Ancient island vineyards planted high on the slopes of a volcano? Fascinating indigenous varieties being farmed organically? Surely we’re talking about the trendy Etna region of Sicily? Not so. In fact, it’s the Spanish holiday paradise of Tenerife, otherwise known for winter sun, bananas and, well, certainly not some of the most exciting wines in Europe.
Sited off the north African coast, Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands – large enough for two international airports, a permanent population of close to one million and a stream of five million sun-seeking holidaymakers each year. The vast majority of those will crowd into the resorts of the sunnier south, totally unaware that a winemaking revolution has taken place.
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 the world’s third-largest volcano. Snow-capped Teide breathes life into the island’s wine industry, its mass protecting the south from Atlantic squalls, whilst 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 350- and 700-metres above sea level. Soils vary, with sand and clay in deep patches, but always on Teide’s volcanic base.
Owner Jonatan Garçia Lima and his family founded Suertes del Marqués only in 2006, though the estate is based on a patchwork of truly ancient vineyards that they have acquired piece by piece. This is glorious country for growing vines, the narrow ribbon of vineyards, strewn with spring flowers on my visit, snaking up the steep mountainside.
The old vines, with trunks as thick as Sir Chris Hoy’s thighs, are twisted into some highly unusual training systems. Vines are unirrigated and are not planted on rootstocks – Phyloxerra never reached Tenerife – and many of Suertes del Marqués’ plots are over 100 years old. Listán Negro is the main variety for red wines (a genetic match for the Mission grape of North America) and its partner Listán Blanco is the mainstay white grape – otherwise known as the Palomino variety of Jerez.
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 (on right of picture with Jonatan Garçia Lima). Whilst studying oenology at the University of Miguel Hernandez in Alicante, Santana formed a winemaking consultancy in 2005 that is specifically focused on the Atlantic-influenced regions of Galicia and the Canary Islands. 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 their 21 tiny vineyard plots.
Every inch of Suertes del Marqués’ nine hectare site is farmed with scrupulous attention to detail, and the quality of their wines has already grabbed the attention of major critics in Spain and abroad. Big points have been awarded by The Wine Advocate and Jancis Robinson amongst others, always with an exclamation of surprise that world class wines should emanate from such an unlikely source.
In keeping with the movers and shakers of Etna in Sicily, Roberto Santana pursues a strictly ‘hands off’ philosophy, flirting with natural wine ideologies and following some biodynamic practices. Minimal sulphur is used at any stage of winemaking, 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 their 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, Santana now scoffs at the notion. He pours an older white wine, fermented and aged in 100% new wood and boldly titled ‘Blanco Barrica’, alongside its new incarnation, very lightly oaked and renamed ‘Trenzado’ after the ancient training system where vines are literally braided together (below). Stainless steel has largely been replaced by concrete tanks (“The same as in Romanée-Conti and Pétrus,” Santana reminds me) and for the minimal amount of new oak now employed, big 500-litre barrels are coopered in Burgundy to his specification.
There is no set recipe for the various wines in Suertes del Marqués’ portfolio – some are whole-bunch fermented at cold temperatures, some at much warmer temperatures, and there is skin contact for white wines. “I am not making Coca Cola,” says Santana. “I need to find the different personalities not only of the soils, but also of the year, and of the people who work the vineyard.”
And the wines? Santana prefers not to disturb the wines once in barrel, so there is no racking or lees stirring. Whilst 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, and indeed they are reminiscent of some of the best wines of Etna – even if these have an Atlantic influence rather than Mediterranean.
Both Jonatan Garçia Lima and Roberto Santana 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 Tenerife is indeed a surprising source of such aesthetically pure, quality-driven wines, Suertes del Marqués reflects other small pockets of fanatical expertise across the world that are creating distinctive, intellectual wines of enormous 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.
A version of this article first appeared in Decanter magazine.