Tenerife is not just a sun-seeker's paradise, says Tom Cannavan, who pays a visit to one of the island's wine producers earning plaudits for its distinctive, indigenous mineral wines from volcanic soils.
Suertes del Marqués, with it’s ancient Tenerife island vineyards and organically farmed, indigenous grapes, has a fast growing reputation.
Situated off the north African coast, Tenerife is the largest of the Canary islands and from all around the coast you cannot miss the massive volcano of El Teide.
At the centre of Tenerife, it is the highest mountain in Spain and one of the world’s largest volcanic structures. Snow-capped Teide breathes life into the island’s wine industry, protecting the south from Atlantic squalls, while the cooler north benefits from higher rainfall.
It is here, in the green valley of La Orotava, that Suertes del Marqués is based. Their vineyards climb the lower slopes of El Teide between 350m and 700m above sea level. Soils vary, with sand and clay in deep patches, but always as a topsoil to Teide’s volcanic base.
Owner Jonatan Garçia Lima and his family founded Suertes del Marqués as recently as 2006, though the estate is based on a patchwork of truly ancient vineyards that they have acquired piece by piece over the years.
This is glorious country for growing vines: the narrow ribbon of vineyards, strewn with spring flowers, snakes up the mountainside. The old vines, with trunks as thick as many trees, are twisted into some highly unusual training systems. Vines are unirrigated and are not planted on rootstocks – phylloxera never reached Tenerife – and many of Suertes del Marqués’ plots are more than 100 years old.
Listán Negro is the main red variety (a genetic match for the Mission grape of North America) and its partner Listán Blanco is the mainstay white grape, otherwise known as Palomino, which is used in Jerez for sherry production. Los Pasitos is a cuvée made from the ancient Baboso Negro variety, known as Bastardo in Portugal.
Other estates on the island have embraced a new quality culture too, but it is Suertes del Marqués that has set the pace, especially since bringing young winemaker Roberto Santana on board.
After a spell making the wines for Casa Castillo in Jumilla, he joined Suertes del Marqués in 2008, where he has introduced low-intervention, organic winemaking practices and a relentless focus on the individual character of its 21 tiny vineyard plots.
Santana pursues a strictly hands-off philosophy, flirting with natural wine ideologies and following some biodynamic practices. Minimal sulphur dioxide is used, only indigenous yeasts are employed, and the wines are never filtered or fined. The naturally low yields created by these old vines, climate and soils are celebrated, and across the Suertes del Marqués range the wines capture the freshness and agility that mark so many of the most exciting contemporary fine wines.
Having begun with stainless steel tanks and all new oak barrels, Santana now scoffs at the notion. He pours Blanco Barrica, an older white, fermented and aged in 100% new wood, alongside its new incarnation – a very lightly oaked wine renamed Trenzado after the ancient training system in which vines are literally braided together. Stainless steel has largely been replaced by concrete tanks – ‘the same as at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Pétrus’, Santana reminds me – and for the minimal amount of new oak now used, 500-litre barrels are coopered in Burgundy to an exacting specification.
There is no set winemaking recipe for the various cuvées in the Suertes del Marqués portfolio. Some wines are whole-bunch fermented at cold temperatures, some at much warmer temperatures, and there is skin contact for the whites. ‘I am not making Coca-Cola,’ emphasises Santana. ‘I need to find the different personalities not only of the soils, but also of the vintage, and of the people who work the vineyard.’
And the wines? Santana prefers not to disturb them once in barrel, so there is no racking or lees stirring. While most show a touch of reduction on pouring, they quickly open up in the glass. But forget any notion of orange wines or cloudy reds: these wines are as natural as you like, but they are crystal clear and pristine. The volcanic soils give spice and peppery minerality.
Both Santana and Jonatan Garçia Lima were born and raised on Tenerife, and their pride is obvious in having nurtured these old vines into producing such exciting and beautiful wines. While this Spanish holiday island may be a surprising source of such aesthetically pure, quality-driven bottlings, Suertes del Marqués is just one of many other pockets of fanatical expertise across the world that are creating distinctive, intellectual wines of real natural charm. They are part of an ever-more intricate global network of winemakers who combine a new vision with an undying respect for tradition.
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