Suertes del Marqués – Island life

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.

suertes-slopesFrom 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.

suertesx2Other 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.

trenzado

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.”

suertes-bottlesAnd 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.

White Wines

(2016) Around 90% is 100-year-old Listán Blanco with Pedro Ximénez and a whole bunch of other local varieties, 40% of which had a month of skin contact. The flint and fresh-cracked stones waft of complex sulphides, preserved lemon and nutty character. So fresh and sapid on the nose. Real body and a chewy touch of tannin, just deliciously well balanced. Drink: 2015-2020
(2016) From four specific plots, the 100% Listán Blanco in this 2013 release comes from 130-year-old vines. Superb nose, like a fine Meursault, so nutty and braced, those subtle complex flint notes again, but rounder and more generous. Superb body and a beautiful, limpid wine of shimmering elegance. Drink: 2015-2020

Red Wines

(2016) A blend of 80% Listán negro with Tintilla (closely related to the Trousseau variety of Jura) and a little Listán Blanco, only 40% sees older 500-litre barrels. Pepper and mineral freshness, very sappy, with lots of pepper and cherry in the mouth, and a briary freshness. Drink: 2015-2020
(2016) In the less expenive 7 Fuentes range, only around 1800 bottles of this wine are produced, made from Listán negro, Baboso Negro and pink Malvasía amongst others, It is made in old 500-litre barrels and was bottled one month before my tasting. It seemed a little heavier in character than the regular 7 Fuentes red, but has that same pepper and spice lift and cherry ripeness plus a a tiny gamy note.  A rasp of plummy tannins gives it some extra power, in a wine I really enjoyed. Available from Spanish merchant Gourmet Hunters who do ship to the UK.
(2016) Made in concrete tanks with a short maceration, followed by one year in barrel. It is 95% Listán negro with some Listán blanco "and others," according to the winemaker. A hint of gamy character to this, something a little wild and exotic, that dry cherry extract on the palate gives it lovely energy and lift, the minerality and cool Atlantic influence obvious and delicious.
(2016) A short maceration and fermentation in concrete tanks, followed by one year in barrel (10% new). It is 100% Listán negro and comes across as quite fruit-forward and concentrated - delicious, and seems fruitier and more dense than the 2013, though without the sense of Atlantic-influenced alertness. Drink: 2015-2020
(2016) A vineyard of Listán Negro, ungrafted vines between 80 and 150 years old, that is exposed to evening sun, making it a particularly warm and sunny site. Roberto thinks this wine needs more time in barrel to round it out, so this 2011 is current vintage (similar vintage conditions to 2013). A softer ruby color, then plenty of  violet bouquet which Roberto says is a result of low pH and high acidity. Again meaty and a little more vanilla and elegant on the palate, deliciously together though just missing that startling freshness of the best wines here.
(2016) 70% Listan Negra fermented in tank, 30% Tintia aged one year in older barrel. From a warmer year, and sandy soils over the volcanic base, the vineyards at 475 to 550 metres. This is more solid in a way, arguably more orthodox, with that bloody and gamy character, such delicious spice and depth red fruits flirting with black fruit for the first time. Drink now - 2020.
(2016) Made from 97% Listan negro with 3% Listan blanco, only 2000 bottles are made of this foot-trodden wine, fermented with 100% stems and aged one year in old barrels. Again a more intense and slightly darker character. Lots of silky weight, fantastically pure, the tannins are so silky and that peppery minerality powering through, but always elegant. Drink: 2015-2023
(2016) Made from Baboso Negro (also known as Bastardo, introduced from Portugal, possibly as long ago as the 15th century). Fermented in small plastic tanks because there is so little of it, it has meatiness and fruit from soils with clay and iron. Quite soft on the palate, there is sappy freshness and the fruit in the background is submerged by the peppery minerality. Drink: 2015-2020

A version of this article first appeared in Decanter magazine.

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