The Canary wine challenge continued

Following on from his challenging quest to uncover the wines of Gran Canaria, Jochen Erler takes the ferry to over to El Hierro, hoping to unfurl the island’s fine wines.

After an overnight stay on the island of Tenerife, near one of its two airports, I took the ferry to El Hierro. With the island’s map in hand, I planned to use the excellent public bus service as much as possible. My experience with the wineries on Gran Canaria had taught me that emailing needed a follow-up by phone. At one winery, for instance, I had been told that their laptop had remained unobserved for several days! I enlisted the assistance of the hotels’ receptionists for my initial telephone contacts because of my poor Spanish. All wineries responded positively to my call. I made my tour along the coast of the island, choosing hotels located near the most important wineries.

I started my visits at the only commercial winery in the island’s capital of Valverde, at Bodegas El Tesoro. It has 4 hectares (ha) of vineyards planted with Listan Blanco (Palomino on the mainland), the main white variety of the Canaries; Vijariego Blanco & Tinto (red and white), autochthonous to El Hierro; Baboso Blanco & Tinto, endemic varieties originating from Southern Portugal (the latter the red Alfrocheiro) where they were eradicated by phylloxera; and Verdello, a white variety imported from the Azores. I was offered a tasting of a bottle of El Tesero’s 2020 white blend of 50% Listan Blanco, 45% Vijariego Blanco and 5% Baboso Blanco. The wine had a pleasant nose of yellow fruit, with 13.5% alcohol, a solid structure, and thanks to its decent acidity – some length with mineral notes. Its price is €7 ex-cellar. No other wines were offered for tasting, the red blend was still in barrels in another location, and no bottled wines were available except the white blend. I bought one to enjoy in my hotel room.

On my visit to the Consejo Regulador DO El Hierro, the official body for El Hierro’s wine producers, I met Carmelo, its president who, to my relief, spoke English. A young dynamic bachelor who makes his living as a lecturer, he picked me up at my hotel to visit his place outside of Valverde – a newly built small house on top of a tiny but modern wine cellar, in the middle of his 0.5ha vineyard, near the sea. Incidentally, there are some abandoned vineyards on terraced hillsides near Carmelo’s place. Emigration, urbanization and less rainfall due to climate change are the causes for the rural depopulation.

Carmelo does everything by hand in the traditional way, even bottling his wine under the name of his winery, Bodega Soterana. I’d never met such a devoted, independent professional wine grower, and owner of a one-person-operated winery. He showed me his vines that could be more than 100 years old, because when a vine needs replacing, the old plant is buried in the soil to develop new shoots. Replanting is impossible due to the long periods of drought. The deep roots of the old plant guarantee its survival. He told me recently that they had been three years without the usual rain in winter. However, during my visit in December 2020 and January 2021, there was a very cold spell with a lot of rain – something that happens every 20 years. Accordingly, hopes are high for a good vintage in 2021.

Carmelo makes only one dry wine. I tasted his blend of 80% Vijariego Blanco and 20% Gual, the latter a rare autochthonous variety of El Hierro that I never managed to taste unblended. Carmelo’s 2019, vinified in stainless steel, is more oxidative than the 2018 vintage that was made in the traditional chestnut wood, and it was quite a surprise. Both wines have that typical Sherry nose. It was very complex on the palate and finish, reminding me of the wines created in quevris in Georgia. From another old barrel I was able to taste a traditional wine called Pata, made by his father some 50 years ago – a wine still in perfect condition.

My next winery visit was again facilitated by travel in the car of the vintner, Uwe Urbach, from Germany. He is a certified organic producer with 4ha of his own vineyards. He also told me that his vines, at an altitude of almost 700m, could be more than 100 years old. Uwe has a small but impressive high-end modern winery, with his own generator to produce electricity, especially for his cool room (0 degrees) where he keeps the wines in storage until full development. He uses oak barrels instead of chestnut (the usual wood here), even to make his traditional Pata. He told me that the abandoned vineyards can be a hazard because they can pass on diseases. He has most of the local grape varieties, although to my disappointment he didn’t offer any of his wines for tasting.

