Quaffing in the Canary Islands

GRAN CANARIA, Spain — There is a wine trail in Gran Canaria.

You just have to bushwhack it yourself.

Not technically, of course. There is a printed map — Rutas del Vino de Gran Canaria — to the 18 wine cellars and vineyards on this tiny island located two hours by plane from Madrid and 130 miles off the northwest coast of Africa.

The Gran Canaria DO (or Denominacian de Origen, like an appelation) is one of the more obscure of Spain’s nearly 70 DOs. Though Gran Canarian wine is gaining recognition internationally, consumption in recent decades has been mostly local and going to Gran Canaria is still the only way to appreciate the island’s ecological and oenological diversity.

To visit the museum and the vineyards, however, is to take your hosts by surprise even if you visit during regular posted hours. Visiting requires effort and perseverance and traversing many miles of steep, windy, somewhat-paved roads, especially when the destination is vineyards located far inland from the main highway encircling the island.

The payoff is sampling little-known grapes such as negra comun, negramoll, tintilla, moscatel negra, malvasia and listan, which can taste remarkably different depending on the microclimate of the vineyard where they were grown. In the past few years viniculture has been recognized as a way to maintain the island’s ecological balance, which means that to drink wine in Gran Canaria is to drink testimony against monoculture.

When you visit a bodega in Gran Canaria, you are likely to come upon the scene as it really is, not how it would be if your guests were preparing for your arrival. Nothing about the wine industry in Gran Canaria, in other words, is staged — which is a refreshing change for anyone who has participated in, for example, the well-orchestrated theater of wineries along Highway 29 in Napa.

Knock on the gate at Vina Mocanal in Gran Canaria and you’re likely to rouse the host from his work as caretaker of the winery’s museum and petting zoo. The winery hosts school groups, he explains quietly as he gives a tour, who come to learn the history of farming grapes on the island as well as to visit birds and animals from peacocks to camels.

Back near the entrance the caretaker — who doesn’t wear a name tag and never gave us his name — opens a small, rectangular, white-tiled room with a key hanging on the wall just outside. What looks like a bathroom stall at a highway rest stop turns out to be the Gran Canarian version of a tasting room, except the tasting actually happens outside the room since there is only room inside for a barrel and a few sample bottles.

Vina Mocanal's wines, all red blends from island grapes, are rugged. They have tannins and a grip that insists they be drunk with the day’s main meal, preferably just before the afternoon siesta.

The driveway of Bodega Tabaibilla, one of Vina Mocanal’s neighbors, follows hairpin turns between olive trees, cacti and palms. There is space for only a few cars outside the winery, and dogs greet guests before any human does, but eventually someone comes to see what all the barking is about.

Wine tourists are not a common sight in Gran Canaria. Ask to taste the wine at either of these vineyards, or at any of the other wineries open for tastings, and you’re likely to receive a surprised but enthusiastic agreement as well as, eventually, an invitation to explore the vines.

Unlike the wine production on the nearby island of Tenerife (the largest of the Canary Islands), most of the wine produced on Gran Canaria is consumed locally. Some of Tenerife’s wines, such as those based on the malvasia or malmsey family of grapes, garner global recognition and travel far. The most viable characteristic of wine from Gran Canaria, however, is its youth, so white wines tend to show better than reds and what is produced is primarily consumed close to home.

Wine production on Gran Canaria is almost entirely a local enterprise; each of the 400,000 liters of wine produced each year is bottled in one of 55 small family cellars. Nonetheless, Gran Canaria is extending its percentage of arable land — irrigation for the vineyards is common — and techniques of wine production and processing are becoming more modernized.

But those enhancements don’t mean changing the taste or variety of the wine, which is seen as a way to protect natural landscapes and promote rural tourism. Wine tourists to Gran Canaria should value the local over national, the rustic over the polished, and wines to drink then and there rather than to cellar for later.

It is, in other words, closer to wine production and consumption in its original state than nearly any other “modernized” bodega or winery around the world.

More GlobalPost dispatches on wine:

A glass of wine with your Samosa?

2008 Bordeaux leaves critics pleasantly surprised

Foreigners invest in Argentina's wine industry