The last one erupted almost 300 years ago, leaving a landscape that looks like the moon. This island, the fourth largest of the seven which form the Canary Islands archipelago, is a popular holiday destination. Its sunshine, dramatic scenery and amazing coastline normally bring millions of visitors to the island each year.
And that’s why Ollie Horton decided that Lanzarote would be a good place to start his new business, Wine Tours Lanzarote (www.winetourslanzarote.com).
Ollie is a native of Guernsey, but with very strong connections to Yorkshire. “My family is all from Barnsley, and many of them still live there. My first career was as an investment manager in Guernsey, although when I hit 30, after several years in that business I decided that I needed a big change, so I moved to Lanzarote – without much of a plan.”
Now with a small team, all WSET- qualified (Wine and Spirit Education Trust), Ollie has set up a business offering tours to the distinctly different wineries on the island. These can be for small groups or private tours and they visit some of the larger wineries in Lanzarote and then smaller family-operated properties, tasting wine and nibbling local produce along the way.
Making wine anywhere in the world requires expertise, but in the almost desert-like conditions of Lanzarote it requires an enormous amount of dedication.
Lanzarote receives just 110mm of rain each year, spread over just a few days in winter. Compare that with Bordeaux which receives around 900mm per year and it is clear that Lanzarote is almost a desert.
There are winds too, blowing in from the Atlantic, which could strip a vine of its leaves.
There is also the problem of soil. When the volcanoes erupted, they spread black ash, known as “picon”, across the landscape.
Very little can grow in that ash, so to plant grapes the farmers need to dig large, round, shallow holes, plant the vines in the soil underneath, and then build a small wall usually out of volcanic rocks to protect the growing vine from the prevailing wind. It means that each vine sits in its own shallow basin and any moisture from rain or mist runs toward the vine.
This gives the vineyards of Lanzarote a unique appearance. The vines are dots of green in a black landscape.
This unique situation gives wines from Lanzarote particular advantages. For a start, phylloxera never invaded the island. Phylloxera is the louse that damaged most of the world’s vineyards so they had to be grafted onto American rootstock.
Without it, the native vines survived on their own roots, giving a snapshot of historical grape varieties. And then there is the effect of all that mineral-rich ash that somehow manages to give the wines a particular taste. All around the world from Santorini, Sicily, Soave and Somló, grapes grown on volcanic soil seem to have an extra layer of vibrancy and complexity.
Setting up a new tourism business in 2017 seemed like a great idea until the pandemic struck and the world stopped travelling, but all that is changing now. “Now that restrictions have been lifted, we have seen a significant pick-up in bookings for tour operators, hotels and restaurants,” says Ollie.
In the meantime, rather than wait for the tourists to visit Lanzarote, he has set up an export business that sends the wines of this lovely island to the world. “Only 10 per cent of the harvest is exported, which is a tiny amount, but some does go as far as Japan and the US, so there is enthusiasm for these wines.”
Ollie sent me three wines to try...
Bermejo Malvasia Volcánica Seco 2019, Lanzarote DO, £18.99: Also known as Malvasia de Lanzarote, Malvasia Volcánica is thought to have arrived on the island in ancient times and is a natural cross between different strains of Malvasia. It comes from Bermejo, a company which has been in existence for centuries, but in 2001 it was taken over and completely renovated in the vineyards, in technology and winemaking. The result is a winery equipped to make clean, fresh-tasting wines.
The wine comes in an amphora-shaped bottle, complete with a pouring lip which makes it delightful to look at and very easy to pour. As I opened the bottle, there was a terrific aroma of white blossom which carried through into the glass with creamy apple and melon fruit, a lovely, rounded texture and bright, lively, citrus freshness. This is a wine that calls for fish, preferably wrapped in herbs and grilled on an open fire.
Vulcano de Lanzarote Rosado 2018, Lanzarote DO, £20.99: Made from the Listán Negro grape, this is a deep-coloured rosé wine that has the weight and power of a light red wine. Full of raspberry and cranberry fruit, it needs to be chilled down and poured alongside grilled meats or fish.
Bodega Vulcano is a small, new, family-owned winery.
Yaiza Tinto Listán Negro 2019, Lanzarote DO, £19.99: Made by the Vega de Yuco winery, based in Masdache overlooking the Volcano Natural Park. This modern winery is confident enough to enter and win medals in the Decanter World Wine Awards and, while this particular wine was not a medal winner, it certainly could be. Made from vines that are over a century old, this wine has been aged in oak for just four months, adding a sheen of elegance to the exuberant, aromatic fruit.
There are black cherries, damsons, a touch of liquorice, earthy, savoury tones and enough soft, supple structure to partner red meat.
These wines, from an island stuck out in the Atlantic, are not just holiday wines to be glugged beside the swimming pool. They are examples of historic viticulture which is being rescued by dedicated growers and winemakers.
Yields are tiny and so prices are high, but they show that diverse grapes can grow in difficult locations, making unique wines.
You can buy these wines through Ollie Horton’s website (www.wineshoplanzarote), and he has plans to put on a tasting, probably in Leeds, later in the year.
Meanwhile, if you manage to get away to Lanzarote this year, you should book a tour of the vineyards and send me a postcard.