An invitation to visit Suertes del Marqués, the most influential wine producer of northern Tenerife’s Valle de la Orotava D.O. (Denominación de Origen), had me intrigued. In addition to an interesting group of co-travellers (our hosts, Rafa Salazar and Antonio Lorente of specialist importer Vinostito; Gerard Maguire of 64 Wines; Peter Hogan of Fish Shop, Simon Barrett of Etto and Uno Mas, Corinna Hardgrave, food, wine and travel writer for Irish Independent and Sunday Times, John and Sandy Wyer of Forest Avenue/Forest & Marcy and soon Forest Blackrock), we would be visiting an island and an estate whose geography were fascinating, and were for me, terra incognita.
Tenerife: a unique vine and wine heritage
Tenerife, part of the Canary Islands, as millions of sun-seeking holiday-makers know, lies in the Atlantic Ocean, a mere 100km or so off the west coast of Morocco, and over 1000km from mainland Spain. The islands, due to their strategic location as a staging post on the way to South America, were colonised by Spanish conquistadors and remain Spanish to this day, albeit with Portuguese influences, especially from Madeira and the Azores.
My first impression on approach from the air was the sheer dominance of the peak of El Teide volcano, which at 3,718 metres above sea-level, is the highest point on Spanish soil. This has implications for the climates on either side of the mountain, with the semi-arid, southern side reminiscent of the landscapes of spaghetti westerns and the cooler, greener northern part of the island open to Atlantic squalls. Climate overall, influenced by the Gulf Stream, is as you might expect, is mild and subtropical with year round sunshine.
All these factors have a profound influence on the style of wine produced on Tenerife. Firstly, the distance from the mainland has meant that indigenous grape varieties, Listán Negro and Listán Blanco as well as several other varieties that died out on the continent post-phylloxera, are the norm, rather than the exception. This isolation, allied to volcanic soils, have meant that phylloxera is not an issue and the vines grow on their own rootstocks, with some well over a century old. Additionally, vines on Tenerife are generally trained in a unique system called ‘cordón trenzado’ or ‘braided cordon’ which is well-suited to managing growth and ripening in fertile soils and a humid climate.
Suertes del Marqués
The original farm, Finca El Esquilón, had been bought about thirty years ago by Jonatán García Lima’s family as a summer home, but in 2006 Jonatán set about developing the estate as a serious producer and started to buy plot by plot (suertes) the vineyards that would eventually become the 11 hectares that comprise Suertes del Marqués. In addition, he buys fruit under long-term contracts from small growers, all of whom are within the Valle del Orotava D.O.
With the help of Roberto Santana, another Tenerife native and winemaker for the excellent Evínate estate, which is based on the remote and wild north-western corner of the island, they began producing wines that reflected a vision which prioritized long-term sustainable, organic farming and the preservation of the unique heritage of the vineyards from the varieties planted, to the training systems, to the use of natural yeasts, to minimal intervention in the cellars.
A walk through the vineyards
On the flat, oxblood red roof of a vineyard building, Jonatán gave an introduction to his estate to an assembled group of international buyers, importers, restaurateurs and our ten-strong ‘Irish contingent’. He explained that although the slopes appeared to run fairly uniformly northwards facing the Atlantic, there were in fact differing expositions; some west and some east, with clays and sandy clays overlaying the basaltic/volcanic subsoil. Altitude too, makes a real difference and the cooler air could really be felt with each hundred or so metres uphill. Consequently, the plots are picked and vinified individually.
From there, we slipped and scrambled downhill through the vineyards to get a better idea of the unique ‘trenzado training system. The most noticeable thing was the green cover between all the vines and the perfume of flowering clover, pea plants, wild herbs and flowers, even in the fading warmth of an early spring day.
In the Hacienda de Cañas vineyard, we looked at a recently planted plot of Malvasía Aromática (the grape that inspired Shakespeare’s mentions of of the delights of ‘canary sack’) to get an idea of how a trenzado-trained vine starts off life, before being treated to an up-close inspection of 250 year old trenzado-trained Listàn Negro and Listàn Blanco vines. The trunk of one particularly ancient vine had split into two parts, each with an arm heading uphill and an arm snaking downhill, reaching a length of over ten metres. The fact that these vines are ungrafted enables the vines to stay productive for such an incredible length of time). Jonatán remarked that its survival is all the more remarkable given that there was pressure to uproot this ancient vineyard to make way for Tenerife potatoes which traditionally would have been grown under the cordon in a polyculture.
The cordón trenzado training system
The cordón trenzado training system is traditional in the cooler, humid vineyards of northern Tenerife and works perfectly for the indigenous varietals of Listàn Negro and Listàn Blanco (aka Palomino Fino). Pruning, training and tying down the new canes is incredibly labour-intensive and involves the new growth canes (working from the trunk of the vine) being pruned back to approximately six buds in the case of Listàn Negro and four buds in the case of Listàn Blanco. On our visit, about six workers were tying the new canes down to the main trunk with hundreds of strips of string.
