Lanzarote's volcanic wine walk, by Tristan Rutherford
Kinfolk, November 2021
The Línea 60 bus travels back in time to Uga. It looks like a Spanish outpost in 19th-century North Africa. Sugar cube houses hide from the heat. Dromedary camels nibble figs. Between May and September, this white-washed town receives a single day of rain.
Yet Uga resides on the Atlantic island of Lanzarote, separated from North Africa by 130km of mile-deep ocean. Stranger still this desert outpost, on the same latitude as Kuwait and Iran, bookends La Geria - the most unlikely wine region on earth.
The hike through La Geria begins on an ash black track named Camino de la Caldereta. The clue’s in the name. From 1730 Lanzarote was riven by six years of volcanic inferno, which pockmarked the island with 100 caldera craters. Local priest Don Andrés Lorenzo Curbelo kept a diary. “Lava ran in cataracts. Huge numbers of dead fish floated about on the sea or were thrown on the shore.”
Montaña Tinasoria is a caldera off the Camino de la Caldereta. A 30-minute circle around this desolate volcano tells the tale. Back in 1730 all hell was let loose. Crimson magma turned green pastures into black desert. Rain refused to fall. Most of Don Andrés’s flock fled to Cuba. Those who remained in La Geria prayed.
Yet when digging into the picón, or ash, islanders found a heavenly fertile layer buried below. One bright spark thrust grapes into the dust. Now emerald vines colour the calico moonscape below Montaña Tinasoria. The secret behind La Geria’s viticultural miracle is told at winery Bodegas Rubicon, a gentle stroll down the caldera’s flank.
In 1698 Bodegas Rubicon was a thriving farm with several buildings and fields of barley and rye. Three decades later, all that lay dead and buried. By the late 1700s the bodega discovered how best to plant grapes into the picón, by digging mini craters 3m deep. These holes helped to harvest rainfall, while morning dew seeped down the side towards the vine. Lava rocks were piled above to protect plants against dry prevailing winds from North Africa. Camels were imported from the same Sahara region to help with the harvest. Grapes grew so abundantly it was all hands, and toes, on deck.
At bodegas like Rubicon the correct choice of grape was essential. A wimpy Riesling would wilt in these volcanic climes. Instead wineries planted Listán Negro, a grape carried by missionaires to other baking hot colonies in Mexico and Peru. And Malvasía Volcánica, a bastard variety that grew as accustomed to La Geria as the camels.
There’s a second reason why visitors can sample varieties here that are found nowhere else on earth. During the 1860s mainland Europe had its own viticultural cataclysm. An invasion by the Phylloxera insect destroyed 90% of the continent’s grapes. These include Vigiriega, which disappeared from mainland Spain. Yet it survived in Lanzarote, where the grape is known as Diego. In short, La Geria’s black-ash vineyards remain original and organic. If only because diseases like Phylloxera, botrytis and powdery mildew don’t stand a hope in hell in this otherworldly milieux.
The boozy badlands continue east. Some of the La Geria wine route follows the GR131, a 650km hiking trail that begins in Lanzarote and zigzags across all seven Canary Islands. Wine-red kilometre posts waymark the route. Other hand-painted signs (‘vino/wine’) point to tastings at more offbeat wineries.
Like Bodega Vega de Yuco, which uses organic principles to tend to 200-year-old vines. Each sample of wine punches with volcanic minerality, paired with Atlantic ozone zing. Canary Island wines are so complex that they were once exported, alongside bananas and oranges, to London by steamship. Hence Canary Wharf in London’s ritzy dockland area.
There are no trendy wine bars on Caldera de los Cuervos, another defunct volcanic crater on the La Geria trail. The 5km path, through frozen waves of magma, is a story of revolution and rebirth. As Don Andrés recorded in 1731: “a gigantic mountain rose and sunk back into its crater on the same day...covering the island with stones and ashes.” Yet in the picón below half moons of stones ring vines, alongside palms, guavas, figs and other thriving fruit.
Grapes mature indecently fast. Come July the view from Caldera de los Cuervos is enlivened by grape pickers and agricultural trucks. (These days the camels are reserved for volcanic landscape tours.) By comparison, in Bordeaux grapes are harvested in September. In Germany’s cooler Alsace wine region, the harvest can be as late as November.
The hiking trails that crisscross the 52 square kilometres of La Geria can be dizzying. Especially if you forget your water bottle or hat. Around lunchtime the landscape melts like dark chocolate. Wineries like El Grifo, the oldest in the Canary Islands, tempt with further tastings and viticultural boasts. Like the chance to sip wines from pre-Phylloxera vines, the grapes of which have been crushed by feet. You don’t get that in Bordeaux. El Grifo’s mini-museum showcases 500 pieces of equipment once used to carry, preserve and press Lanzarote grapes.
Respite comes in the form of San Bartolomé, another charming town white-washed against the Canary Island heat. From here the Línea 20 bus carries hikers back to the coast. They’ll be craving a cool glass of beer.
Tristan Rutherford and Kathryn Tomasetti author travel features about the Canary Islands for easyJet Magazine and The Times.