Lanzarote is world famous for its wine, not only for their unique volcanic origin but also, they are among the first harvest to reach European shores every year. Lanzarote37˚ went to investigate how these grapes are grown in such a harsh and dry environment, how they are harvested, made from grape into wine and most importantly: tried and tested the end result.
On the isle of Lanzarote itself, there are three areas of vineyards. Ye- Lajares in northern Lanzarote, Masdache, which is the largest harvest area of the three, where the ditch harvest system is used as well as the unique pit system and lastly, La Geria, which was the subject of our investigation, which, due to the heavy layer of volcanic ash from the nearby volcanoes, prefers the pit system.
As a non-native to the beautiful island, to behold the view of the unique and, quite frankly unusual, pit system is a delightful feast for the eyes. We met our lovely tour guides, Alena Polanková and Carmen Portella Ernest from the Lanzarote Active Club at the Bodega Rubicón and our escapade began. Still incredulous at the cone shaped pits where the harvest was happily growing unaware that it was missing soil and water, I began plaguing our tour guides with questions and soon the mystery resolved itself somewhat logically.
The pits in which the vines were growing out of, similar to that of trailing ivy, were not only benefitting from the layer of volcanic ash that surrounded them, but it was due and direct cause of this layer of volcanic ash that the grapes survived as well as they did. For the vines to grow, the cone shaped pit needed to be dug three metres below the level of ash and to protect the saplings from the onslaught of the trade winds a ´zoco´ is then erected out of volcanic rocks, which in itself is a form of art. Between the wall and the cone-pit the vines are safe to grow. Underneath this layer of soil is a layer of limestone and basalt and therefore the need for water is sustained.
It soon became apparent that the vines and their pits were only the tip of the iceberg to these fascinating plants. During harvest time in order to gather the grapes from their vines a camel is enlisted to help with the manual labour. As the pathways are quite narrow and crumble when walked upon, only one person per pit is permitted to gather the entire stock of grapes. The grape gatherer climbs into the pit careful as not to disturb the gravel, which is only held in place with a mixture of sulphur, phosphorous and gravel. The grape-picker then begins the tedious job of picking the grapes and placing them within a bucket which can hold 20kgs of grapes all the while enduring temperatures within the pit of up to 50˚C. A good vine will produce between 25-30 kg of grapes.
As we continued climbing higher the gravel crunching beneath us, counting out the beats until we reached our ever impending and inevitable ascent on the volcano, we paused to take in the breath-taking view of ´ParqueNacional de Timanfaya´ (National volcano park) beside us. Then suddenly we were in the middle of the volcano, El Chupadero. One second we were marvelling at the falcons in the sky, and then we were standing in the crater of the volcano. The part where the lava spews from. All the irrational thoughts that had been secretly accumulating unbeknownst to me burst forth accompanied with all the movies I had ever seen of volcanoes. ´Dante´s Peak, ´Volcano´, ´St. Helens´- the list was endless. Images of Pompeii flashed through my mind’s eye Snap. The ground cracking open. Snap. The lava spewing. Snap. The pits turning against us as we ran for our lives dodging them precariously in the bid to survive. Snap. Someone falls into one of the pits. Snap. Up lava creek without a paddle.
I released a torrent of questions at the guides who ensured that the volcano is in fact, dormant since 1824,however, it was the second piece of information that eradicated my fears more so. The volcanoes vent, in this part of Lanzarote sealed itself after its eruption thus ensuring that it could never again erupt even if it wanted to. And that in fact, ironically enough, if Mount Teide on Tenerife did erupt, the safest place would be to climb one of the now dormant volcanoes.
After learning how the grapes were nurtured and painstakingly harvested I was very interested in seeing the distillation process after arriving back at the ´Bodega´. First the olden day process was briefly explained of de-stemming the grapes from their stems, then the pressing of the grapes and finally the filtering of the juice to be fermented. As Lanzarote wine is only left to mature for a maximum of two years, and is then perfect to drink, it is regarded as a young wine.
Continuing on, we entered the cellar in which the wine was housed. From the old flag tiled floor to the heavy stone walls to the huge, ancient-looking oak barrels where the wine was gradually maturing taking in the heady essence of the oak barrel in which it was stored, everything oozed an air of calm. Time stood still here, I almost expected to see dust motes trickling through the air in and out of the shafts of gentle sunlight which pooled on the ground. As we made our way up through the cellar I was loath to leave it and the sense of tranquility that resided there.
As traditional and as manual the growing of the grapes is, the exact opposite can be said for the process of the wine making. Huge stainless steel tanks were being prepared for the upcoming harvest in the middle of July, while some still housed last year’s products. The oenologist explained that 99% of the process depends on the grape and the state in which it is brought in with 1% depending on the oenologists preferred style of distillation.
And then it was to the wine tasting, to test the result of such a strenuous and rewarding livelihood. Three white wines were placed delicately on the table in front of us and then we were schooled in the proper etiquette of wine tasting. First a sheet is held up to ensure the clarity of the wine. When this is established the wine is then smelt to catch the basic aromas and is then promptly swirled to catch the secondary aromas. The correct way to hold the glass is to hold it between ones forefinger and thumb however, in the event of swirling the glass, often the wine may splash out of the glass so in a bid to prevent this from occurring it is recommended to place the glass on the table and simply swirl it while flat on table. Once this is established, and only then, may the wine be tasted. If it is a good quality then the aroma will last in one´s mouth between 8 and 15 seconds.
Along with the wine tasting a beautiful array of ´tapas´ were laid out on the table. Having only resided in this barren yet tropical isle for three days, I was eager to try and test the local food and having no allergies to any food nor having any qualms, this, I felt, was a way of embracing the local culture. The first dish that graced our presence was an assortment of cheese and olives which courted the wine beautifully. And similar to that in ´Beauty and the beast´, plate after plate swooped down upon us. ´Papas arrugadas´, chickpea soup, aniseed bread with ´mojo verde´ and ´mojo rojo´, and then encouraged by others at the table who were eating heartily I went to the last dish. Not immediately recognizing the food within, I enquired as to what it was. And in a nonchalant tone, accompanied with a shrug, I was told what it was. Rabbit. If my life were a movie there would have been many things I´d have done - running out of there screaming would have been to the forefront of that list. Alas, I did what would make my mother proud and said ´no, thanks´, trying to keep the maniac look off my face while images of ´Fluffy´ ran red through my head.
Ever thankful that our tour guides were fluent English speakers albeit originally being from the Czech Republic, a discussion ensued as to the differences between countries and Irish customs, which provided many laughs. This, along with the continuation of the wine tasting eradicated any queasy feelings over the rabbit stew, which to be quite honest, did look very appetising, however, I fear I will be getting a visit from Fluffy tonight in my dreams.
For more information on vineyard tours, wine tasting and volcano trekking contact Alena or Carmen at +34 650 819 069 or on their website at lanzaroteactiveclub.com