The new cellar building
The next morning, Monday, we were back at the vineyard to have a look at the new bodega. Small but perfectly formed, with stainless steel tanks, some barriques and larger foudres, everything has been organised to be gravity-fed, so as to minimise physical intervention for the must and the wines. To the front is what appears to be a small lab and a wrap-around, glass-fronted tasting room over-looking the down-slope vineyards and the Atlantic. I reckon the winery must be up around 700 metres above sea-level and although it had been reasonably warm earlier that morning, it was noticeably cold at 700m.
Suertes categorise their wines into village wines which are made from estate-grown fruit, as well as fruit purchased from established contracts with local growers- all located within the Valle de la Orotava D.O. All the plots are vinified separately, with the decision made to blend into a high quality ‘house wine’ style afterwards. Secondly, there are the single vineyard wines from plots on the Finca El Esquilón estate and finally, limited-edition sweet wines.
7 Fuentes (7 fountains) is made up of grapes from 35 different plots of both estate grown and bought-in fruit. The plots range in altitude from 350m to 800m and vine age ranges from 10-100 years old. 90% Listán Negro with 10% Tintilla (from the Bocanegra plot). Slightly reductive character at first, which disappears after aeration. Cherry and plum fruit character, quite rounded and unctuous (the Tintilla influence) but with lovely freshness and lift. Mouthfeel can be a little grainy as the wine is unfiltered, but at least this ensures that the intensity of smoky, peppery flavor is kept intact. Drink, slightly cool, with some charcuterie or jamón de bellota and good crusty bread.
Trenzado was the first wine I ever tried from Suertes and I found it completely to be completely unique. It has a notably struck match, slightly reductive character at first. Then it appears flinty, which seems to echo the volcanic soils in which the vines are grown. It is a blend of mainly Listán Blanco (aka Jerez’s Palomino Fino) and Vidueño with Marmajuelo, Gual, Vijariego Blanco, Verdello, Pedro Ximénez, Baboso Blanco, all ungrafted and grown across five different plots. Wild yeast fermented. Aged in concrete tanks and 500 L barrels. Would be delicious paired with firm-fleshed white fish served with Tenerife-style small potatoes with pungent, garlicky mojo verde (based on coriander) and mojo rojo (based on pimentón).
Single Vineyard Wines
La Solana is made from 80-150 year old vines of Listán Negro from the east-facing Solana Alta and Baja vineyards, an area of 1.5 hectares. The vines planted in clay over volcanic rock soils and are trained in cordón trenzado at an altitude of 350-450 m above sea-level. Fermentation takes place with indigenous yeasts (as with all the wines) in concrete vats with 10% stems included. Ageing takes place in 500L neutral French oak barrels. The resulting wine is vibrant ruby purple with peppery, floral, crunchy, stony, rocky fruit character. Fresh and mineral, still needs another 6 months to year to fully mature, but would be fantastic with loin of venison and a blackberry jus.
Vidonia, for me was the star find. While we list it on our shelves, it had sailed under my radar somewhat. Having tasted it and seen its terroir, I can now appreciate what a singular offering it is and the brilliant value it represents. Although it could be compared to a white Burgundy in terms of its style and taste profile, it is, nonetheless a completely unique expression of its origins. Textured, rich, weighty, yet perfectly balanced by a mineral, saline acidity and finish. 100% Listán Blanco, cordón trenzado trained, 350-550m, clay soils over basalt, on northeast and northwest facing vineyards. Whole bunch pressed, with indigenous yeasts fermentation in 500L barrels. Aged 11 months in 500L neutral French oak barrels. No filtration. The grapes come from three plots: El Barranco, with 100 year old + vines; La Solana and El Ciruelo. Pair with black sole in a beurre blanc sauce or herby roast chicken.
Other (interesting) Canarian Wines tasted and recommended.
Evínate ‘Migán’ Tenerife Valle de la Orotava D.O. 2016: cooly menthol, crunchy and granitic.
Ikewen Listán Negro: savoury, layered, light red from Gran Canaria, from a young grower.
Mattías i Torres, Negramoll, La Palma D.O. 2016. From the northernmost Canary island of La Palma A layered, spicy, aromatic, light, almost Pinot like red. This was tasted with a squid ink risotto in the excellent Casa Fito, a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant near the village of Chimiche, a handy 15 minute drive back to the airport..
Until this trip, the Canary Islands were not really on my radar, neither as a destination nor for wine. However, I found the wines and the gastronomic culture really interesting and certainly unique. The comparative geographic isolation of the islands has meant that a priceless vine heritage remains intact and has resulted in a new wave of producers who are keen to explore and bring expression to the treasure trove of local grape varieties, the ungrafted and often ancient vines, the volcanic soils and Atlantic-influenced climates. The resulting wines, which are ocan often be light-footed and supple are incredibly food friendly: manna to cool-hunting sommeliers and wine lovers.
A huge thanks to Rafa and Antonio of Vinostito, Jonatán García Lima and his team at Suertes del Marqués and our travelling companions for a great trip, lots of discoveries and stimulating conversations about gastronomy, business, wine, and life in general, not to mention a bit of arm-wrestling…Rafa – looking at you here!