In the search for interesting and authentic wines, wine lovers will leave no stone—or, in this case, island—unturned.
Enter the Balearic and Canary Islands: two separate archipelagos (one Mediterranean, one Atlantic) that are autonomous communities of Spain. Although separated by vast waters from the Spanish mainland, they share its spirit for innovative winemaking in dramatic landscapes.
Martin Cerdá, of Florida-based wine importer Cerdá, Llanos y Cía, grew up in Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands off Spain’s east coast, and says island wines represent the “new Spanish wine frontier.” He says they help stretch consumers’ tastes beyond the traditional Tempranillo and Garnacha.
Long revered for its natural beauty and Mediterranean climes, Mallorca is now on the radar as an intriguing wine producer.
Perhaps 2,000 years ago, Pliny the Elder would have extolled the excellence of Mallorca’s wines, likening them to the best of Italy. But winemaking here only really ratcheted up a couple of decades ago with two denominación de origen (DO) designations: Binissalem, the first Mallorcan DO, established in 1990, and Pla i Llevant, established in 1999.
Today, producers that make creative, contemporary wines include Ànima Negra, 4Kilos, Miquel Oliver and 300-year-old Bodegas Ribas, Mallorca’s oldest winery. Production is small, limited to about 2,500 acres of vineyards that include both indigenous and international varieties. The island’s terraces require most of the vines to be harvested by hand and be maintained by sustainable practices. Most Mallorcan wines favor fruit over oak.
Prominent red grapes include Callet, similar to Pinot Noir, but with more mineral and spice notes. Francesc Grimalt, the winemaker for 4Kilos, calls Callet “seductive and feminine.”
The Canaries are home to several grape varieties that do not exist anywhere else.
Said to be Callet’s “half-sibling,” Manto Negro offers a light color and soft body. Of the aromatic Prensal Blanc, Pilar Oliver, the oenologist at Vinyes i Bodegues Miquel Oliver, says, “[It] is, for me, the best white local variety. It gives the freshness, fruit, subtlety and elegance we look for in a young white.”
A cluster of seven islands located 60 miles off Morocco’s coast, the Canaries produce wines laced with salinity and vibrant minerality. While the whites express racy acidity, the reds lean toward deep red and black-fruit flavors, savory bramble and wildflower. Both can also suggest smoke and spice.
Wines from here reflect a range of styles—red, white, rosé and sparkling. The landscapes are equally diverse, and some are quite extreme, from the black-ash, lunar-like surfaces of Lanzarote to El Teide, Tenerife’s active volcano, which boasts the highest-altitude vineyards in Europe. But perhaps most impressive are the very old vines—dating back 300 years in some cases—that were never touched by the phylloxera plague.
Unique Grape Varieties
The Canaries are home to several grape varieties that do not exist anywhere else in the world. Many of these plantings originated in Andalucía, but have since disappeared from Spain. They are thought to have been brought to the Canaries by ships bound for the New World.
“The vignerons are highly cognizant of the gift of working with pie franco (ungrafted, but literally meaning ‘on its own feet’) vines and with grape varieties that do not exist anywhere else in the world,” says Bethany Kacich, national sales manager for New York-based David Bowler Wine, the largest importer of Canary Island wines in the U.S.
The more common whites include Gual, Listán Blanco (Palomino), Malvasía and Verdello. In reds, look for Listán Negro, Malvasía Negra and Rosado, Negramoll and Tintilla. Noting their underlying salinity, Kacich says, “Salt perhaps being food’s most universal ally, it follows that the wines are extremely friendly across a wide spectrum of styles of cuisine.”
Karina Macow, wine director at Vinateria in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, features both Mallorcan and Canary Island wines on her wine list.
“Everyone is trying to taste a grape they’ve never heard of and combining that with a region they’ve never heard of,” she says. “When you choose niche regions, you’re often getting a good value.”