My visit to El Pinar, in the northwest of the island, could be made by bus. Martin Patron of Bodega Elysar, with 7ha of his own vineyards at an altitude of 700-1,000m, gave me a warm welcome. His vines enjoy a very dry climate and don’t need spraying with copper. His whites are Listan Blanco, Baboso Blanco, Vijariego Blanco and Forestera; while his reds are Baboso Tinto, Vijariego Tinto and Negramol.

The tasting started with 2020 Listan Blanco from a high elevation: an absolutely top wine – powerful aromas, mineral on the nose and palate, mouth-filling and long, and it would clearly be a candidate for a gold medal in a competition. In fact, it was the first Listan Blanco so far that I really liked. The 2020 blend of 90% Vijariego Tinto and 10% Negramol was well made. The 2020 Baboso Blanco, with its 16% alcohol, is still very young, but highly promising with a great potential to age well: good acidity, round tannins and a long finish. It will be at its peak in two years. It reminds me of Portugal’s Alicante Bouschet. The attractive 2019 Baboso Blanco dolce showed a touch of oxidation, the 0.5 litre bottle sells ex-cellar for €18.

The tiny nearby Bodega Acency, a real garage operation, was another surprise. Its owner Alejandro Betancor has less than 1ha of vineyard, doesn’t buy grapes from neighbours, and gets his wine bottled at Bodega Elysar under his own label. Alejandro makes just one wine. I could taste the 2020 Vijariego Tinto, his first wine to go in barrique. Already accessible as all young reds in the Canaries, the fruit was well supported by the fully-integrated wood.

Starting from my hotel in the town of Frontera, I finally made a visit to the most important winery on El Hierro island – Cooperativa Frontera, with its 300 members and production of 100,000 litres of wine. Its manager, Girardo Quintero, showed me the wines on offer, among them the premium wines of Varietales blancos. In good vintage years like 2017 and 2019, they even bottle the rare Baboso Blanco as a pure varietal wine.

The tasting started with the 2020 white blend of 80% Listan Blanco and Vijariego Blanco, and 20% other white grapes. It had good structure with its 13.5% alcohol, yellow fruit on nose and palate, decent concentration and length, rather low minerality, and is a good buy at around €6 ex-cellar. It will be at its best in two years. Then a tasting from an open bottle: a 2017 red blend with four months in barrique: oak dominant on the nose, palate and finish – not to my liking but commercially successful. The 2019 Vijariego Tinto (14.5% alcohol) was super, with at least a 5-year life span – it deserves a gold. The 2020 Baboso Negro tank sample had super round tannins – another candidate for gold. The 2020 Listan Tinto ‘Tinto Maceracion Carbonica’, also a tank sample, was of a light style for easy drinking.

La Bodega Las Vetas, my final visit on El Hierro, is located in the far northwest corner of the island. It’s another very small winery, with just 1ha of vines and has been producing only one sweet wine, in the solera method, for 120 years. Old barrique barrels are used, no sulphur is added. About 300 bottles of 0.5 litres with a price tag of €50 are sold each year without difficulty. I tasted a bottle from 2017, a blend of 80% Vijariego Blanco, 15% Gual and 5% Listan Blanco – a wine of 15% alcohol, and despite its high amount of residual sugar, it was of TBA standard. Apart from a touch of oxidation, the wine was very clean, with rich and complex fruit aromas that were not interfered with by the notes of botrytis that can be found in TBAs.

My visit to El Hierro has been one of the highlights of my life. A sun-blessed island of wild beauty with a local government that doesn’t permit the construction of huge hotels or supermarkets. In my long travels all over the world, El Hierro with its size of less than 300 square kilometres has been the land that is richest in autochthonous grape varieties, notwithstanding Georgia with a much larger area.