If your mental picture of a vineyard comprises lush green vines and verdant rolling hills then please adjust your mindset. Because wine cultivation on Lanzarote is completely different. Here, angular volcanoes replace rolling hills. Patchwork green fields are substituted by a sea of black picon. Orderly vines are nowhere to be seen.
Craters & Crops
Instead there are row upon row of dimple like craters and volcanic stone semi-circles. Called Zocos, these have been built for each individual vine and provide much needed protection from the sometimes-fierce winds.
These visual elements all combine to create a truly unique landscape. It’s so impressive that pictures of the wine region often crop up in coffee table books or illustrate magazine pieces about the island.
Lanzarote born artist and architect César Manrique even once famously wowed a New York exhibition with his visual of the region, which he entitled Architecture Without Engineers.
Indeed, Mother Nature singularly remodeled this region during the major volcanic eruptions of the 1730’s.
Around one third of the island, including most of the best farming land, was buried in lava. Grain and cereal production, the staples of the time, were destroyed.
Much of today’s wine region, which starts just beyond San Bartolome and runs through to Uga and Timanfaya, suffered a similar fate.
Those farmers that didn’t flee the island for greener pastures in the Americas or Europe had to drastically rethink their methods of cultivation. What was going to grow here now? And how?
Was Wine The Answer?
Lanzarote already had a proud heritage of viniculture. Wine had been successfully produced on the island since the 1500’s (see Bards and Vineyards). But the question remained. Could they still grow vines in this new volcanic landscape?
Ironically though, the seemingly apocalyptic volcanic eruptions actually gave local farmers a helping hand. They soon discovered that they could use granules of volcanic rock (known as picon) as a type of porous mulch.
The picon absorbs moisture from the air, releases it into the ground and prevents evaporation. This enables a method of dry cultivation known as ‘enarenado’ which is completely unique to Lanzarote.
As a result local farmers could sidestep the problem of Lanzarote’s extremely low rainfall, which was obviously a major hurdle for any kind of crop cultivation.
The only down side to this method of cultivation for wine producers is that everything has to be done by hand.
The vine stocks are individually planted in craters dug to around a metre in depth. They are then covered in picon and protected further by the semi circular zocos. At harvest time all of the grapes are hand picked.
This makes viniculture here pretty labour intensive and as a result wine production employs around 1,500 people on the island. Together they produce an average of 2 million litres annually.
No Sour Grapes
The vast majority of production, around 75%, is still dedicated to the Malvasia grape. This sweet wine was once the top tipple of the European aristocracy. Today, Lanzarote still produces sweet and dessert wines of a high quality.
The remainder of production is split between other grape varieties, such as Diego, Muscatel and Pedro Ximenez.
The wine region is still home to a number of thriving bodegas, producing a full range of wines encompassing red, white and rose. Handily, most of the bodegas line the bumpy little road in La Geria, facilitating an easy sampling tour.
Lanzarote is in fact home to the oldest bodega in the Canary Islands. The El Grifo winery in Masdache dates back to 1775 and houses the island’s excellent Wine Museum.
The area is also dotted with some fantastic colonial style buildings-a legacy of bumper crops in years gone by.
These grand structures are in marked contrast to the more minimalist Moorish architecture that is predominant elsewhere on the island.