of fertile soil, wherever it might be. When they found it at the bottom of those conical holes, shaped like upside-down mountains, they planted grape vines. “In this area, wine is an anomaly. It really shouldn’t exist. It’s almost miraculous,” says Jorge Rodríguez, who is a wine expert at El Grifo, winery, which is the oldest in the archipelago and also one of Spain’s oldest producers

Those farmers discovered that – on a dry island such as this – the rofe would filter the morning dew until it reached the soil, and that it would then insulate the vines against the sun and help to preserve that small amount of water, that little moisture, deep in the clay-rich soil where the vines took root. The vines grew, and continue to do so. People began to make wine with them, especially white wines, made from the Malvasía Volcánica, the island’s main (and unique) grape variety. They’ve been doing it now for centuries. “You have to work very, very hard with the vines in order to grow a crop, because the yield is also very low,” explains Jorge.

Today, this wine boasts a designation of origin that’s been recognised for 29 years, twenty-one wineries officially produce it and there are more than 1,800 grape growers. Most of them are families who aren’t in the business of growing grapes, but they do it just to earn some extra cash and also to maintain the tradition of the harvest festival. All this is due to – or thanks to – the volcanos, who are both the bad and the good guys of the story.

But it’s not just about working with this very particular and complicated growing system used in La Geria, the inland area most covered with rofe. It’s also about doing it in a near desert-like climate, with trade winds that can blow down trees and bushes in a matter of seconds, forcing growers to protect their vineyards with walls made of stone.

So miraculous are the results, in fact, that the island’s wineries and vineyards have now become tourist attractions. Lanzarote makes a living not from its wine, but from tourism. It receives more than three million visitors a year, most of whom head for the coastal towns in the south, such as Arrecife, or for the wild and beautiful beaches such as Famara. It’s the appeal of its skyline of volcanoes, of the landscapes created by past eruptions and the vineyards with the plants growing in holes that make the island so special. So today, hiking trails have been created in the areas around La Geria and Masdache, where most of the wineries are located. “Ever since tourists began to come in the 1960s, we’ve been disconnected from nature. And these hikes allow us to explain what this environment is like, but also where we come from. And that’s good for both visitors from outside and locals living here,” explains Ignacio Romero, a biologist and guide with Senderismo Lanzarote. Because the history of the island and its wines is told not only by those volcanoes, but also by its water – both its scarcity and its abundance. Firstly because, until the 1960s, when tourists began to reach the island, there was no desalination plant and the water had to be brought in by boat. Historically, the island depended on neighbouring islands for its survival. Even today, its location and dependence affect it. “That’s why I always say that people should come to the Canaries to drink our wines. It’s better and easier than buying it somewhere else,” sums up Oliver Pacheco, from the Guiguan winery in the town of Tinajo.

That’s the second thing. Most of the island’s wine – that soft, dry white enjoyed cold in Lanzarote’s near endless summers – is sold on the island itself or in the rest of the archipelago. Just a tiny percentage makes it to the peninsula, to some European countries or to North America. In this history of fire and ash, the ocean is not the hero of the story. For smaller winemakers, exporting – or trying to export – ends up being too expensive and too complicated, due to transport, tariffs and taxes. They’ve got enough on their hands already as they lovingly tend their vines to ensure that they have a chance of continuing to growing among the ashes for at least a couple of centuries more.